Moscow is prioritizing the introduction and further development of high-precision weapons systems to boost its military capabilities. Most of these systems—both already actively deployed or still in development—had featured in Russian defense planning long before the United States announced this past February that it would suspend its participation in the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. And yet, some Russian politicians are attempting to portray certain aspects of the drive to procure additional high-precision systems as a response to US policy. In reality, however, this process has long been underway, particularly when it comes to new hypersonic systems, which the political-military leadership is now emphasizing as a tool of coercion and strike capability against the US (see EDM, February 26).
One illustration of the pre-existing planning element at the heart of this process relates to the Iskander-M tactical missile system. These are currently rapidly entering service with the Missile and Artillery Troops (Raketnyye Voyska i Artilleriya—RV&A). RV&A brigades are receiving these new systems as a result of systemic modernization aimed at phasing out the older Tochka-U systems. The Iskander’s linkage to the INF Treaty lies in the fact that the system can be used to launch longer-range cruise missiles (9M729), thus breaching the terms of the late Cold War–era arms limitation treaty. Iskander-Ms are already in place in Kaliningrad. Moreover, as Russia’s westernmost exclave continues to be reinforced, the defense ministry confirmed it has deployed new S-400 air-defense systems to the region to strengthen the Baltic Fleet, which is stationed in Baltyisk (Izvestia, March 15). Together, these systems form integral parts of Russia’s anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) bubble in the Baltic region.
These aforementioned developments are a critical element of the now more-than-a-decade-long modernization of Russia’s Armed Forces. Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu recently provided some details concerning advances in military modernization, with his comparison of the present situation to that of 2012—the year that President Vladimir Putin appointed him to head the Ministry of Defense. During the past six years, according to Shoigu, the share of modern weapons in the military has increased 3.8 times, to 61.5 percent. He noted that, by 2020, this should reach 70 percent. Shoigu broke down the current figure as follows: Strategic Rocket Forces (82 percent), Ground Forces (48.3 percent), Aerospace Forces (74 percent), the Military-Maritime Fleet (62.3 percent) and the Airborne Forces (63.7 percent). Moreover, Shoigu stated that there has been a 12-fold increase in the number of carriers of long-range high-precision weapons on land, sea and air. Finally, over the past six years, the number of cruise missiles has increased by 30 times, the defense minister asserted (Izvestia, March 11).
With speculation mounting concerning how Moscow plans to respond to the collapse of the INF Treaty, the former commander of the Airborne Forces, Colonel-General (retired) Vladimir Shamanov provided a briefing for foreign military attachés in Moscow, on March 11. Shamanov, who also serves as the chair of the Duma Defense Committee, declared that Moscow does not intend to become involved in an arms race. Indeed, he stressed continuity in Russian defense planning, saying that tasks were set in 2018 to increase “combat potential,” and this would persist in 2019. Shamanov did not refer to Shoigu ordering a new ground-based version of the Kalibr cruise missile, which the defense minister had framed as motivated by the US withdrawal from the INF. “The combat potential of our Armed Forces, both today and in the foreseeable future, provides guaranteed unacceptable damage to a potential aggressor in any situation,” Shamanov asserted, adding that Russian troops are ready to protect the interests of the country in “other territories.” His characterization of “unacceptable damage,” appears to refer to nuclear as well as conventional capability (Izvestia, March 11).
On March 2, TASS reported that the Russian Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Morskoy Flot—VMF) plans further test firing of the new 3M22 Tsirkon: a scramjet-powered, maneuvering anti-ship, hypersonic cruise missile. The test firing from a surface vessel is scheduled for late 2019, with a submarine launch intended early in the following year. Earlier tests of the Tsirkon cruise missile were conducted mainly from coastal areas. The test launch in late 2019 will involve the Project 22350 frigate Admiral Gorshkov, from the Northern Fleet. The political-military leadership claims the Tsirkon can reach speeds of up to Mach 9, and has a strike range of 1,000 kilometers. Russian media sources highlight that Western specialists are impressed by the reported specifications of the Tsirkon, with one report in the German magazine Stern claiming the missile could wipe out the Pentagon within five minutes of launch (Izvestia, Vesti.ru, March 12).
The Tsirkon looks set for introduction as a cruise-missile system designed for naval surface vessels and submarines, able to attack both ships and ground targets. The submarine test launches will use the newest multi-purpose nuclear submarine, the Project 885M Kazan. The Kazan is due to enter service late in 2019 (Topwar.ru, March 19). The submarine launches will involve rehearsing strikes on sea-based and ground-based targets. The system is one of those Putin highlighted in his annual address to the Federal Assembly on February 20 (TASS, March 19; see EDM, February 21, 25, 26).
According to the Russian military commentator Vladislav Shurygin, the Tsirkon is designed to attack land and sea targets and penetrate enemy air defenses. Some Russian naval specialists see the Tsirkon as a tool to cut US military support to Europe. The political analyst Yury Selivanov suggested that, in the event of a war, such missiles could interrupt communication between North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) countries. This would be possible since the Tsirkon is capable of striking aircraft carriers. “The Americans are holding the transatlantic bridge with Europe at the expense of the fleet, and thus it will be paralyzed if it comes to war,” Selivanov said. Other Russian defense specialists place a high value on the Tsirkon’s ability to penetrate enemy air defenses. Retired Admiral Vsevolod Khmyrov believes the Tsirkon can overcome any foreign air-defense system. It is likely that these specialists are referring to the stealth capability of the Tsirkon, which is an issue its designers refuse to publicly discuss (Izvestia, March 11).
The Tsirkon has been in development for several years, with successful naval testing in 2018 against sea-based targets hundreds of kilometers away. Clearly, Moscow has been preparing the development of such hypersonic systems long before the collapse of the INF Treaty. And this fits a pattern of Russia’s growing confidence in high-precision systems, some of which were combat tested in Syria.