Russia’s Obsession with American Cruise Missiles: A Fear Grounded in Fact?
On 16 January 1991, seven B-52Gs took off from the continental United States and headed towards Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. Once in range, the bombers proceeded to launch 35 GPS-aided AGM-86C Conventional Air-Launched Cruise Missiles (CALCMs) that struck Iraqi targets with a high degree of accuracy, demonstrating the capability to deliver precision-guided weapons to any point in the world in under a day for the first time. The CALCMs were accompanied by large numbers of conventionally-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from US warships and submarines in the Persian Gulf. Deeply impressed by the performance of US cruise missiles (and Coalition air power in general), Soviet analysts asserted that by the end of the decade the United States would possess tens of thousands of conventionally-armed cruise missiles, which, in the event of conflict, would be utilized to simultaneously strike thousands of targets across enemy territory.
Post-Cold War budget cuts, however, ensured that the US military’s cruise missile stockpile remained well below Soviet estimates. Nevertheless, the large-scale use of these weapons in subsequent US-led military operations, especially during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, further elevated Russian concerns regarding the capabilities and availability of US cruise missiles — often to absurd levels. Russian State Duma Defense Committee member Alexander Tarnaev, for example, asserted in 2014 that “by the year 2020, the United States will possess over 100 thousand cruise missiles” — a grossly exaggerated figure which has been cited by other prominent Russian military analysts as well. Then deputy chief of Russia’s Aerospace Defense Forces, Major-General Kirill Makarov, meanwhile, offered a more sober estimate, telling Russian News Service radio listeners in 2015 that by the end of the decade the US would field some 8,000 cruise missiles. The general, however, was quick to add that the “range of these missiles, which constitutes 4,500km (2,800 miles), allows them to reach any object within the territory of our country from practically any direction.” Although Makarov did not specify which missiles he was referring to, his statement was a clear exaggeration given that no existing or planned US (or NATO) cruise missiles possess such range.
These and various other Russian misconceptions about cruise missiles often lead to inaccurate threat assessments. For example, long-range cruise missiles have, in the words of one Russian expert, “been viewed as representing the greatest potential threat to Russian [strategic nuclear forces].” In this respect, Russian analysts and officials often claim that huge quantities of these missiles could be utilized as part of a so-called “massed air-missile strike” to “disarm” Russia of its strategic retaliatory capacity. As Major-General Vladimir Dvorkin (ret.) explains, Russian experts suggest “that 70 to 80 percent of Russia’s strategic nuclear forces could be wiped out by such a strike, which, together with the US missile defense program, would deprive Russia of its nuclear deterrence capability.”
Current Russian concerns regarding the counterforce potential of US cruise missiles tend to focus primarily on the US Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missile. Yet the conventional variant of this sea-launched missile lacks the necessary range to reach many of Russia’s strategic nuclear force sites, while the longer-ranged nuclear-armed variant is no longer in service. Even if range was not an issue, however, the Tomahawk would still be required to effectively locate and target not only Russia’s silo-based intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), but also all (or most) of Russia’s mobile ICBM launchers (not to mention that such an attack would also require a simultaneous effort by other forces to locate and sink Russia’s ballistic missile submarines). The latest variant of the Tomahawk — the Block IV (TLAM-E) — will be modernized to autonomously locate, track and strike mobile targets; however, as Dvorkin and a number of other Russian and Western analysts have pointed out, the missile is also quite vulnerable to modern Russian air defenses. Indeed, the subsonic and non-stealthy Tomahawk is the least survivable cruise missile in the US military’s arsenal.
Russia’s obsession with the Tomahawk may therefore come as a surprise to some, particularly when considering the numerous claims by Russian officials regarding the supposedly highly effective counter-cruise missile capabilities of Russia’s modern air defense systems. Yet there are signs that Russia’s military establishment may have less confidence in the ability of its air defense systems to counter such weapons than meets the eye. According to a September 2016 article in the authoritative Russian-language Voenno-Promeyshlennyi Kuryer, the launch of Russian Kalibr cruise missiles (which are similar to the Tomahawk) against targets in Syria from the Eastern Mediterranean in August was likely intended to test the ability of the S-400 (SA-21) and Pantsir-S1 (SA-22) surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems stationed at Hymeimim airbase to effectively detect and track targets of this type under real combat conditions.
Furthermore, as retired air defense Colonel Mikhail Khodarenok points out, uneven terrain greatly limits the range at which a low-flying cruise missile can be detected. According to him, Russia’s S-400 and S-300V4 SAM systems can therefore be expected to detect a low-flying cruise missile in uneven terrain at ranges of just 22–24km (14–15 miles). Though the Colonel does not specify what type of cruise missile, this is clearly a reference to a non-stealthy Tomahawk-type target. Detecting and tracking very low observable cruise missiles, such as the Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (JASSM) series and the prospective Long Range Standoff (LRSO) missile, will be extremely difficult even under ideal terrain and atmospheric conditions.
Unlike the Tomahawk, the air-launched JASSM and LRSO could be delivered by long-range very low observable bombers that can penetrate enemy air defenses undetected, thereby allowing the missiles to overcome any range limitations and strike any point within the Russian Federation, including Russia’s strategic nuclear force sites. However, just as with the Tomahawk, these missiles would still be required to locate and neutralize all or most of Russia’s 150-plus mobile ICBM launchers (the majority of which would presumably be on high alert at a time of crisis). The AGM-158A JASSM and the extended range AGM-158B JASSM-ER lack the ability to hit targets that are on the move. The LRSO, on the other hand, may possess such capability; however, even with the support of advanced intelligence, reconnaissance and surveillance (ISR) assets, effectively locating and striking a very large number of mobile launchers within a very short time interval is a daunting challenge, so much so that, even if theoretically possible, is simply likely to be deemed too risky to attempt in the first place.
Nevertheless, US (and allied) cruise missiles do pose a very substantial threat in the event of conflict and, as a result, are having a transformative effect on Russian air defense thinking. In order to better cope with the cruise missile challenge, Russia has been acquiring air defense gun-missile systems such as the aforementioned Pantsir-S1. These are designed to act as point-defense weapons for various strategic installations and long-range SAM systems (such as the S-400) against cruise missiles and other precision-guided munitions so as to allow the latter to focus their limited missile inventories on manned aircraft and other high-value targets. Russia is also acquiring new advanced medium-range SAMs such as the Buk-M3 and S-350, which come equipped with more missiles per launch vehicle than their predecessors in order to better cope with a greater number of targets (including salvos of cruise missiles).
That said, Russia has yet to formulate an effective response to very low observable cruise missiles such as the JASSM that can elude even the most sophisticated air defenses. One rather creative approach is the supposed intention to outfit cell phone towers across the Russian Federation with GPS-jammers; however this approach can only be implemented within Russian territory and it is highly questionable whether the relevant technologies will work as intended, particularly when considering that US cruise missiles feature advanced anti-jam GPS receivers.