Russian strategy and the evolving anti-access/area denial threat in Europe

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The trajectory of Russia’s national policy combined with its on-going rearmament programme poses a growing threat to security in the Euro-Atlantic. Russian actions in Georgia in 2008, Ukraine since 2014, and the scale and scope of its ‘snap’ military exercises, especially their focus on high-intensity conventional – and in cases, nuclear – operations against NATO and allied countries (notably Finland and Sweden), highlight Russia’s increasing belligerence and assertiveness. This is based on Moscow’s deep dissatisfaction with the post-Cold War settlement, in particular with regard to Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and a desire for recognition as a Great Power. Moreover, the fundamental long-term objective for Russian national policy is the assertion of primacy over the former Soviet Union, in particular in military-strategic terms.

This ambition and the desire for Great Power status provide the context for the modernisation of the Russian Armed Forces. An area of particular focus for the Russian military is the development of a robust conventional long-range strike capability, encompassing advanced air-, sea- and ground-launched ballistic and cruise missile systems. Together with investment in assets such as anti-ship and long-range air defence and electronic warfare systems, and fifth-generation aircraft, Russia’s burgeoning long-range strike capability contributes to be a potent anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) threat. Russia is in the process of establishing a broad-based A2/AD capability within three distinct regions: the Kola Peninsula, the Baltic (focused on the Kaliningrad exclave) and the Black Sea (centred on Crimea). The three individually pose a significant regional challenge, but together, and augmented by assets such as Long Range Aviation (LRA) bombers and naval forces, constitute a wider threat to Europe.

A Burgeoning Long-Range Strike Capability

The Russian armed forces operate, or are in the process of developing, a number of systems intended to prosecute targets at stand-off ranges as part of an overarching A2/AD capability. This paper focuses particularly on the air and missile-based elements of this capability, which also includes, for example, naval mine warfare and special forces operations. Russia may also seek to utilise political, economic and ‘activist’-based pressure to compel target states to withdraw access, basing and overflight rights. In this regard, the air and missile capabilities Russia is developing would provide the backing to non-kinetic leverage, especially as the Russian military seeks to develop the means to prosecute sustained, high-intensity precision strike operations against an adversary’s critical national infrastructure in order to cause systemic disruption.

The development of a long-range precision strike capability is a central element of Russia’s long-term military modernisation efforts. This encompasses both ballistic and cruise missiles: the former, principally the ground-launched Iskander-M; the latter, the air-launched extended-range (4,500 km) low-observable Kh-101, long-range (2,000 km) low-observable Kh-SD, supersonic medium-range (1,000 km) Kh-MT, and the sea-launched long-range (2,000 km) Kalibr. A submarine-launched variant of the Kh-101 has also been reported as part of the armament of the new Yasen-class nuclear-powered guided-missile submarines. The Kh-101 (a nuclear-armed version is designated Kh-102), Kh-SD and Kh-MT are primarily intended for carriage by the Russian Air Force LRA’s long-range bombers: the Tupolev Tu-95MS Bear, Tu-160 Blackjack and the Tu-22M3 Backfire. The Sukhoi Su-34 Fullback tactical strike aircraft may also be capable of carrying the Kh-SD. An interim conventional air-launched cruise missile, the Kh-555, derived from the Kh-55 (AS-15 Kent), is also in service with the LRA, and along with the Kh-101 and Kalibr, has been used operationally in Syria. Russia is also believed to be developing a ground-launched cruise missile with a range exceeding 500 km. This would be in violation of the 1987 Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which banned the US and Soviet Union from possessing ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles with a range of 500-5,500 km. Russia’s compliance with the INF Treaty, and potential breakout capabilities will be discussed below.

The Russian Navy’s nascent conventional long-range strike capability, centred on the land-attack variant of the Kalibr family of anti-ship, land-attack and anti-submarine missiles, will provide a major component of Russia’s A2/AD potential. The Kalibr forms, or is intended to form, the armament of a number of Russian Navy ships and submarines, including the Buyan-M, Project 22800, and Gremyashschy-class corvettes; Gepard, Admiral Grigorovich and Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates; the Leader-class destroyer; the ex-Kirov-class nuclear-powered guided missile cruisers Pyotr Velikiy and Admiral Nakhimov; the Varshavyanka-class diesel-electric, and Akula, Oscar II, and Yasen/Yasen-M-class nuclear submarines. The Kalibr provides the Russian Navy with significant reach and the ability to conduct multi-axis strikes against an adversary. In a European context, Russian ships and submarines operating in the Black Sea, Mediterranean, Baltic Sea, Norwegian Sea and North Atlantic could prosecute targets across the continent: vessels in the Caspian Sea could also be used to strike targets in Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania and the British Sovereign Base Areas on Cyprus. Moreover, the equipping of small surface combatants, such as the Buyan-M corvettes and Gepard-class frigates, with the Kalibr enables those ships to contribute to the long-range strike role, including from Russian coastal waters, under the protective umbrella of anti-ship systems, land-based SAMs and airpower.

Similarly, the range of the air-launched Kh-SD and Kh-101, particularly the latter, 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. Kh-SD-armed aircraft cannot prosecute targets in France, Spain, Portugal and the UK from Russia itself, but could from the airspace of Kaliningrad and benefit from the protection of SAMs and fighter aircraft deployed there (targets in Spain and Portugal would however still lie beyond reach). This would enable the LRA to generate a higher sortie rate than would typically be expected for strategic bomber operations and allow the bombers to operate within airspace protected by SAMs and fighter aircraft.

The range of both Russia’s air-launched and sea-launched cruise missiles, combined with the precision strike capability they confer, provides the means to target military installations and critical infrastructure across Europe as part of an anti-access strategy. In Eastern Europe, key facilities would also be at risk of ballistic missile attack from the Iskander-M, a precision-guided, road-mobile system with a range of up to 500 km: from the Luga missile base in western Russia, Iskander-M can strike targets across the three Baltic republics. If forward-deployed to Kaliningrad, the missile could cover much of Poland; whilst if deployed on Crimea, eastern Romania, including the coastal city of Constanta and the Mihail Kogalniceanu air base, would be within range. Although the range of the Iskander-M has been stated as not exceeding 500 km in order to remain within the limit established by the INF Treaty, it is believed the range of the missile may be around 750 km; Russian sources have been reported as suggesting that the missile’s range could be extended to 1,000 km without modification to the launcher. A range of 750 km would place, for example, Stockholm, and the island of Gotland within range of Luga-based missiles. Forward-deployed launchers in Kaliningrad would be capable of reaching Gothenburg (Sweden), the German cities of Kiel and Hamburg, and much of the Czech Republic; whilst a Crimea-deployed launcher could target key facilities in Bulgaria, Romania, Turkey and Ukraine (such as the US Aegis Ashore facility in Devesulu, Romania). If Russia were to deploy an Iskander-M unit to its Pechenga base on the Kola Peninsula, close to the Norwegian border, the planned Royal Norwegian Air Force F-35A forward-operating location at Evenes Airport, Narvik, would be within range. It also warrants mention that the Iskander-M is believed to possess a moving target capability thus enabling its use in the anti-ship role. In this regard, Kaliningrad and Luga-based Iskanders could target shipping across the Baltic, much of the Gulf of Bothnia, and in the Kattegat; whilst Crimea-based missiles could target shipping in the Sea of Marmara and across the entirety of the Black Sea. The deployment of Iskander-M missiles to the Kola Peninsula would constitute a threat to maritime operations in the eastern Norwegian Sea and the Barents Sea.


Whither the INF Treaty?

The potential capability of the Iskander-M ballistic missile and the Iskander-K cruise missile, which as with the ballistic missile, is stated as having a range of not more than 500 km, but again, is believed to significantly exceed it. This is because the Iskander-K missile, the R-500, is a ground-launched variant of the 3M14, which is also the basis for the Kalibr LACM. The Iskander-M and K missiles perhaps represent INF breakout capabilities: systems that, should the INF Treaty be removed as a constraint, be developed to their full potential. However, the United States has accused Russia of developing and testing another ground-launched cruise missile that violates the INF Treaty, and has the range to threaten most of the European continent. This would suggest, based on a launch position in western Russia (for example, the Luga missile base), a range of at least 2,000 km; a range of 3,000 km would be sufficient to threaten the British Isles and the entirety of France. A range of 3,600 km would be required to target the Rota naval base, outside of Cadiz, southern Spain, and home to the ‘largest weapons and fuels facilities in Europe’. The missile, reportedly designated SSC-X-8 by the US, is neither a Kalibr nor Kh-101 variant, and is reported to be ‘state of the art’; it is not yet in operational service.

A decision by Moscow to operationally deploy the SSC-X-8 would effectively render the INF Treaty obsolete (Russia could perhaps use a limited deployment as a negotiating tool to extract some form of US concession, in return for withdrawing the system, thus preserving the Treaty). A Russian withdrawal from the INF Treaty would enable Moscow to deploy a robust ground-launched long-range strike capability, complementing its investment in air and sea-launched systems. In this respect, a Russian withdrawal from the INF Treaty, although resulting in a renewed nuclear threat akin to that posed by such systems as the SS-20 of the 1980s, would be magnified by the potential for Russia to pose a theatre-level conventional precision-strike capability. As previously noted, the Iskander system can likely be upgraded to pose a threat at ranges of 1,000 (ballistic missile) to 2,000 km (cruise missile), whilst the SSC-X-8 also poses a theatre-level threat. The new Russian intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM), the RS-26 Rubezh, a two-stage derivative of the three-stage RS-24 Yars ICBM, may also represent an INF breakout system.

The Rubezh has been tested in a single-warhead configuration to a range of 5,800 km and thus qualifies as an ICBM; however, if armed with multiple warheads, the missile’s effective range could be within prohibited INF limits. The SS-20, the principal Soviet intermediate-range ballistic missile (IRBM) deployed in the 1980s, was similarly a two-stage derivate of the three-stage SS-16 ICBM; in addition, the SS-20 Mod-3 had a range of 7,500 km in a single warhead configuration. Moreover, Russia could also opt to deploy conventionally armed Rubezh missiles: as with the Chinese DF-21D and DF-26 ballistic missiles, Russia could potentially employ Rubezh in the anti-ship role using a guided manoeuvring re-entry vehicle. In this context, Russia would be capable of targeting shipping throughout the eastern half of the Atlantic, Norwegian Sea, Mediterranean, and to the south, the Arabian Sea (this would albeit be contingent on the necessary intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance support).

Denying Maritime Access

Having focused thus far on the land-attack component of Russia’s A2/AD forces, discussion of its anti-ship component is required. The Coastal Troops, a service arm of the Russian Navy, include the Coastal Missile-and-Artillery Troops’ sub-branch equipped with anti-ship missile systems, are currently in the process of re-equipping with the SSC-5 Stooge (Bastion) and SSC-6 Sennight (Bal) systems. The latter system currently has a range of 120 km, but is due to receive an upgraded missile with a range of 300 km with unmanned aerial vehicle-based targeting support. The road-mobile Stooge, equipped with the Yakhont/Oniks, a supersonic (Mach 2.8) sea-skimming cruise missile with a range of 300 km, constitutes a significant anti-ship threat. A Stooge unit was deployed to Crimea as part of the initial Russian operation to seize the peninsula in order to defend against potential external intervention.

The Stooge has currently been deployed on the Kola Peninsula and Crimea; if deployed in Kaliningrad, the system would pose a threat to shipping across the western entrance to the Baltic, and depending on launch position, up to the southern tip of Gotland. In March 2015, a Russian exercise simulated the seizure of the Finnish Åland archipelago, the Danish island of Bornholm, Gotland and northern Norway. In the event of conflict, a Russian seizure, for example of Bornholm and subsequent deployment of a Stooge unit to the island would place shipping transiting the southern half of the Kattegat at risk. A similar operation on Gotland would enable Russia to threaten access to and from the Gulfs of Riga and Finland, and the Swedish Navy’s principal base at Karlskrona. Russia is also developing a hypersonic (Mach 5-plus) anti-ship missile, the 3M22 Zircon/Tsirkon-S, which may be derived from the Oniks. The 400 km range Zircon is, as with the Oniks, likely to include sea-, air – and ground-launched variants; the missile will reportedly enter production in 2018 (it is intended to form part of the armament of the refitted cruiser Admiral Nakhimov, which is due to re-enter service in 2018).

The LRA also has a maritime strike role, which is primarily undertaken by the Backfire armed with the Kh-22 and its replacement, the Kh-32. The latter is a substantially upgraded version of the Kh-22, featuring longer range (possibly 800-1,000 km – the Kh-22 had a range of 400-500 km), an improved guidance system and speed of Mach 5 (up from Mach 4.6). Combined with its combat radius (depending on mission profile) of 1,500-2,410 km, a Kh-32-armed Backfire would be capable of prosecuting targets at a range of 2,300 km to possibly 3,400 km. The Kh-SD and Kh-MT may also include anti-ship variants (Bear bombers have conducted simulated anti-ship strikes in exercises, and the bomber’s primary armament of Kh-55 or Kh-101 missiles are land-attack weapons), thus potentially enabling Bear and Blackjack bombers to undertake maritime strike operations.

Counter-Air Capabilities

The array of ballistic and cruise missiles either in service or in development for the Russian armed forces, and the options they provide for conducting multi-axis strike operations, would pose a significant challenge to an adversary’s operational and strategic planning. In this respect, 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, including a potential anti-ship ballistic missile, 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. Moreover, Russia can significantly challenge the ability of Western air forces seeking to operate over Scandinavia, Eastern Europe and the Black Sea. In extremis, in the near-to-mid-term, Russian anti-air warfare systems could create zones of denied airspace to all but fifth-generation air systems, and even hold at risk low-observable assets. Further, the entry into service of the Sukhoi T-50, Russia’s first fifth-generation aircraft, currently planned to achieve an initial operational capability by 2020, will provide the Russian Air Force with enhanced counter-air capabilities.

Three ground-based long-range surface-to-air missile systems warrant particular mention: the SA-21 Growler (S-400), the S-300V4, and the S-500. The SA-21 and S-300V4 are in service; whilst the S-500 is in development and may enter service in 2017. The S-300V4 and S-400 are both equipped with 400 km-range SAMs: the 40N6 in the case of the S-400, whilst the missile utilised by the S-300V4 has not been disclosed, but will likely be an evolved variant of the 9M82M, which equips the S-300V (SA-12 Giant/Gladiator). The S-400 system also includes the shorter-range (120 km and 200-250 km respectively) 9M96 and 48N6 missiles. The 40N6 missile is primarily intended to target high-value assets such as airborne intelligence, surveillance, target acquisition and reconnaissance (ISTAR) platforms and electronic warfare aircraft; that is, the key enablers and force multipliers central to Western air operations. An S-400 deployed in Kaliningrad, for example, would be capable of engaging aerial targets across much of Poland, the Baltic Sea and the entirety of Lithuania, and much of Latvia: whilst an S-400 deployed at, say Pskov, could cover the Finnish capital Helsinki, and the entirety of Estonia. The S-500, intended to provide a wider anti-air/anti-missile capability, including potentially an ability to intercept ICBMs, will have an engagement range of 500-600 km with an upgraded variant of the 40N6 – the 40N6M and two new anti-missile interceptors – the 77N6-N and 77N6-N1.

The Russian Air Force’s forthcoming Sukhoi T-50 fifth-generation fighter aircraft will introduce a new aspect to Russia’s A2/AD capability. Although perhaps not as low observable as the US F-22 and F-35, the T-50 will nevertheless provide Russia with a valuable ‘day one’ stealthy aircraft capable of operating within an adversary’s defended airspace. The T-50 will be capable of delivering a variety of weapons from its internal bays, including the low observable Kh-59MK2 cruise missile (with a range of 290 km) and the Izdeliye 810, a 400 km-range air-to-air missile, most likely intended for use against high-value targets such as ISTAR and air-to-air refuelling aircraft. In this regard, and in light of potential budget and technical difficulties reducing the number of aircraft to be acquired, the T-50, likely only to be available in limited numbers, will perhaps be employed as an element of Russia’s anti-access capability. Alongside low-observable cruise missiles such as the Kh-101 and Kh-SD targeting critical ground-based elements of an integrated air defence system, the T-50, with a combat radius of perhaps 1,600 km combined with a long-range air-to-air missile such as the Izdeliye 810, could be employed against airborne early warning aircraft and other enablers within defended airspace, and beyond the reach of ground-based systems such as the S-400. It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss the operational implications of the entry into service of the T-50: it does warrant mention that the aircraft will provide Russia with a qualitative step-up in capability and enable new operational approaches.

A further aspect of Russia’s A2/AD capability that warrants noting are its electronic warfare (EW) assets. The Russian armed forces operate a variety of EW systems, including, most notably, the ground-based road-mobile Krasukha-4, which is intended to suppress low-earth orbit satellites, ground and air-based radar systems (such as AWACS and JSTARS) at ranges of 150 km to 300 km. In effect, the Krasukha-4 provides an area-denial capability in the electromagnetic spectrum to complement the kinetic capability of the S-300V4 and S-400. The Krasukha-4, long-range SAMs such as the S-400, and long-range air-to-air missiles such as the developmental Izdeliye 810 and the in-service AA-13 Axehead (a 280 km-range missile equipping the MiG-31BM and Sukhoi Su-35) highlight Russia’s focus on countering the airborne ISTAR systems that make such a contribution to Western airpower’s effectiveness. Through targeting AWACS, JSTARS and electronic intelligence platforms such as the RC-135 Rivet Joint, Russian forces would seek to degrade Western forces’ battlespace awareness and targeting capability, and thus operational effectiveness. The central question for Russian and Western planners alike would be whether Russia could attain a sufficiently favourable air situation in a defined area, such as over the Baltic and Poland, in order to achieve its objective before Western airpower could have a decisive effect.

One additional area of Russian effort deserves mention: Moscow’s on-going development of anti-satellite (ASAT) systems. Russia reportedly successfully tested a direct-ascent ASAT missile, named Nudol, from its northern Plesetsk space launch facility on 27 May 2016, the second successful test of the system since November 2015. Russia also reportedly continues to pursue an airborne laser system designed to blind an adversary’s space-based surveillance assets: it is planned to deploy the system operationally on modified Ilyushin Il-76 aircraft, under the A-60M designation. The development and deployment of ASAT systems is consistent with Russian efforts to degrade and disrupt an adversary’s battlespace awareness and targeting capabilities: in this regard, consider for example, the operational implications of the disruption of GPS coverage over Europe at the onset of a Russian operation in the Baltic or Black Sea region.

Conclusion: Implications?

Russia’s development and deployment of robust A2/AD capabilities combined with its assertive national policy, highlighted by Moscow’s readiness to use military force to achieve its objectives, poses a distinct threat to security in Europe. Through the forward deployment of long-range strike and anti-air warfare systems in the exclave of Kaliningrad and occupied Crimea, plus on the Kola Peninsula close to the Norwegian border, Russia has created A2/AD zones that penetrate deep into neighbouring countries’ territory, waters and airspace. In the case of the three Baltic republics, the range of the 40N6 SAM would be sufficient from launch sites in mainland Russia and the exclave of Kaliningrad to cover the entirety of their territories. Similarly, from launch positions in north-western Russia and Kaliningrad respectively, 40N6-equipped S-400s could cover much of Finnish and Polish airspace. In the Baltic and Black Seas, the range of Russian anti-ship cruise missiles, namely the Oniks and in the mid-term, the Tsirkon, and potentially the Iskander-M ballistic missile, would place NATO and allied maritime access at significant risk. The Iskander-M, along with air-, sea- and ground-launched cruise missiles can also threaten key military facilities and critical national infrastructure across Europe, which in the event of, for example, a Russian land grab in the Baltic or Black Sea regions, could be emphasised in order to deter a response. In this respect, the threat posed by Russian precision strike systems would be leveraged to compel states to deny access, basing and overflight rights or declare neutrality, or be subjected to kinetic strikes.    

The scope and scale of Russia’s developing A2/AD capabilities would, in the event of conflict, pose major challenges to NATO and allied states, in particular Finland and Sweden. The Russian focus on developing long-range cruise missiles warrants particular concern, as those weapons could reach many potential targets in Europe from launch positions (whether in the air, on land or at sea) deep in Russian territory and thus well protected. This could also complicate attempts to prosecute counter-force operations due to the escalatory risk involved with conducting strikes deep within Russian territory, and potentially against dual-capable assets, that is, those forces with a conventional and nuclear role (such as Bear and Backfire bombers). Moreover, the range of particularly the air-launched Kh-101 and submarine-launched Kalibr cruise missiles would enable the launch platforms to conduct strikes from multiple, and potentially unexpected directions: for example, a Blackjack could launch Kh-101s at European targets from over the North Atlantic. In addition, the Kh-101, Kh-SD and Kh-MT cruise missiles are designed to be low-observable, thus further complicating defensive efforts. This highlights the extent of the challenge posed by Russia’s missile forces: the combination of multi-platform long-range, low-observable cruise missiles and tactical (perhaps to be joined in the mid-term by medium and intermediate-range) ballistic missiles providing a multi-axis attack capability. The entry into service of the Sukhoi T-50 and with it, a Russian Air Force fifth-generation capability will provide an additional air defence challenge, in particular with regard to its potential utility (from a Russian perspective) against airborne ISTAR assets, or for ‘day one’ strike missions within otherwise denied airspace.

Russia’s focus on developing kinetic, including ASAT, and EW approaches to countering Western ISTAR assets in order to deny and disrupt battlespace awareness and targeting capabilities would also pose a particular challenge in the event of crisis or hostilities. In this regard, could the combination of long-range SAMs and air-to-air missiles, ASAT weapons, EW and strikes against ground-based infrastructure sufficiently disrupt Western battlespace awareness to cede operational initiative to Russia for a sufficient period of time for Moscow to achieve its aim? That is, could Russia create, for example, a ‘no-fly zone’ over the Baltic for long enough to prevent NATO airpower from being brought to bear against a Russian invasion of one or all of the Baltic republics? Moreover, what measures – both national and collectively across NATO and allied partners - are required in order to counter Russia’s A2/AD capabilities? A combination of active and passive measures, including inter alia, investment in persistent, robust and resilient ISTAR, enhanced air and missile defence, EW, and counter-force capabilities, the hardening of potentially vulnerable facilities, and developing concepts for dispersed operations, are likely to be required. Most significantly, in developing a response to the Russian A2/AD threat, the robustness, resilience and credibility of the West’s defensive posture must be demonstrated in order to reinforce deterrence and ensure security in Europe. This will likely incur a not insignificant financial cost, however, the cost of failure and war would be immeasurably higher.