The Russian 2008 invasion of Georgia, 2014 assault on Ukraine, intervention in Syria, continuing provocative military exercises, and the use of a chemical weapon on British soil in an attempted assassination, dramatically highlight the resurgence of a Russian threat to national and international security. This is reflective of a wider Russian deep dissatisfaction with the post-Cold War settlement, made clear by President Putin in his 10 February 2007 speech at the Munich Conference on Security Policy, his 18 March 2014 speech marking the annexation of Crimea and his March 2018 address to the Federal Assembly (in which he unveiled several new strategic weapon systems). Moreover, Russia has set out over the past decade or so to comprehensively modernise its armed forces and develop new thinking to guide the employment of those forces, in particular in high-intensity operations against NATO. A central component of this modernisation effort is the development of a robust long-range precision strike capability1. Toward this end, Russia has, and continues to deploy a variety of ground, sea and air-launched ballistic and cruise missile systems and has used a number of those systems operationally in Syria. As I will discuss in this paper,
Russian thinking underpinning the development of a long-range strike capability and the systems it is deploying hold significant implications, both in terms of enhancing Russia's ability to project power and the threat posed by Russian long-range strike forces. First, a discussion of Russian thinking and the rationale for developing a long-range strike capability is required.
Long-Range Strike and Russian Military Thinking
A Russian interest in long-range precision strike is not new. Marshal Nikolai Ogarkov, the Chief of the Soviet General Staff in the late 1970s and early 1980s, argued that a revolution in military affairs, including the advent of precision-guided munitions (employed by the United States in the latter stages of the Vietnam War), would undermine Soviet numerical superiority. Building on existing Soviet thought on deep battle, that is, 'a strategic concept that focused on terminating, overwhelming, or dislocating enemy forces not only at the line of contact, but throughout the depth of the battlefield', Ogarkov believed that precision strike could have a decisive impact on future war. The influence of Ogarkov on contemporary Russian thinking toward long-range strike and the development of a conventional strategic deterrent capability can be discerned. US and allied employment of precision-guided munitions in Operation Desert Storm in 1991 provided a 'proof of concept':
Former Soviet officials and Russian authorities argued that the DESERT STORM campaign demonstrated the capability of precision-guided airstrikes in the land attack role to paralyze the rear area and an adversary's economy. Targets could include vulnerable areas of the economy, command and control centers, and transportation centers. The introduction of precision-guided munitions changed the nature of modern war by reinforcing traditional concepts that emphasized decisive action during the initial stage of warfare.
In 1999, Major General Vladimir Slipchenko developed a classification of warfare, creating six categories, or generations encompassing ancient through to advanced precision warfare, and suggested 'that sixth-generation wars would be denoted by offensive aerospace operations, led by UAVs preceded by electronic warfare (EW) operations, and only a supporting role for ground forces'.
In 2003, the Russian Ministry of Defence published a report entitled The Priority Tasks of the Development of the Armed Forces of the Russian Federation, and distributed at a conference held in Moscow in October that year under the auspices of President Putin and the Defence Ministry, which brought together key figures from the military-security establishment. The Priority Tasks placed much greater emphasis on aerospace and maritime forces conducting long-range precision strike operations ('long-range fire for effect'), targeting an adversary's critical infrastructure and particularly significantly, information warfare. It does warrant mention that Russia's traditional focus on land power was not omitted: '…though air superiority and massive use of precision-guided weapons will remain crucial for the outcome of the warfare [sic], they do not rule out massive ground operations waged by land forces'.
Significantly, The Priority Tasks states: 'Special consideration is given to the ability of troops to ensure a speedy knocking out of the opponent's infrastructure of political and economic administration, as well as its systems of communications and electronic countermeasures'. This is indicative of a growing interest in the targeting of critical infrastructure. For example, Lieutenant General Sergei Bogatinov, then chief of the Missile Forces and Artillery of the Russian Federation Armed Forces, stated with regard to the Iskander-M ballistic missile, that it is '…intended to destroy enemy weaponry…planes and helicopters at airfield parking areas, AD [air defence] and BMD [ballistic missile defence] facilities, command posts and communication points, [and] critical assets of the civil infrastructure'.
The vulnerability of critical national infrastructure and the consequences of targeting it within the context of Slipchenko's sixth-generation warfare, was described in the following terms: 'The systematic use of conventional-warhead cruise missiles can paralyse the whole of the engineering infrastructure of a country, i.e. deprive it of its economy'. Colonel S. G. Chekinov and Lieutenant General S. A. Bogdanov, writing in Military Thought on 'The Nature and Content of a New-Generation War', state:
Intensive fire strikes against seats of national and military power, and also military and industrial objectives by all arms of the service, and employment of military space-based system, electronic warfare forces and weapons, electro-magnetic, information, infrasound, and psychotronic effects, corrosive chemical and biological formulations in new-generation wars will erode, to the greatest extent possible, the capabilities of the adversary's troops and civilian population to resist.
Moreover, Chekinov and Bogdanov suggest:
The opening period will be the pivotal and critical time of the war, and will break down into a targeted information operation; an electronic warfare operation; an aerospace operation; continuous air force harassment; the use of high- precision weapons launched from various platforms; long-range artillery, and weapons based on new physical principles to strike at enemy targets in all areas, practically the full length and width of enemy territory.
In this context, Major General Nikolai Vaganov, citing 'the modernization plans of the leading foreign armies' in order to determine the requirements for the Russian armed forces, stated: 'The essence of the aerospace offensive operations will be in the delivery of massed precision strikes on the armed forces and all vital economic assets of the adversary within the whole depth of its territory to deny it the ability in the shortest possible time to strike back and resist in an orderly manner'.
De-escalation of aggression forcing the enemy to halt military action by a threat to deliver or by actual delivery of strikes of varying intensity with reliance on conventional and (or) nuclear weapons'. It warrants highlighting that the concept of de-escalation refers to both conventional and nuclear weapons. As Katarzyna Zysk suggests:
The relationship between nuclear and conventional weapons in Russia's strategic thinking, however, is not governed by a 'zero-sum game' logic: the increasingly capable conventional forces have not undermined the central role of nuclear weapons; rather, they have been integrated into a complementary system, where nuclear and non-nuclear capabilities amplify each other's effect in supporting deterrence, defence and coercion.
In this regard, Major General Vaganov listed as an aim for military modernisation, with reference to the naval strategic nuclear forces: '…their ability to inflict predetermined damage to the military and economic centers of the adversary with conventional precision-guided and non-strategic nuclear weapons'. This also highlights a troubling area concerning Russia's development and deployment of long-range strike systems: the dual-capable (conventional and nuclear) nature of the ballistic and cruise missiles being fielded.
The array of ballistic and cruise missile systems either already deployed with, or under development for, the Russian armed forces will provide a significant qualitative enhancement to Russia's ability to project power. In particular, the variety of systems and their respective capabilities (ballistic or cruise missile; subsonic, supersonic or hypersonic) provide Russian policymakers with a considerable degree of choice and options for employment, as Zysk highlights: 'Senior Russian officers underline their value as a particularly suitable and flexible tool given that they can be applied in a variety of ways - in a massive attack or to selectively hit individual targets, using minimum force and without the platforms having to enter the actual area of active conflict'47. The coordinated, multi-axis strikes conducted in Syria, utilising air, ground and sea-launched missile systems, including the Kh-555, Kh-101, Kalibr, and Oniks,48 provide an unambiguous strategic message to the West concerning Russia's strategic capabilities and the manner in which the Russian military could operate in a major war49.
In the context of a conflict with NATO, Russia can, for example, hold at risk key airfields, ports and naval facilities, fuel and munitions storage sites, and transportation nodes across Europe, which would be critical to countering Russian military operations in the Euro-Atlantic. In addition, Russia's maritime strike capabilities (the Oniks, Kalibr, Tsirkon, Iskander-M, Kinzhal, Kh-32 and potentially the Kh-50, have an anti-ship capability) would pose a major threat to NATO naval forces, in particular those operating in the vicinity of the Kola Peninsula, in the Baltic, Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Russia could also employ its long-range strike assets as a coercive instrument alongside or in support of political, economic and 'activist'-based pressure to compel target states to withdraw access, basing and overflight rights. In this regard, Jan Van Tol cites Chinese military literature suggesting an objective for Chinese air and missile forces in the event of conflict would be to: 'Threaten all US operating bases in the Western Pacific, including those in Japan, with persistent ballistic and cruise missile attacks - the concomitant ability to strike allies and partners has implications for their willingness to support US basing access…' The capability to disrupt or deny NATO's ability to move forces, in particular reinforcements, to critical areas in a confrontation, for example, in Poland or Romania, would be central to Russian planning. Lieutenant General Ben Hodges, former Commander US Army Europe, suggests:
We need to think how fast the Russians are moving. We must be able to move as fast or faster than them so that they do not make the mistake of thinking that they could launch an attack of some sort in an area before we could respond. That is why speed is so important to quickly move large formations and a lot of equipment…If the Russians can see that we don't have the ability to move a lot of equipment and people quickly, I think [sic] increases the risk of them making a terrible mistake and then we have a different situation. That is why I am emphasizing speed. To have speed you have to be able to move. That is rail, highways, airports and seaports…
Russian long-range strike assets are capable of prosecuting targets across Europe from within Russian territory or operating areas in waters under the protective umbrella of shore-based air defence and air force units. Moreover, the Russian cruise missile-armed warships and especially submarines, and long-range bombers can threaten targets globally. In this respect, the anti-access threat posed by Russia is not restricted to Europe, but rather extends across the Atlantic to the US. The scope and distribution of long-range strike capabilities across the Russian armed forces provides a potential division of labour. That is, warships and diesel-electric submarines armed with the Kalibr, ground-launched Iskander-M ballistic and Iskander-K, and SSC-8 cruise missiles, ground and sea-launched Oniks and Tsirkon cruise missiles, plus Kh-32, Kh-47M2, Kh-50, and Kh-MT-equipped Backfire, Fullback and Foxhound plus the low-observable Su-57 and Okhotnik, will provide a comprehensive theatre strike capability. This would enable the Kh-101-equipped Blackjack and Bear force, and nuclear-powered submarines, particularly the Graney and Oscar II-classes, to be utilised against more distant targets, such as in the US.
Alternatively, the range of the Kh-101 would enable Russian aircraft to conduct strikes against targets across Europe from within Russian airspace. To illustrate this, the 4,500 km range of the Kh-101 would enable a Bear operating out of Engels air base in central Russia to strike any target in Europe and even Keflavik air base on Iceland, from within the vicinity of the base. This would enable the generation of a higher sortie rate than would typically be expected for strategic bomber operations and allow the bombers to operate within airspace protected by surface-to-air missiles and fighter aircraft. Further, if the Backfire is indeed equipped with the Kh-101, it would be capable of operating in the strategic, rather than its current sub-strategic role. The operational reach of a Backfire with the Kh-101 would, depending on mission profile, potentially exceed 8,000 km.
The ability to prosecute large-scale long-range strikes from within Russian territory, airspace, and surrounding waters (in the case of submarines, a term applicable to the seas around Europe), a Russian focus on the strategic strike role of cruise missiles, together with the importance attached to the opening period of hostilities, suggests that Russia would utilise its long-range strike assets as the core element of an initial offensive. This is consistent with, as Zysk highlights:
…the emphasis placed by Russian military theorists and senior General Staff officers on the high value of the initial period of war as key to its overall outcome, aimed to prevent the conflict from moving over to attrition, which Russia would be more likely to lose. This concerns especially conflict scenarios involving a superior military adversary, expected to aim to achieve military-political objectives with 'lightning speed'…
Moreover, Zysk draws attention to '…a longstanding feature in Russia's strategic culture with its focus on - and perceived vulnerability to - pre-emption and escalation dominance, seizing strategic initiative through surprise or counter-surprise, deception, superiority in military force and firepower, and decisiveness of action among central means to gain an advantage over an adversary'. In addition, and given that Russia would wish to avoid a long conflict, and the emphasis on targeting economic and communications infrastructure, it can perhaps be assumed that Russian long-strike operations would potentially be focused on disrupting and degrading NATO members' economic foundations and transportation systems as much as traditional military targets. Chekinov and Bogdanov suggest:
The enemy may be swayed in his resolve by demonstration of the readiness (in response to a threat of attack) of a Russian defensive force to be deployed to the area of anticipated aggression; a strongly worded statement with a warning of immediate nuclear retaliation against the threat arising to the country's sovereignty and integrity during the war and of unrestrained use of high-precision weapons to destroy the enemy's nuclear power plants, chemical industry plants, and major hydropower projects on the potential aggressor's territory; and preparation and conduct of an information operation expressly to mislead the enemy about Russia's readiness to fight off aggression.
The reference in the above quotation to the use of an explicit nuclear threat at the outset of a crisis is notable, and again highlights the role of nuclear weapons in Russian thinking. In the context of Russia's growing long-range strike capabilities, the majority of the systems discussed above are dual-capable, and results in a 'blurring' of the distinction between conventional and nuclear weapons and brings with it the problem of discrimination. This is compounded by Russian exercises which include scenarios involving nuclear use, and its concept of de-escalation, or which as Zysk suggests, could be applied as 'escalate to win'. It does warrant mention that the development of long-range precision strike systems (particularly hypersonic weapons) are seen as potentially offering, in the long-term, a means to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons in strategic deterrence. The Chief of the Russian General Staff, Valery Gerasimov stated in March 2018 that: 'In the long term, an increase of capacities of high-precisions [sic] weapons, including hypersonic ones, will allow moving the main part of strategic deterrence to the non-nuclear sector from the nuclear one'.