New Russian Weapon Systems: The balance of power has changed

The Implications of Russia’s New Weapon Systems by Andrei Martyanov • March 5, 2018

During the August 2008 Russo-Georgian War, the operations of Russia’s 58th Army were termed as “coercion into peace”. It is an appropriate term once one recalls what truly was at stake then. Russians did win that war and, indeed, coerced Georgia into a much more peaceful mood. In Clausewitzian terms the Russians achieved the main object of the war by compelling the enemy to do Russia’s will. Russians, as the events of the last 19 years showed, have no illusions anymore about the possibility of any kind of reasonable civilized conduct from the combined West, least of all from the United States which still continues to reside in her bubble which insulates her from any outside voices of reason and peace. The American global track record of the last few decades does not require any special elaborations—it is a record of military and humanitarian disasters.

Vladimir Putin’s March 1st, 2018 address to Russia’s Federal Assembly was not about Russia’s upcoming presidential elections, as many in the election-obsessed West suggest. Putin’s speech was about coercing America’s elites into, if not peace, at least into some form of sanity, given that they are currently completely detached from the geopolitical, military and economic realities of a newly emerging world. As it was the case with Georgia in 2008, the coercion was based on military power. The Pre-Shoigu Russian Army, for all its real and perceived shortcomings, disposed of the US-trained and partially equipped Georgian force in a matter of five days—the Russian Army’s technology, personnel and operational art was simply better. Obviously such a scenario is not possible between Russia and the United States; that is unless the American myth of technological superiority is blown out of the water.

American power elites, the majority of whom have never served a day in uniform nor ever attended serious military academic institutions and whose expertise on serious military-technological and geopolitical issues is limited to couple of seminars on nuclear weapons and, in the best case scenario, the efforts of the Congressional Research Service are simply not qualified to grasp the complexity, the nature and application of military force. They simply have no reference points. Yet, being a product of the American pop-military culture, also known as military porn and propaganda, these people—this collection of lawyers, political “scientists”, sociologists and journalists who dominate the American strategic kitchen which cooks non-stop delusional geopolitical and military doctrines, can understand one thing for sure—when their poor dears get a bulls-eye on their backs, or foreheads.

Putin’s message to the United States was extremely simple: he reminded the US about its condescending refusal to even consider Russia’s position on the ABM Treaty. As Jeffrey Lewis, in a surprising moment of sobriety for Foreign Policy magazine put it:

The real genesis of Russia’s new generation of bizarre nuclear weapons lies not in the most recent Nuclear Posture Review, but in the George W. Bush administration’s decision in 2001 to withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, and the bipartisan failure by both the Bush and Obama administrations to engage meaningfully with the Russians over their concerns about American missile defenses. Putin said as much in his remarks. “During all these years since the unilateral U.S. withdrawal from the ABM Treaty,” Putin explained, “we have been working intensively on advanced equipment and arms, which allowed us to make a breakthrough in developing new models of strategic weapons.” Those technological breakthroughs are now here. Sadly, we’re never got the diplomatic ones we needed.

Putin’s message was clear: “You didn’t listen to us then, you will listen to us now”. After that he proceeded with what can only be described as a military-technological Pearl-Harbor meets Stalingrad. The strategic ramifications of the latest weapon systems Putin presented are immense. In fact, they are historic in nature. Of course, many American pundits, expectedly, dismissed that as bluster—it is expected from the US military “expert” community. Others were not as dismissive and some were, indeed, deeply shocked. The overall impression today, a day after Putin’s presentation, can be described in simple terms as such: the missile gap is real and, in fact, it is not a gap but a technological abyss. Paradoxically, this abyss is not where many do admit it—such as the RS-28 Sarmat ballistic missile, whose existence and approximate characteristics were more or less known for years. It is, undeniably, an impressive technological achievement of having a ballistic missile with not only practically unlimited range but also capable of trajectories which render any kind of Anti-Ballistic Defense useless. In the end, to be attacked from the South Pole, through South America, is not a contingency the US military is capable of facing. Probably not for very many years.

Nor is the Russian M=20+ hypersonic glider weapon system called Avangard, which is already in series production, an unexpected development—the United States has its own, albeit not successful yet, program for such types of weapons and those ideas were being floated in the US since the mid-2000s under the tutelage of the PGS (Prompt Global Strike). Yes, these are stunning technological achievements by Russia with Jeffrey Lewis’ term “bizarre” being a euphemism for “we don’t have anything comparable”, but it wasn’t even here where the real shock should be. Several of my articles on this resource have been focused precisely in the area where the United States was more than lagging—cruise missiles, all kinds of them. I predicted the American real military decline coming namely by this path many years ago, today it is patently clear that Russia holds an overwhelming military-technological advantage in cruise and aero-ballistic missiles and leads the US by decades in this crucial field.

While Western punditry was discussing all those exotic and, no doubt, stunning weapon systems designed for the delivery of nuclear weapons to any point on the globe with very high precision, many true professionals were gasping for the air when the Dagger (Kinzhal) was unveiled. This is a complete game changer geopolitically, strategically, operationally, tactically and psychologically. It was known for some time now that Russian Navy was already deploying a revolutionary M=8 capable 3M22 Zircon anti-shipping missile. As impressive and virtually uninterceptable by any air defenses the Zircon is, the Kinzhal is simply shocking in its capabilities. This, most likely based on the famed Iskander airframe, M=10+ capable, highly maneuverable, aero-ballistic missile with a range of 2000 kilometers, carried by MiG-31BMs, just rewrote the book on naval warfare. It made large surface fleets and combatants obsolete. No, you are not misreading it. No air-defense or anti-missile system in the world today (maybe with the exception of the upcoming S-500 specifically designed for the interception of hyper-sonic targets) is capable of doing anything about it, and, most likely, it will take decades to find the antidote. More specifically, no modern or perspective air-defense system deployed today by any NATO fleet can intercept even a single missile with such characteristics. A salvo of 5-6 such missiles guarantees the destruction of any Carrier Battle Group or any other surface group, for that matter–all this without use of nuclear munitions.

The usage of such a weapon, especially since we know now that it is deployed already in Russia’s Southern Military District is very simple–the most likely missile drop spot by MiG-31s will be in the international waters of the Black Sea, thus closing off the whole Eastern Mediterranean to any surface ship or group of ships. Russia can also close off the Persian Gulf completely. It also creates a massive no-go zone in the Pacific, where MiG-31BMs from Yelizovo in Kamchatka or Centralnaya Uglovaya Air Base in Primosrky Krai will be able to patrol vast distances over the ocean. It is, though, remarkable that the current platform for the Kinzhal is the MiG-31–arguably the best interceptor in history. Obviously, the MiG-31’s ability to reach very high supersonic speeds (well in excess of M=2) is a key factor in the launch. But no matter what the procedures for the launch of this terrifying weapon are, the immediate strategic consequences of Kinzhal’s operational deployment are as follows:

  1. It finally moves aircraft carriers into the niche of pure power projection against weak and defenseless adversaries, and away from the remote sea zone of Russia, be it the Mediterranean, Pacific or North Atlantic. This also means a complete no-go zone for any of the 33 Aegis-equipped US Navy destroyers and cruisers which are crucial for American Ballistic Missile Defense;
  2. It makes classic CBGs [Carrier Battle Groups] as a main strike force against a peer or near-peer completely obsolete and useless, it also makes any surface combat ship defenseless regardless of its air-defense or anti-missile capabilities. It completely annuls hundreds of billions of dollars investment into those platforms and weapons, which suddenly become nothing more than fat defenseless targets. The whole concept of Air-Sea Battle, aka Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC), which is a cornerstone of American global dominance becomes simply useless—this is a doctrinal and fiscal catastrophe.
  3. Sea Control and Sea Denial change their nature and merge. Those who have such weapons, simply own vast spaces of the sea limited by the ranges of the Kinzhal and its carriers. It also removes completely any crucial surface support for submarines in the area, thus exposing them for Patrol/ASW aviation and surface ships. The effect is multiplicative and it is profound.

Russia has many of those carriers—the program of modernization of MiG-31s to BM was in full steam for some years now, with front line Air Force units seeing a considerable inflow of these aircraft. It is clear now why such modernization was undertaken–it made MiG-31BMs into launch platforms for the Kinzhal. As Marine Major General James L. Jones went on record in 1991, after the First Gulf War, “All it takes to panic a battlegroup is seeing somebody dropping a couple of 50-gallon drums into the water.” The Kinzhal effectively removes any non-suicidal surface force thousands of miles away from Russia’s shores and renders its capabilities irrelevant. In layman’s lingo that means only one thing—the US Navy’s whole surface component becomes a complete hollow force good only for parades and flag demonstration near and in the littorals of weak and underdeveloped nations. This can be done for a tiny fraction of the astronomical costs of US platforms and weapons.

It is very difficult at this stage to fully predict the political fallout of Putin’s speech in the US. What is easy to predict, however, is the use of the beaten to death cliché of asymmetry. The use of this cliché is wrong. What happened on March 1st this year [2018] with the announcement and demonstration of new Russian weapons is not asymmetry, it was an acknowledgement of the final arrival of a completely new paradigm in warfare, military technology and, as a consequence in strategy and operational art. Old rules and wisdom have ceased to apply. The United Sates was not and is not prepared for this, despite many real professionals, including in the US itself, warning about the new unfolding military-technological paradigm and a complete American myopia and hubris in anything military related. As Colonel Daniel Davies was forced to admit:

However justified that pride might have been at the time, it quickly mutated into distasteful arrogance. Now, it is an outright danger to the nation. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this threat better than the Pentagon’s dysfunctional acquisition system.

It is prudent to predict today, against the background of an American approach to war that there will be no sensible technological American response to Russia in the foreseeable future. The United States simply has no resources, other than turning on the printing presses and completely bankrupting itself in the process, to counter. But here is the point, Russians know this and Putin’s speech was not about directly threatening the US which, for all intents and purposes, is simply defenseless against the plethora of Russia’s hyper-sonic weapons. Russia does not pursue the objective of destroying the United States. Russia’s actions are dictated by only one cause–to pull a gun on a drunk, rowdy, knife wielding bully in the bar and get him to pay attention to what others may have to say. In other words, Russia brought the gun to a knife fight and it seems that this is the only way to deal with the United States today.

If warnings and the demonstration of Russian military-technological superiority will have an effect, as was the Russian intent from the beginning, some sensible conversation on the new world order may start between key geopolitical players. The world cannot afford any more a pretentious, self-aggrandizing and hollow bully which knows not what it does and threatens the world’s stability and peace. American self-proclaimed hegemony is over where it really matters for any real and perceived hegemon—the military field. It was over for some time now, it just took Putin’s speech to demonstrate the good old Al Capone truism that one can get much further with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone. After all, Russia did try a kind word alone, it didn’t work and the United States has only itself to blame.