Even with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and heightened tensions, it is very unlikely that the United States will ever directly face off against Russia. A shooting war with Russia would almost certain end poorly for all concerned.
Modern Russia is not the Soviet Union, but it is still possesses a very formidable arsenal of both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Moreover, given the uneven state of Russia’s conventional forces—which have greatly atrophied since the Soviet collapse—the country relies much more heavily on its strategic deterrent to ward off enemies than the USSR ever did. Indeed, in November 1993, Russia dropped the Soviet Union’s pledge not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into any conflict. Instead Russia reserves the right to use its nuclear weapons under a doctrine that it paradoxically calls "de-escalation."
The bottom line is that the United States is not going to engage Russia in a war—however it might face Russian weapons during a conventional conflict where those weapons have been sold abroad. Therefore, the article won’t address the most obviously dangerous Russian weapons—such as nuclear weapons or nuclear-powered submarines—but will instead focus on systems that American forces may realistically face in combat one day.
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Here is a selection of five of the most potent Russian weapons that U.S. forces might face.
Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E
The Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E is the by far the best operational fighter aircraft Russia has produced to date. An advanced derivative of the original Soviet-era Su-27, the new Flanker variant is high flying, fast and carries an enormous payload. That, combined with its advanced suite of avionics, makes the Su-35 an extremely dangerous foe to any U.S. fighter, with the exception of the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.
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As an air-superiority fighter, the Su-35’s major advantages are its combination of high altitude capability and blistering speed—which allow the fighter to impart the maximum possible amount of launch energy to its arsenal of long-range air-to-air missiles. During an air battle, the Su-35 would launch its missiles from high supersonic speeds around Mach 1.5 at altitudes greater than 45,000 ft. It also has three-dimensional thrust vectoring—which gives it exceptional maneuverability, advanced avionics and a powerful jamming capability.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force is keen to acquire the new jet and there have been reports that North Korea would also like to buy some number of Su-35s. As the Su-35 begins enter service in numbers, additional customers are likely to start lining up to buy the new fighter.
While Russia builds sophisticated nuclear-powered ballistic missile and attack submarines like the new Borei-class and the Severodvinsk-class boats, it is a near certainty that those vessels will never be exported. Russia has only ever allowed India to lease its nuclear-powered submarines. India currently leases the Akula II-class attack submarine INS Chakra—also known by its Russian name Nerpa (K-152)—and it also previously leased K-43, which was a Charlie I-class attack submarine. Most other client states will buy advanced Russian diesel-electric attack boats the latest of which is the Amur-class.
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Diesel-electric boats—though they lack the endurance of a nuclear-powered vessel—are extremely quiet and pose an extremely dangerous threat to surface warships. This is especially true in confined littoral waters close to shore. Even older diesel-electric boats have proven to be surprisingly dangerous. In 2007, for example, a relatively elderly Chinese Song-class boat approached the carrier USS Kitty Hawk undetected until the crew announced themselves by surfacing near the giant warship. The Russian Kilo-class and its newer Amur-class successor are far quieter and far more capable than the Chinese boat.
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The Amur-class boats, which are derived from the Russian Navy’s Project 677 Lada-class submarines, are designed specifically for the export market. Compared to the older Kilo-class design, the Amur is much quieter—largely thanks to its new single hull design--and is far better armed. It can also be fitted with an air independent propulsion system—which means it can stay underwater for a lot longer than conventional submarines that are not so equipped. The Amur-class is equipped with four 533mm torpedo tubes and 10 vertical missile launch tubes. It can travel at speeds of 20 knots and has an endurance of at least 45 days.
Russia has not yet found a client for the Amur, but given that the older Kilo was very popular, it is near certainty that they will make a sale sooner rather than later.
The Russian T-90 main battle tank is the most advanced current Russian armored vehicle until the Armata series enters service. Though the designation is new, the tank is at its core a very heavily upgraded Soviet-era T-72.
The T-72 was originally intended to be produced in huge numbers as the Soviet Army’s lower tier tank while the more capable T-80 was reserved for elite units. However, after the T-80’s less than stellar performance during the first Chechen conflict, the Russian Army chose the T-90 over upgraded version of the T-80 for future orders.
While its origins lie in T-72, the T-90 is an excellent tank that is far less costly than its Western counterparts like the Leopard 2 or M1A2 Abrams. In effect, the T-90 combines the armament, sensor and fire-control systems of the latest version of the T-80 onto the T-72 chassis. It also adds a new composite armor matrix and Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor.
The Russian Army has almost a thousand T-90s, but the tank has proven to popular with the Indian Army which fields perhaps the most advanced version of the vehicle (with better sensors and protection among other features). In addition to India, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uganda have purchased the T-90. There are also reports that Vietnam and other countries have expressed interest in the vehicle.
Russia is currently offering an upgraded version called the T-90MS for sale.
P-800 Oniks/BrahMos anti-ship missile:
Originally developed by the Soviet Union, the P-800 is a supersonic anti-ship missile that was later jointly developed into the Indian-Russian BrahMos. The weapon can launch from ships, submarines, aircraft and from land. While it is primarily designed to be used as an anti-ship weapons, the near Mach 3 capable missile can also be used against land targets. It has a range of about 300 km (or roughly 186 miles)—which means it far out-ranges the U.S. Navy Harpoon anti-ship missile.
According to U.S. Navy sources, the BrahMos is a particularly dangerous anti-ship weapons. While they would not disclose specific details, something about the BrahMos’ flight profile make it especially problematic to counter using existing American ship defenses.
Both the original Russian version and the Indian/Russian version of the weapon are available for export. Vietnam, Indonesia, and Russia operate the Bastion-P shore-based version of the P-800 weapon. India operates the BrahMos from its ships, aircraft and shore batteries, but Russia will likely install the weapon onboard its new Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates.
Meanwhile, a number of countries have express interest in purchasing the BrahMos including Vietnam and Egypt.
Type 53-65 wake-homing torpedo:
While anti-ship missiles get a lot of attention, submarine launched torpedoes are arguably a much more dangerous threat to U.S. Navy surface warships. Perhaps the most dangerous torpedoes that the Navy might encounter are high-performance Russian-made wake homing torpedoes.
Wake-homing torpedoes have sensors that track the churn in the water as a ship passes through and homes in on the turbulence following a snake-like pattern. Wake-homing torpedoes have long vexed the Navy because the weapons ignore counter-measures, like the Navy’s Nixie decoy, and attack the ship directly. Further, the weapons are believed to have a very high probability of kill, which means they pose a deadly threat. The only real counter to the wake-homing torpedo problem is to develop an anti-torpedo torpedo (ATT). The Navy has deployed a prototype onboard the carrier USS George HW Bush, but it not clear how effective the new ATTs are.
Russia has exported wake-homing torpedoes. China is known to have bought some, but it not clear how many other countries have purchased such weapons.
Dave Majumdar has been covering defense since 2004. He currently writes for the U.S. Naval Institute, Aviation Week and The Daily Beast, among others. Majumdar previously covered national security issues at Flight International, Defense News and C4ISR Journal. Majumdar studied Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary and is a student of naval history.