Shocked, Awed

Russia’s New Mega-Missile Stuns the Globe

Putin’s latest weapons were mostly unknown to the outside world—until they began slamming into Syria.

10.10.15 1:10 AM ET

On Oct. 7, Russian warships in the Caspian Sea fired 26 high-tech cruise missiles at rebel targets in Syria—a staggering 1,000 miles away.

The missiles in question, which the Pentagon calls SS-N-30s, were mostly unknown to the outside world before the Oct. 7 raid. Even close watchers of the Russian military were surprised to see them. The missile attack was also highly visible. In many ways, it was an announcement to the world, and America in particular, that the once-dilapidated Russian navy is back in action—and that Putin’s missileers are now among the planet’s most advanced.

Planning for the missile attack began on Oct. 5, six days after Moscow’s warplanes conducted their first bombing runs on rebel holdouts in western Syria. Russia is intervening in Syria ostensibly to help the Damascus regime defeat the so-called Islamic State widely known as ISIS, but the Russian attacks seem to be hitting ISIS’s enemies more than the terror army itself. What’s more, critics point out, Syria provides Moscow strategic access to the Mediterranean Sea.

“Russian reconnaissance had discovered a number of important objects of militants, which were to be destroyed immediately,” the Russian Defense Ministry explained in a statement. Drones, surveillance satellites, radio interception, and human spies on the ground helped planners select the targets, the ministry added.

“The strikes engaged plants producing ammunition and explosives, command centers, storages of munitions, armament, and [oil], as well as a training camp of terrorists on the territory of Raqqa, Idlib, and Aleppo,” according to the ministry. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said the missiles struck all 11 planned targets.

The Russian military celebrated the raid with a press release and an official video, and Shoigu went on national TV to praise the operation. Kurdish militiamen shot video they claimed depicted the missiles flying over northern Iraq. And the U.S. military apparently closely tracked the rocket-powered, guided munitions—and later claimed that several malfunctioned and crashed in Iran.

The media coverage was at least as important as the destruction of the alleged rebel facilities, U.S. defense officials told The Daily Beast on Wednesday. “This is Russia demonstrating on a global stage that it has a lot of reach,” one official explained.

Eric Wertheim, an independent U.S. naval analyst and author of the definitive Combat Fleets of the World, a reference guide to warships and their weapons, agrees, saying of the missile volley: “I think it was a demonstration to the world.”

Wertheim and other foreign analysts were familiar with an earlier version of the SS-N-30 called the SS-N-27, but the latter is an anti-ship missile and the analysts assumed it could only fly 150 miles or so—a fraction of the roughly thousand miles the rockets traveled during the recent raid.

The SS-N-30 obviously boasts a much greater range than its predecessors and can also strike targets on dry land. That makes it broadly similar to the American Tomahawk missile, which the U.S. military traditionally fires in large numbers from ships and submarines in order to wipe out enemy air defenses before conducting aerial bombing campaigns. The U.S. Navy fired Tomahawks to hit the most heavily defended ISIS targets at the beginning of the American-led air war over Syria in September 2014.

Very few countries posses Tomahawks or similar munitions—and only the United States and Great Britain have ever successfully used them in combat. Now Russia has joined that exclusive club of global military powers. And that should worry the Pentagon, Wertheim said: “It should be a wakeup call that we don’t have a monopoly on the capability.”

What’s particularly striking is that Moscow has been able to build this long-range naval strike capability with much smaller vessels than anyone thought possible. In the U.S. Navy, large destroyers, cruisers, and submarines carry Tomahawk cruise missiles—and those vessels are typically at least 500 feet long and displace as many as 9,000 tons of water.

The four brand-new warships that launched the SS-N-30s were much, much smaller—ranging in length from 200 to 330 feet and displacing no more than 1,500 tons of water. “Small ships, big firepower,” Wertheim commented.

That matters because, after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia’s shipbuilding industry suffered a long period of deep decline that the Kremlin has lately struggled to reverse. That has had a profound effect on the Russian navy. “There are relatively few new warships in service at present and the ones that have been commissioned in recent years are all relatively small,” Dmitry Gorenburg, from Harvard University’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, wrote in a recent analysis.

But the October barrage proves that even the small warships that Russia is building can strike hard and far—something that, once upon a time, only the United States and its closest allies could do. Moscow’s missile raid helps re-establish Russia as a global military power. “They’re very serious about this,” Wertheim said.