Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said on January 12 that Russia could use its high-precision weapons to partially replace nuclear arms as a deterrent. According to him, «By 2021, the combat capabilities of Russian strategic non-nuclear forces will more than quadruple, which will give the opportunity to solve the issue of non-nuclear deterrence». Sea-based cruise missile will account for the bulk of precision-guided conventional deterrence force.
The defense chief emphasized that Moscow has no intention of being dragged into an arms race. It will develop its «general-purpose» forces to operate in peacetime and in armed conflicts, including the fight against terrorists.
Mr. Shoigu believes that this shift of military policy will help reduce international tensions and strengthen world peace. This landmark, and somewhat unexpected, statement evoked great interest among experts. An insight into the issue shows Mr. Shoigu had good reasons to say so. The Russian defense industry is up to the task and the conflict in Syria provided a chance to see how it works in practice.
Much has already been said about the Iskander mobile short-range missiles recently deployed to Crimea and Syria. The Kalibr sea-based missiles have gone through combat trials in that war-torn country. These effective long-range precision-guided weapons can be based on various platforms, including corvette-frigate size ships capable of moving along the rivers as well as submarines.
And it’s not naval weapons only. The Kh-101 air-launched missile with a range of up to 4,500 kilometers also saw combat in Syria. The missile can be equipped with high-explosive, penetrating, or cluster warhead. The conventional warhead would pack 400 kg (880lbs) of explosives. With a maximum range of 5500 km (3418 miles), the missile’s maximum deviation is 20 m. Accuracy for moving targets is up to 10 m. The highest accuracy is 5 m.
This missile can be launched from the Yasen-class submarines (Project 885) – the ships listed by Defencyclopedia as one of the Russia’s ten most powerful weapons. One submarine can carry 32 Kh-101 missiles.
The Kh-101 is a «strategic conventional weapon» – a standoff munition capable of destroying primary targets without nuclear fallout and destruction of civilian infrastructure as collateral damage.
The targets, such as NATO BMD sites in Europe, could be countered by Russia's new conventional ultra-maneuverable hypersonic glide vehicles. Last year Russia conducted a series of tests of the Yu-71 hypersonic attack aircraft. The Yu-71 is part of secret missile program codenamed «Project 4202». The glider was said to reach speeds of up to 7,000 miles per hour. Due to its outstanding maneuverability and high speed the system can overcome any defense shield.
Russia has also successfully tested its experimental Yu-74 hypersonic glide vehicle. The Yu-74 was carried by the intercontinental-range RS-18A (NATO reporting name SS-19 Stiletto) ballistic missile. The glider was launched from the Dombarovsky missile base in the Orenburg region and hit a target located at Kura Missile Test Range in northern Kamchatka region, the Russian Far East.
Armed with conventional warheads, the vehicles will become perfect standoff weapons. With these munitions in place, any target within a 6,200-mile radius can be hit in an hour.
The statement of the Russian Defense Minister reflects the reality – the two decades-long US superiority in long-range precision-guided munitions (PGMs) is about over. It changes a lot. Russia and the US become rivals in an effort to acquire an operational PGS capability.
The foreign policy leverage Washington had until now is questioned. The Russia’s ability to use force from a distance gives it major leverage to advance its interests and have a much greater impact on the development of events in the regions like the Middle East.
High-precision conventional systems create a number of problems, significantly complicating the estimates of strategic balance and calculations of the sufficiency of deterrent forces. In theory, it can also complicate arms control negotiations and raise questions regarding New START and the INF Treaty.
So far, the United States has avoided negotiations on any arms control measures that could limit or even merely regulate US conventional potential. The United States’ and Russia’s capabilities remain unchecked. Whether the US position will change in view of the above mentioned changes remains to be seen. In the heat of the Cold War the parties reached deals to control nuclear weapons. They can certainly reach a deal on conventional PGMs.
Once approximate parity is about to be achieved regarding long-range PGMs, it might be sensible for Russia and the US to discuss the implications of conventionally armed cruise missiles for the future of arms control. It won’t be easy. The existing arms control regime is not designed to address this kind of weapons.
The agenda of talks on conventional armed forces in Europe has never included long-range air-and sea-based non-nuclear PGMs or hypersonic vehicles. If the INF Treaty is not effective anymore, conventional intermediate-range ground based missiles will also be outside any control. The traditional limitations on conventional forces are not relevant. But a new set of arms control tools that could help to tackle the problem. Perhaps, the Vienna Document could be expanded to other areas for a start. Everything has its beginning. It’s important to start.