A Military Response to Russians’ Infernal Question

Who is to blame? A seemingly clear-cut answer to this accursed question relevant for the country’s current security concern has recently emerged: the United States and NATO with its U.S.-led enlargement into the post-Soviet space, with them having completely eclipsed international terrorism on the agenda. By the same token, the issue has been supplanted in U.S. discourse by the notions of “great power competition” with Russia and China.

What should be done? This appears a far more difficult question to answer.

The basic approach is certainly well known. To quote Vladimir Putin’s November 2021 speech at an expanded meeting of the Foreign Ministry Board, “it is important for them [the West – author’s note] to remain in this state [of tension – translator’s note] for as long as possible,” meaning that it is imperative for Moscow “to push for serious long-term guarantees that ensure Russia’s security.” Much has been (and will be) said about what could be incorporated into the mutual security treaties proposed to the U.S. and NATO, much as about their underpinnings and about the progress of talks. Given all this, there is probably no need for us to delve deep into these aspects. However, even at this stage, we can assert that NATO—and to a lesser extent the United States—refused to discuss most of the fundamental demands that Moscow put forward, most notably any legal guarantees to limit NATO enlargement and to withdraw the “old guard’s” troops and arms from Eastern Europe.

While it is tempting to attribute these demands to unrealistic expectations that Moscow built on as a starting point for negotiations on the serious issues—the United States has demonstrated will to do so, at least with regard to strike weapons, military exercises near Russia’s borders—Russia will nevertheless be unable to neglect the flat-out refusal it encountered on the issues that were declared vital to its interests.

In the event that Russia receives no sufficient diplomatic guarantees enshrined in legally-binding documents, Moscow—as we can glean from statements made by some of Russia’s top officials—will be forced to ensure its security in a different way, through a “military-technical” response that will consist in deploying certain unnamed weapons systems. Moreover, these systems should be non-standard, as Sergey Ryabkov has described this step as “a critical political decision.”

With a high degree of certainty, we can assume that we are talking about Russia withdrawing from its unilateral moratorium on non-deployment of medium- and short-range missiles, which no one adheres to anyway, all the more so because the potential deployment of such U.S. systems in Europe is a central as well as pragmatic (rather than ideological) issue included in the so-called “guarantee agreements.”

General on a Gryphon

The current issues stem from the collapse of the INF Treaty, which banned land-based cruise and ballistic missiles with a range of 500–5500km. The Treaty was abandoned at the U.S. initiative, as it accused Russia of violating the terms in August 2019. RIAC produced a series of articles on the issue at the time, and there is no need to rehash the arguments presented in earlier pieces.

It is worth noting that mass-production and deployment of Russian land-based mobile missile systems carrying 9M729 cruise missiles (NATO reporting name SSC-8)—allegedly in violation of the INF Treaty—disappeared from news feeds immediately once the Treaty collapsed, with Washington “for some reason” no longer informing the rest of the world about its distribution in the Russian army. Russia, in turn, had counterclaims against the United States. Some of them were casuistic[1] , others ultimately had to do with deploying strike weapons in Europe. The latter concerned the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defence system commissioned in Romania in 2016 and under construction in Poland. These complexes, essentially simplified “land destroyers,” use missiles from the SM-3 family launched from the MK 41 Vertical Launching System. At the same time, Tomahawk-family cruise missiles are launched from the same launchers on ships, causing Moscow to believe that these are actually ground-based launchers of medium-range missiles.

Washington has always claimed that the complexes are not equipped with the necessary software to launch cruise missiles, while having other limitations as well. There is no way, however, to verify these claims from the outside. In any case, these “limitations” can easily be rectified, as the Aegis system and its MK 41 standard launchers were specifically designed to be universal in nature, capable of using a wide range of missiles designed for them, without any further modifications. The main guarantee that cruise missiles will not be launched from Aegis Ashore is that there is absolutely no reason to do so. Land-based systems may provide a cheap and convenient replacement for sea-based destroyers carrying antiballistic missiles, but they lose many times over in all other respects—the systems have a mere of 24 launchers instead of hundreds, and they are vulnerable and not mobile. Therefore, the risks of being caught out “deceiving” Russia are not in any way justified. In all honesty, every hypothetically installed Tomahawk would only increase Russia’s security, as this would mean that they are not deployed on a conventional platform (a destroyer, a missile cruiser, a submarine or… see below).

Still, Moscow realized this, and any criticisms it levelled at Aegis Ashore were casuistic in nature. They were never seen as a reason to break the agreement and were not mentioned in the draft guarantee agreements, unlike the U.S. tactical nuclear bombs stored in Europe.

However, plenty remains unknown about the U.S. real post-INF missile systems. First of all, this has to with the LRHW (Long-Range Hypersonic Weapon), which has unofficially been dubbed Dark Eagle by the U.S. military. The LHRW is, in fact, a medium-range ballistic missile, with a declared striking distance of up to 2775 km. The plan is to have a non-nuclear hypersonic glider as combat equipment, allowing politicians and the “advertising specialists” in the Pentagon and the military to “market” it as a trendy “hypersonic weapon.” The battery is expected to include four-wheeled mobile launchers, carrying two missiles each. So far, the LHRW has only been tested with individual elements (rocket engines on stands, gliders on nonstandard boosters, etc.), but it is expected to become operational within the next few years. There is no point talking about scheduled dates for commissioning, as they will inevitably be pushed back after unsuccessful hypersonic testings of 2021. The LRHW can be considered successor to the Pershing II missile, the most famous missile system deployed during the first Euromissile crisis in the 1980s.

The second complex under development can also be conceived as a reincarnation of the late Cold War hero—the BGM-109G Gryphon, a modification of the land-based Tomahawk. It may be less well-known than the Pershing II, but it was released in larger numbers to be deployed in several countries at once, not only in Germany. A modern land-based mobile complex carrying cruise missiles is built under the U.S. Army’s Mid-Range Capability (MRC) program, with the unofficial name of Typhon[2]. The battery is expected to include four launchers carrying four missiles each and transport-loading vehicles with additional ammunition. Modern non-nuclear Tomahawks have an approximate range of 1800km[3]. Unlike the expensive LHRW, designed for critical missions only, the MRC should become a convenient way to use cruise missiles, which are relatively cheap, on a wide scale. In some ways, it is even more convenient than ships, which can only reload at ports[4], as ground-based launchers offer greatest stability. It is no surprise that the military has attached higher priority to the MRC than to the LHRW, as no problems are expected in its design. All U.S. missile systems will carry conventional weapons only. In theory, they can be equipped with nuclear warheads (“conventional” warheads are typically larger and heavier than their advanced thermonuclear counterparts); however, this would aggravate tensions between Washington and Beijing, setting off a real nuclear arms race.

The plan, at least in the initial stages, is to combine the LHRW and MRC into special units under the Multi-Domain Task Force (MDTF), which will also include batteries of new PrSM operational-tactical missiles with a range of up to 700–800 km. Five MDTFs will be created—two in the Indo-Pacific, one in the Arctic (when deployed in Alaska, there will be an additional MDTF in the Pacific), one in Europe and one in the U.S. territory. Training has already begun at the unit stationed in the United States, which is receiving, among other things, part of the LRHW ground infrastructure (while there are no missiles, it has launchers, full-scale models of launching modules, etc.). Moscow cannot but be concerned that the second MDTF in Europe is already at the second stage of implementation. This includes the 56th Artillery Command of the U.S. Army, which operated the Pershing II back in the 1980, being redeployed in Germany to command the European MDTF.

Of course, any MDTF deployment in Ukraine is unlikely, as it simply makes no sense to expose such a valuable asset to a potential strike, especially since their range allows them to reach targets in Russia from Germany. However, it is also unacceptable for Ukraine to acquire PrSM missiles, which the United States will apparently be selling to its allies in the future. As of now, the United Kingdom is the only country to purchase them, but the MLRS and HIMARS universal launchers that use it are widely proliferated across NATO—Romania, for example, has purchased some, while the Baltic nations are planning to buy them as well.

Pre-Emptive Response

It is entirely possible that the trigger for Russia to intensify what can be labelled “insistent dialogue” on its apprehensions about Europe and its own security was not so much Kiev’s reluctance to see the Minsk agreements implemented or Ukraine’s attempts to make headway in joining NATO—there have been no developments here over the past year. On the contrary, in early summer 2021, Volodymyr Zelensky was given the run-around at the NATO Summit in Brussels, something quite insulting for a leader of an allied power.

It is not out of question that the last straw for the Kremlin was the obvious lack of interest on the part of the West as regards Russia’s proposal for a region-wide moratorium on the deployment of medium- and short-range missiles at least in Europe—Russia also provided for the Far East to be possibly included in its proposal, but there is absolutely no chance of this happening. Besides, the wheels had been set in motion for the deployment of the necessary infrastructure for new U.S. missile systems on the continent. The announcement of the redeployment of the 56th Artillery Command in August was a clear signal. If the adversary has no interest in avoiding another Euromissile crisis “the easy way,” why yield the initiative to them and wait until they bring their missiles to Europe? The objective threat of a bilateral crisis—a lose–lose for everyone involved, especially in a situation where the “European theater” for the U.S. is of secondary concern and should not divert resources from the Indo-Pacific—may well be enough to avoid such a crisis.

Less is known about Russia’s post-INF missile programmes, although reports suggest Russia is designing missiles. In February 2019, when it was clear that the INF Treaty would soon be no more, there was published a video recording and a transcript of Vladimir Putin’s meeting with the Minister of Defence and the Minister of Foreign Affairs, where the President endorsed proposals to start works on a land-based version of the Kalibr sea-launched cruise missile and some “hypersonic intermediate-range and shorter-range missiles.”

The background of the former is known. The Kalibr complex (exported as the Club family) was initially offered for export, including as a land-based solution. In its catalogue, the English page of the Rosoboronexport website still features a mobile wheeled complex with six of the family’s missiles on each launcher to those wishing to purchase a Club-M system. Simplified Club-T models crop up from time to time—these belong to the same complex but they lack a radar station as part of the battery, as they are designed to destroy ground targets only. There were also earlier concepts of land-based Kalibr missiles, such as a launcher on the trailer of a wheeled motor traction vehicle as well as such exotic ideas as fitting a missile in the form factor of a universal launching module and installing launchers on railway platforms (they can surely be installed on a truck or a ship just as well; a significant part of the noble madness would then be lost, though). There were no buyers for the complex, since it was less interesting as anti-ship missiles than Bastion, while it had limited capabilities when firing at land targets. The Russian Armed Forces avoided purchasing it, partly on account of this, partly to avoid suspicion and accusations of violating the INF Treaty. The complex was offered for export with short-range 3M-14E missiles only, which had a specified range of approximately 300 km (given the restrictions imposed by the Missile Technology Control Regime, although the real range may be up to 500 km), but there was nothing preventing potential buyers from making their own to be equipped with long-range 3M-14s with a range of over 2000 km: it could accommodate 3M54 anti-ship missiles with a high-speed second stage, and with the same reach as the 3M-14M/Ks. Such Kalibr-M systems deployed in Russia’s western regions will increase the “weight of fire” of cruise missiles, offering higher stability and requiring significant efforts and spending on the part of NATO to build up its air defence systems.

Another originally sea-based complex—whose finalization is highly likely—is the Bastion coastal defence missile system, which can be armed with Zircon instead of Oniks anti-ship missiles. Like most anti-ship missiles, both are able to hit ground targets, something that the Bastion amply demonstrated in Syria. Although the proposed Bastion-2 will continue to serve primarily as an anti-ship “silver bullet”—Zircon would be both redundant and expensive to target bridges and warehouses—it could still ignite tensions.

The deployment of at least one MiG-31I with a Kinzhal air-launched ballistic missile in Kaliningrad, likely during joint exercises with Belarus, is also a clear demonstration of Russia’s new strike capabilities.

However, the true Holy Grail of European missile hysteria could be the Pioneer’s revival in the military-strategic niche, which was the missile responsible for the first Euromissile crisis. This is a reference to the RS-26 Rubezh (Frontier) complex, which received a lot of attention several years ago only to “disappear from the radar.” The fact that we’ve heard nothing about it since 2016–2017, after some six test launches had been carried out before mass production was set to begin and the complex put into service, is interesting. This was likely due to the preference to keep the INF Treaty intact against the backdrop of heated discussions on the topic. Rubezh was, in fact, a light version of the Yars, and the West claimed that it was actually a medium-range ballistic missile with a maximum range of some 6000 km, suggesting that the lighter combat equipment it was carrying was just for show. The conclusion was that it could be considered an ICBM and thus not be banned under the INF Treaty. Equipped with a hypersonic glider—at some point, the Rubezh and the Vanguard were part of one project, many experts argue—its range would drop to that of an intercontinental missile. At the same time, however, such a missile with a short active trajectory and an actively manoeuvring warhead would still be extremely difficult to intercept.

With the INF Treaty collapsed and Russian proposals to prevent another missile confrontation in Europe possibly rejected, the logical thing to do would be to deploy the revised Pioneer missile in response to the new Pershings and Gryphons. At the same time, Russian missile systems will be dual-use at the very least (Kalibr and Zircon missiles) or, possibly, exclusively nuclear (Rubezh, although designing a non-nuclear modification with a high-precision glider or gliders cannot be ruled out, whereas this would be quite expensive). This can be put down to the different attitudes towards nuclear weapons: in Russia, nuclear weapons are regarded as the only means necessary to equalize the imbalance of forces. When it comes to the West, prevalence of tactical weapons in Russia makes these complexes inherently dual-use, as it makes no sense to keep them purely conventional.

Of course, the problem that plagued the Euromissile crisis of the 1980s would persist if another confrontation of this kind were to break out. Russia would keep U.S. junior partners in its crosshairs, and the U.S. would threaten targets in Russia with European missiles. At the same time, this assessment ignores a fundamental change that has taken place in Washington’s strategic situation since the 1980s. Back then, China was at odds with the Soviet Union, and it was neither friend nor foe of the United States. For this reason, Moscow needed to divert significant resources to contain Beijing. Today, the “European theater” has taken a backseat in U.S. foreign policy. To divert forces to “contain” Russia in Europe—with additional strike missile units, missile and air defence units or aviation—would mean pulling resources from the “Chinese theater”, with it requiring critically more resources than available.

Perhaps, the real rationale for the diplomatic activity seen in the last couple of months is rooted in Russia’s attempts to mitigate, if not avert, the consequences of a potential European missile crisis by giving Washington the opportunity to refrain from wasting efforts and resources on such a venture, which will allow Moscow to do just the same. This proposal has turned out to be of interest to Western leaders, especially those keen to endorse a moratorium on the deployment of strike capabilities. Another option is to act in desperation, declaring the inception of the crisis on one’s own terms, forcing the opponent to react and spend more.

In any case, the processes we are currently witnessing are vital for European and global security, and they will have an impact on the course of history.

  1. For example, in the part about strike UAVs, the definition of cruise missiles given in the 1987 INF Treaty was worded in such a way that the MQ-9 Reaper could be classed as such.
  2. Note that it is spelled with just one “o” – not Typhoon, but Typhon, named after a giant in Greek mythology.
  3. The last nuclear Tomahawks were decommissioned and disposed of in the 2010s.
  4. It is possible in principle to reload MK 41 (or the Russian UKSK) vertical launchers on surface ships at sea, and this has even been tested during exercises, but it is so inconvenient that it is not used in practice. That said, reloading at port – which involves cranes loading narrow, 8-metre long containers into “canisters” – is itself a long and arduous process that can take an entire day or longer.

From our partner RIAC

Alexander Yermakov
Alexander Yermakov
Military analyst, RAC expert