Russia Sends Warning to West With Show of Strength in Syria

Published: 13th December 2015 07:51 AM  |   Last Updated: 13th December 2015 07:51 AM   |  A+A-

Until last Tuesday, America and Britain were the only countries with a proven ability to fire cruise missiles at land targets from submarines.

Then a salvo of missiles burst through the placid surface of the Mediterranean and soared into a cloudless sky, demonstrating that Russia had become the third member of this elite club.

The cruise missiles launched from a Kilo-class submarine provided visible proof of how Vladimir Putin is using his intervention in Syria as a showcase for Russian military prowess.

Advanced warplanes - never previously used in combat - are being dispatched into Syrian skies, the best tanks in the Russian army are fighting on the ground, and flights of cruise missiles are soaring overhead.

Yet the Syrian rebels on the receiving end have no air defences and precious little advanced weaponry. There is no obvious military reason for why Russia would employ the heaviest sledgehammers to crack some relatively small nuts.

Experts believe that Mr Putin's real goal is to seize the attention of America and Nato with this parade of might. Having increased Russian military spending by at least 50 per cent since 2005, Mr Putin wants to prove that his armed forces have matched some of the West's most formidable military assets.

The cruise missiles were probably the most important element of this display. For the last 20 years, the United States has been able to fire Tomahawk land-attack missiles from its Los Angeles class submarines. The Royal Navy has done the same from its Trafalgar submarines, now being replaced by the Astute class.

Given that cruise missiles have a range of at least 1,000 miles, this allows both navies to strike targets almost anywhere in the world, using an undetectable launch-pad hidden in the depths of the ocean. As such, it represents a pinnacle of naval might.

The Anglo-American duopoly was being challenged by France, which will acquire the ability to fire cruise missiles when its Barracuda class submarines enter service in 2017. China is also developing a version of this weapon.

But it turns out that Russia got there first. The Kremlin was quick to release footage of the missiles bursting out of the sea in the direction of Syria. "As a result of the successful launches by the aviation and submarine fleet, all targets were destroyed," announced Sergei Shoigu, the Russian defence minister.

Whether this is the "most cost-effective way" of destroying defenceless targets is open to question, said Brigadier Ben Barry, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

But cost and efficiency may not be part of the calculation. "If I was a Russian staff officer, I'd be saying 'this does have a deterrent effect - Nato is going to sit up and take notice of this'," said Brig Barry.

Earlier, Russia had launched cruise missiles from four warships in the Caspian - the first time its navy had fired these weapons from surface vessels.

"There is an element of demonstrating capability in order to gain strategic leverage more widely," said Brig Barry.

Ordinary Russians, are also part of the intended audience, with the aim of justifying increased military spending at a time of economic hardship.

Other fruits of Mr Putin's military modernisation programme have been placed on display since his expedition to Syria began on September 30.

The Russian air force has taken delivery of 46 new Su-34 Fullback strike aircraft, which are being sent to destroy targets in Syria - no doubt to help evaluate their performance.

It has also deployed its most formidable strategic bomber, the Tu-160 Blackjack. This swing-wing supersonic aircraft was first designed as Russia's answer to the American Rockwell B1 Lancer and was originally designed to deliver nuclear weapons.

Earlier this month, it emerged that the T90, Russia's most advanced tank - was being deployed in Syria. The older T72 had proved vulnerable to anti-tank missiles used by the rebels.

But the T90 is protected by the "Shtora" jammer, which disrupts the guidance mechanism of any incoming missiles. This protective shield will now receive its first test in combat.

But there is another, less obvious lesson from Mr Putin's brazen display. If there is a weapon that has not appeared in Syria, that is probably because it does not actually work at all.

For years, Western observers have doubted the operational capability of Russia's only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. With its Mediterranean coastline, Syria is the kind of the country that would be vulnerable to air strikes launched from carriers.

So far, the Admiral Kuznetsov has been conspicuously absent. If Mr Putin is showing the West the firepower at his command, he is also revealing what he does not possess.


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