Russia’s use of cruise missiles during its military operations in Syria generated much media and analytical attention at home and abroad. Despite questions surrounding the military value of such usage of high-precision strikes on targets in Syria, the success of using sea-launched and air-launched cruise missiles (SLCM, ALCM) has influenced aspects of Russia’s naval modernization plans (see EDM, February 13, 2018). With plans to supply more naval assets with Kalibr-3M-14 SLCMs, it certainly appears to benefit Russian naval strike capabilities as well as enhance its anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) efforts. Indeed, the political-military leadership has set a high priority for introducing more of these variants of precision-strike systems throughout the Armed Forces. In this context, according to sources within the defense industry, fresh plans are being worked on to develop a next-generation powerful cruise missile, the Kalibr-M, with a range in excess of 4,500 kilometers and carrying a one-ton warhead. And since the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty no longer presents a viable obstacle (on account of the United States’ declared intention to withdraw—see EDM, October 4, 25, 29, 2018), Russia may also ultimately pursue the deployment of land-based versions of this longer-range cruise missile (Iarex.ru, January 18, 2019).
The information leaked to the Russian media concerning the future SLCM is quite limited. Only the estimated range and warhead size appear to have been disclosed. If developed, the new Kalibr-M with extended strike range and a more powerful warhead would offer greater potential to use the cruise missiles in conflicts around the world, as well as to enhance Russia’s non-nuclear deterrence measures. Nonetheless, there are some technical issues that stimulate doubts about the viability of such plans, raising questions about the aims and aspirations of the defense ministry and defense industry’s capacity to meet future challenges (Regnum, January 15, 2019; Vesti, January 8, 2019).
Recently, following the conclusion of extensive testing, the Mytishchi—a new Karakurt-class (Project 22800) guided-missile corvette—entered service in the Baltic Sea Fleet. Among its advanced weapons systems is the high-profile Kalibr-3M-14. The new corvette will also be fitted with the naval version of the Pantsir anti-aircraft and cannon complex as well as support for unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) launches from its flight deck. The Karakurt series of corvettes is regarded as one of the most successful projects recently developed by the Russian defense industry, providing a relatively inexpensive means to boost naval precision-strike capabilities (Izvestia, January 18, 2019).
The Russian navy—Military-Maritime Fleet (Voyenno-Мorskoy Flot—VMF)—has clearly benefitted from the Kalibr-3M-14 experimentation in Syria, with its further introduction on numerous surface and sub-surface vessels. These include the URO Project 22350 frigate Admiral Gorshkov, three frigates of the URO Project 11356 (Admiral Grigorovich, Admiral Essen, Admiral Makarov), the Project 11661 frigate Dagestan, seven Project 21631 corvettes (Grad Sviyazhsk, Uglich, Velikiy Ustyug, Zelenyy Dol, Serpukhov, Vyshniy Volochek, Orekhovo-Zuyevo), the Project 22800 corvette Mytishchi, the Project 885 nuclear submarine Severodvinsk, six Project 636.3 diesel-electric submarines (Novorossiysk, Rostov-on-Don, Stary Oskol, Krasnodar, Veliky Novgorod, Kolpino) and the Project 677 submarine St. Petersburg. When all outfitted, these vessels can collectively carry an estimated 190 SLCMs aboard (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, January 18).
If the Kalibr-3M-14 is so effective based on its combat performance in Syria, and if it is, in fact, being so extensively introduced into the VMF, why did the Russian defense industry see the need to announce work on a new, upgraded version—Kalibr-M? Although it is difficult to ascertain the precise range of the Kalibr-3M-14 (when armed with a conventional warhead of 450–500 kilograms), it was certainly not used in Syria at distances greater than 1,300 km. The future Kalibr-M, with its twice-as-heavy warhead, meanwhile, will purportedly have a range more than three times as long—4,500 km. But the need for such a large warhead has left some Russian military specialists puzzled (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, January 18, 2019).
A massive warhead adds to potential problems in design and introduction on existing platforms, while simultaneously raising concerns about accuracy. But laying aside the question as to why the proposed Kalibr-M’s warhead needs to be so large, there are issues about the overall purpose or prudence of such an expensive project. According to specialists writing in the military journal Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, the characteristics of the Kalibr-3M-14 are as follows: length of 7.2 meters or, with the starting accelerator, 8.1 meters; diameter of 0.514 meters; wingspan of 3.3 meters; with a weight of 1,320 kg and mass of the starting accelerator of 1,700 kg. These specifications would all need to change in order to produce the new advanced Kalibr-M (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, January 18, 2019).
The authors, therefore, argue that the creation of such a futuristic super SLCM would be hugely expensive and probably unjustified in military terms, referring to it as an “ammunition monster.” In any case, its research and development and eventual procurement is highly unlikely in the current State Armaments Program to 2027 (Gosudarstvennaya Programma Vooruzheniya—GPV). The authors conclude that, despite the hype, “It is better to direct the funds to the continuation of mass production of 3M-14s, with their modernization based on the Syrian experience” (Voyenno Promyshlennyy Kuryer, January 18, 2019).
More than likely, the defense industry is attempting to appeal to the political-military leadership along the lines of President Vladimir Putin’s theme of future “super weapons,” able to extend range, increase precision, and overcome any enemy missile-defense system (Kremlin.ru, March 1, 2018; see EDM, March 1, 5, 8, 2018). But the defense industry may run into problems as it tries to meet the necessary targets to merit including the new Kalibr SLCM in the GPV to 2027 (Iarex.ru, January 18, 2019; Vesti.ru, January 8, 2019). Nonetheless, the prospect of introducing more Kalibr-3M-14s into the Russian VMF will certainly continue. To look at possible ways of improving on this system, it appears more credible and cost effective to examine the details of its combat performance in Syria and attempt to build those lessons into a future modernized version. Despite the criticism Moscow received for its tactically unnecessary use of cruise missiles in the Syrian operation, that practice offered the Russia Armed Forces invaluable experience utilizing the system. Moreover, it offered lessons on the Kalibr’s reliability and accuracy, as well as other factors that might help with future improvements. All that said, it is interesting to note that despite the introduction of the Kalibr cruise missile into Russia’s navy, it still falls far short of the US Navy’s own SLCM firepower.