Russia Sends Warning to West with Show of Strength in Syria

By , Chief Foreign Correspondent, The Telegraph

8:00AM GMT 13 Dec 2015

Until last Tuesday, America and Britain were the only countries with a proven ability to fire cruise missiles at land targets from submarines.

Then a salvo of missiles burst through the placid surface of the Mediterranean and soared into a cloudless sky, demonstrating that Russia had become the third member of this elite club.

The cruise missiles launched from a Kilo-class submarine provided visible proof of how President Vladimir Putin is using his intervention in Syria as a showcase for Russian military prowess.

Advanced warplanes – never previously used in combat – are being dispatched into Syrian skies, the best tanks in the Russian army are fighting on the ground, and flights of cruise missiles are soaring overhead.

Yet the Syrian rebels on the receiving end have no air defences and precious little advanced weaponry. There is no obvious military reason for why Russia would employ the heaviest sledgehammers in its arsenal to crack some relatively small nuts.

A Russian bomber drops bombs on a targetA Russian bomber drops bombs on a target  Photo: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

Experts believe that Mr Putin’s real goal is to seize the attention of America and Nato. Having increased Russian military spending by at least 50 per cent since 2005, Mr Putin wants to prove that his armed forces have matched some of the West’s most formidable military assets.

The cruise missiles emerging from the Mediterranean were probably the most important element of this display.

For the last 20 years, the United States Navy has been able to fire Tomahawk land-attack missiles from its Los Angeles class submarines. The Royal Navy has done the same from its Trafalgar class submarines, now being replaced by the Astute class.

Given that cruise missiles have a range of at least 1,000 miles, this allows both navies to strike targets almost anywhere in the world, using an undetectable launch-pad hidden in the depths of the ocean. As such, the submarine-launched cruise missile represents a pinnacle of naval might.

Cruise missiles launch from a board of Russian Rostov-on-Don submarine at eastern Mediterranean Sea in a direction of Syria

Cruise missiles emerge from the Mediterranean after being fired from a Russian Kilo class submarine  Photo: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

The Anglo-American duopoly was being challenged by France, which will acquire the ability to fire cruise missiles when its Barracuda class submarines enter service in 2017. China is also developing a version of this weapon.

But it turns out that Russia got there first. The Kremlin was quick to release video footage of the missiles bursting out of the sea in the direction of Syria. “As a result of the successful launches by the aviation and submarine fleet, all targets were destroyed,” announced Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister.

““If I was a Russian staff officer, I’d be saying ‘this does have a deterrent effect – Nato is going to sit up and take notice of this'”
Brigadier Ben Barry

Whether cruise missiles are the “most cost effective way” of destroying defenceless targets in Syria is open to question, said Brigadier Ben Barry, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

But cost and efficiency may not be part of the calculation. “If I was a Russian staff officer, I’d be saying ‘this does have a deterrent effect – Nato is going to sit up and take notice of this’,” said Brig Barry.

Earlier, Russia had launched cruise missiles from four warships in the Caspian – the first time that its navy had fired these weapons from surface vessels.

An aerial image shows cruise missile strike on a local ISIS headquarters in Syria
An aerial image shows cruise missile strike on a local ISIS headquarters in Syria  Photo: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

“There is an element of demonstrating capability in order to gain strategic leverage more widely,” said Brig Barry. “If they want to deter what they consider to be adventurism from an irresponsible Nato, then it helps to show they’ve got the capability to fire cruise missiles from both surface warships and submarines.”

Ordinary Russians, who are enduring the pain of economic crisis even as military spending rises, are also part of the intended audience. “This helps to justify to the Russian public the sort of resources that have been put into military modernisation,” added Brig Barry.

Other fruits of Mr Putin’s military modernisation programme have been placed on display since his expedition to Syria began on Sept 30. The Russian air force has taken delivery of 46 new Su-34 Fullback strike aircraft. These advanced warplanes are now being sent into action to destroy targets in Syria, no doubt allowing Russian experts to evaluate their performance.

Earlier this month, it emerged that the T90 main battle tank – the Russian army’s most advanced model – was being deployed on the front line in Syria. The older T72 had proved vulnerable to anti-tank missiles used by the rebels.

But the T90 is protected by the “Shtora” jammer, a defence system which disrupts the guidance mechanism of any incoming missiles. This protective shield will now receive its first test in combat.

In the air, Russia has sent its most formidable strategic bomber – the Tu-160 Blackjack – to strike targets in Syria. This swing-wing supersonic aircraft was first designed as Russia’s answer to the American Rockwell B1 Lancer. Its original task was to penetrate heavily defended airspace and deliver nuclear weapons.

A Russian Su-34 bomber drops bombs on a targetA Russian Su-34 bomber drops bombs on a target  Photo: Russian Defense Ministry Press Service via AP

There is no obvious military reason for dispatching such a leviathan to punish rebels in Syria – unless, of course, the goal is to impress a wider audience.

But there is another, less obvious lesson from Mr Putin’s brazen display. If there is a weapon that has not appeared in Syria, that is probably because it does not actually work at all.

For years, Western observers have doubted the operational capability of the only aircraft carrier in the Russian fleet, Admiral Kuznetsov. With its Mediterranean coastline, Syria is the kind of the country that would be vulnerable to air strikes launched from carriers.

But, so far, Admiral Kuznetsov has been conspicuously absent from the campaign. Mr Putin is taking the opportunity to show the West all the firepower at his command. But he is also revealing what he does not possess.

0 replies

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *