Analysis: Is Russia flexing its missiles in Syria?
Use of advanced missiles and state-of-the-art jets suggests Moscow is sending a message to more than just Syrian rebels.
Russia’s firing of 26 long-range SS-N-30A Kalibr cruise missiles from four surface ships in the Caspian Sea against 11 targets in Syria on Wednesday marks a significant escalation in President Vladimir Putin’s military intervention in the Middle East.
The missiles flew almost 1,500km on a flight path that took them over Iran and Iraq before impacting in Syria.
The strikes were ostensibly part of intensifying Russian attacks in support of a new offensive in central Syria by forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, which also included air strikes by attack jets and helicopter gunships based at Latakia.
However, the choice of long-range cruise missiles reveals a great deal about Putin’s priorities.
Cruise missiles are a near-ubiquitous tool in the Western military arsenal.
The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) has been in service within NATO since 1983 and has similar range and terrain-following capabilities to the Russian Kalibr.
Cruise missiles are generally used in lieu of having to risk conventional attack aircraft to hit targets which are well defended, static, and who’s GPS location is known in advance.
They are highly effective in state-on-state conflicts for destroying critical command centres, radar installations, ammunition dumps and other key targets as part of a wider air campaign.
However, cruise missiles do malfunction and crash on occasion, even later model, US-made Tomahawks, have caused incidents this way.
If a Russian missile had malfunctioned and crashed in Iran or Iraq, the diplomatic ramifications could have been significant.
The US navy fired TLAMs into Syria repeatedly in August and September 2014 as part of the initial wave of strikes against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) group’s assets in the country.
However, once the majority of fixed targets had been destroyed and the focus shifted to battlefield interdiction and close air support for Kurdish forces fighting ISIL fighters, TLAMs ceased to be an important component in US strike missions in the country.
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This is because subsonic cruise missiles fired at long range take a long time to hit their targets once launched.
With a top speed of Mach 0.8 at sea level (around 980km/h), the SS-N-30A missiles fired into Syria would have taken around an hour and a half to hit their targets.
Therefore, they are clearly not suitable for strikes against the mobile or fleeting targets, which are presented by Syrian opposition forces and armed groups’ operations.
Cruise missiles are, however, excellent demonstration weapons to show that Russia can deliver significant firepower over very long ranges.
Herein lies the point of today’s strikes: Russia is not only demonstrating long-range firepower delivery capabilities, but also that it can successfully deploy a high-end warfighting capability which has become synonymous with US-led shock and awe campaigns.
Russia is not only demonstrating long-range firepower delivery capabilities, but also that it can successfully deploy a high-end warfighting capability which has become synonymous with US-led shock and awe campaigns.
It is, therefore, part of a wider Russian effort to reassert itself as a significant peer-competitor with the West in military terms on the international geopolitical stage.
Cruise missiles capable of striking in Syria from the Caspian Sea could also potentially strike most targets in the Middle East, including many of the bases used by the US-led coalition to conduct operations over Iraq and Syria.
Similarly, the deployment of multi-role Su-30SM fighter aircraft which have significant air-to-air capabilities, along with Pantsir-S1 air defence systems at Latakia, and the guided missile cruiser Moskva – armed with a complement of 64 formidable S-300 surface-to-air missiles off the coast of Syria – are strange if viewed as part of “counterterrorism” operations against armed groups with no air force.
However, by being able to pose a credible threat to coalition air assets over large parts of Syria, Russia forces the US and its allies to consult with it on mission planning and deconfliction efforts.
The multiple violations of Turkish airspace and aggressive radar-locking of Turkish F-16 interceptors by Russian aircraft over the weekend further show how determined Putin is to show his military muscle in the region.
All of this is aimed at forcing the US and its allies to accept Russia as a central geopolitical actor in the Middle East, which must be consulted and included in any efforts to alter the current situation by new means.
With very moderate deployments compared to the US-led coalition, Russia has succeeded in doing just that.
A final point to consider is that the SS-N-30A is thought to be the basis for the new SSC-X-8 cruise missile, which is part of Russia’s Strategic Nuclear Forces.
The SSC-X-8 has been a serious point of contention between Putin and US President Barack Obama since September 2014, when the latter claimed the missile violated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty signed by the US and the Soviet Union in 1987.
The INF treaty bans nuclear and conventional ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with ranges of 500 to 5,500km.
Given the tense state of NATO-Russian relations over Syria, Crimea and Ukraine, a large-scale, live-fire demonstration of the SS-N-30A over ranges well within the scope of the INF treaty could be seen as a covert Russian confirmation that their SSC-X-8 can indeed fly well beyond 500km, and thus, a reminder that Putin continues to flout the greatest arms control success of the Cold War.
Justin Bronk is a Research Analyst in Military Sciences at the Royal United Services Institute.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.