Putin's Birthday Present to the U.S.
On October 7, 2015 (Vladimir Putin’s birthday), Russia launched a barrage of 26 new supersonic Kalibr long-range, reportedly nuclear capable cruise missiles against targets in Syria. At first glance, the use of the Kalibr makes no sense from either a military or economic standpoint. Kalibr is a very expensive missile designed for high intensity and nuclear warfare. Russia is reportedly limiting the use of much less expensive precision munitions because of their cost, so how then do we explain the use of the Kalibr against ISIS or even anti-Assad forces, which lack air defenses? The use of the Kalibr had a more ominous objective – it was a signal to the U.S. and our allies about Russia’s military capability.
The Russian Defense Ministry said that the missiles’ targets were in Raqqa, Idlib, and Aleppo, Syria. Well respected Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer noted these targets were “close to Russia’s operational airbase at Latakia, mostly in Idlib province of Syria, well in range of Russian jets and bombs….It makes little sense to hit Syrian opposition targets with such expensive and stealthy weapons when these groups lack any air defenses and are already being bombed by Russian jets.” Indeed, Russian Syria based aircraft could have reached these targets more quickly than the cruise missiles. The New York Times reported, “An American defense official said it was something of a surprise that Russia had used cruise missiles to attack Syrian targets, given that those weapons were more commonly used in the face of heavy air defenses, which Syria rebel groups do not have.” The day after the Kalibr attack, TASS, the main Russian government news agency, reported that ISIS represents no threat to Russian aircraft.
Additionally, ABC News reported that a U.S. official said the attack was “intended to demonstrate Russia’s military capabilities.” TASS, ran an article which said, “Russian missile strikes against IS in Syria hit Pentagon…” and quoted retired Colonel General Leonid Ivashov as saying these, “highly accurate missiles has been a real shock for the Pentagon.” Sputnik News, a state run news agency, gloated that Russia “has the entire Mediterranean Sea, the Arabian peninsula and the Persian Gulf in its crosshairs.” It claimed that the attack caught the US flat-footed and was a “Success for Russia,” and “Troubles for NATO.” Putin said the Kalibrs are “cutting-edge high-precision weapons” and that the world has seen “that Russia is ready to use them if this is in the interests of our country and people.”
The use of the Kalibr also appears to be a signal to the U.S. Air Force now fighting ISIS that it is vulnerable to a Russian attack. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter stated that Russia did not inform the U.S. in advance of the attack. The apparent reason was that Russia was demonstrating the ability to launch a substantial surprise attack with a nuclear capable missile system. The Russian forces in Syria are prepared to able to fight the U.S with advanced SA-22 air defense missiles and their most advanced operational air dominance fighter, the Su-30MS.
Overlooked in the discussions of the use of the Kalibr are the arms control implications of Russia’s actions. In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin pledged Russia would not build a new type of nuclear ship-launched cruise missile like Kalibr. The Obama administration has concluded “that the Russian Federation was in violation of its obligations under the INF Treaty not to possess, produce, or flight-test a ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) with a range capability of 500 km to 5,500 km, or to possess or produce launchers of such missiles.” According to Dmitriy Litovkin, a pro-Kremlin Russian journalist, writing in Vzglyad Online, the missile in question is a ground-launched version of the Kalibr.
Military intimidation, including nuclear intimidation, has now become a major part of Russian foreign policy and is currently being used to support Russian military aggression in Ukraine and coercion elsewhere. Russian nuclear doctrine allows for the first use of nuclear weapons in regional and local wars and Russian officials have made repeated nuclear threats. Indeed, earlier this year a Russian Ambassador threatened that “Danish warships will be targets for Russian nuclear missiles” if Denmark supports missile defense.
Russia’s use of the Kalibr, and its nuclear saber rattling, urgently point to the need for an effective U.S. nuclear deterrent. Kalibr is one of at least four Russian long-range nuclear capable cruise missiles, not to mention an arsenal of shorter range nuclear missiles. The U.S. has but one 1981 vintage nuclear cruise missile, which may die of old age before it is replaced. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter says we need a new playbook for “integrating conventional and nuclear deterrence in Europe.” Responding to the “Kalibr message” may be a good first step.