Since the early 1990s, the United States has launched hundreds of Tomahawk cruise missiles from warships and submarines to strike at targets in the Middle East, North Africa, the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Cruising at around 550 miles per hour—roughly the speed of an airliner—Tomahawks can strike targets more than one thousand miles away, making them a popular, though expensive, means of projecting firepower without putting U.S. troops in harm’s way.
However, the United States and the United Kingdom—which also deploys Tomahawks—are no longer the only nations waging long-range cruise-missile warfare.
On October 7, the Russian Gepard-class frigate Dagestan and three small Buyan-class corvettes sailing in the Caspian Sea unleashed a volley of twenty-six Kalibr cruise missiles from their Vertical Launch Systems. The nine-meter long missiles soared nine hundred miles over Iranian and Iraqi territory before slamming into targets into eleven targets in Syria, hitting a mix of ISIS fighters and Free Syrian Army rebels. Although Pentagon sources allege that four of the missiles fell off course and crashed in Iran—inflicting casualties on the Iranian cow population—it was still a demonstration of a long-range strike capability that few countries have used in action.
Following another volley of eighteen Kalibr missiles from the Dagestan task force in November, on December 9, 2015 the improved Kilo-class diesel submarine Rostov-na-Donu launched its own salvo of Kalibr missiles at targets in Syria, marking the combat debut of the modern Russian submarine force. In 2016, Russian frigates in the Mediterranean hammered Aleppo and Idlib with at least three additional cruise-missile volleys.
Russian attack planes were already operating over Syria at the time of the first strike in 2015, and could easily have launched air attacks against those targets at much lower cost. However, by showing off its long-range naval strike capabilities, Moscow not only advertised its technological prowess, but literally advertised the Kalibr missiles capabilities to foreign buyers—who can opt to purchase a shorter-range variant known as the Klub missile.
There are well over a dozen different variants in the Kalibr missile family, varying in launch platform, range, target profile and speed, varying in length from six to nine meters, but all packing a 990-pound warhead or a nuclear payload. The antiship variants—designated the SS-N-27 Sizzler by NATO, or the 3M54T or 3M54K for the ship- and submarine-launched versions respectively—have shorter range, estimated between 270 and 410 miles, and are designed to skim low over the sea to avoid detection. Benefitting from vector-thrust nozzles on the ship-launched versions, the active-radar homing Kalibr missiles are also designed to perform evasive maneuvers instead of making a straight-line approach. As they close within short range of an enemy ship, the missiles accelerate from their cruising speed of Mach 0.8 to Mach 3, and descend to just 4.6 meters in altitudes—making them extremely difficult for a ship’s antimissile defenses to shoot down.
The land attack variants, the 3M14T and 3M14K (NATO designation SS-N-30A), appear to lack the boost to Mach 3 on terminal approach. In compensation, the inertia-guided missiles have a range of between one thousand and 1,500 miles. A third class of Kalibr missiles—the 91RT and 91RE—is used to deploy antisubmarine torpedoes to ranges of around thirty miles.
Kalibr missiles are currently deployed on Russian Navy Kilo-class submarines, as well as more modern types including the Akula, Lada and Yasen classes. They are also deployed on frigates and corvettes—but so far haven’t been fitted on larger vessels, though such upgrades may eventually take place. While a Russian Gepard-class frigate is armed with only eight Kalibr missiles, a missile-armed destroyer would be able to carry dozens.
On the other hand, Russia has demonstrated that it can use numerous small vessels to deploy a powerful long-range weapon, an example of a “distributed” force structure. The idea is that in an age of increasingly lethal and longer-range missiles, it may be wiser to spread out firepower across multiple smaller and expendable platforms, rather than put all the eggs in one large, expensive and vulnerable basket. The U.S. Navy’s own attempts at a more distributed force structure through the Littoral Combat Ship program have so far encountered serious teething issues, and the frigate-sized LCSs currently lack weapons as powerful as the Kalibr missiles on smaller Russian corvettes.
The Klub export variants all have their ranges downgraded to between 140 and 190 miles, so as to comply with the Missile Technology Control Regime, which forbids export of cruise missiles with ranges exceeding three hundred kilometers. Klub missiles are now deployed on Kilo-class submarines in the navies of China, India, Algeria, Vietnam and possibly Iran, as well as India’s six Talwar-class frigates. China also has developed the longer-range YJ-18 cruise missile, which is thought to be a partial copy of the Klub.
Furthermore, an air launched version of the Klub missiles is being developed for use on the Tu-142 maritime patrol planes operated by Russia and the Indian Air Force. Ground-launched antiship versions have also been demonstrated—notably one that could be concealed in an innocuous-looking shipping container. This Klub-K variant could be carried on a civilian train, cargo freighter or truck, rendering the prospect of identifying and destroying the weapon from afar a difficult one. However, there are no confirmed operators of these system as of yet.
Though Russia still produces other types of naval cruise missiles, the Kalibr nonetheless appears set to remain the mainstay of Russian long-range naval strike capabilities for years to come. The land-attack version, in theory, offers similar performance to the U.S. Tomahawk, while the antiship variant’s terminal supersonic sprint may make it a deadlier weapon at sea. Though the Russian Navy lags far behind the U.S. Navy in regards to numbers of ships, its ability to deploy effective long-range weapons on low-displacement boats should also give U.S. naval planners much to think about.
Sébastien Roblin holds a Master’s Degree in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
Image: Model of Klub antiship rocket. Wikimedia Commons/Creative Commons/@Allocer