Russia apparently deployed for the first time a new, radar-evading cruise missile during its massive Nov. 17 heavy bomber raid on Syria.
The Kh-101 long-range cruise missile, which reportedly packs an 800-pound warhead and can fly no less than 1,700 miles under satellite guidance, has been in development by Russia’s cash-strapped aerospace industry for three decades. Now that it’s apparently combat-ready, Moscow can claim to possess a global strike capability that before, only the United States possessed.
Russia’s mid-November bomber raid startled observers at least as much as did Moscow’s initial deployment of warplanes to Syria in late September and its subsequent barrage of sea-launched cruise missiles at rebel forces in October.
The raid involved 25 Backfire, Bear, and Blackjack bombers flying thousands of miles, round-trip, to fire dozens of cruise missiles and drop scores of bombs. Moscow claimed it was attacking militants of the so-called Islamic State, but as in previous Russian raids, many of the targets were in areas such as Idlib and Aleppo in northern Syria where ISIS has no large-scale presence. Skeptics of the Kremlin’s war aims have accused the Russian government of targeting any and all opponents of Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, including U.S.-backed moderate rebels.
The survival of the Syrian regime, which is a strong and historic ally of Russia, is Moscow’s main aim in Syria. But Russia’s two-month-old intervention is also giving the Kremlin a chance to test out, and show off, sophisticated new weaponry, including new jet fighters, the sea-launched Kaliber missile… and potentially the Kh-101.
Paired with upgraded Tu-160 Blackjack and Tu-95 Bear bombers, which can fly thousands of miles in a single sortie, the Kh-101 gives Russia a global—and stealthy—aerial strike capability. Unlike Russia’s older Kh-55 cruise missile with its rounded nose, the Kh-101 features a flat, chiseled front profile that, along with other features, helps reduce its detectability to radar. If you can’t see the Kh-101 coming, you can’t shoot it down.
Only the U.S. Air Force, with its own heavy bombers carrying stealthy Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missiles can boast a similar strike prowess. Europe’s Taurus and Storm Shadow missiles have some stealth features, but their range is much shorter and the fighters that carry them cannot fly nearly as far as Russian and American bombers can.
To be clear, the Russian defense ministry has not officially confirmed that its bombers launched Kh-101s into Syria. And there is a small chance that, in fact, the new missile wasn’t part of the November raid.
Official videos purportedly depicting the bomber mission show ground crews loading chisel-nose missiles onto bombers at a base apparently in Russia. Subsequent scenes in the same videos reveal missiles dropping from the warplanes’ bomb bays, but the aerial footage is too fleeting—and the angle too restrictive—to clearly establish the munitions’ exact identity. The ambiguity was sufficient for John Tirpak, an editor at the respected Air Force magazine in Virginia, to claim that the Kh-101s were “unlikely to have actually been used in the raids, meaning Russia wanted them seen and to suggest they are operational.”
Perhaps the best proof of the Kh-101’s combat debut is imagery circulating on social media that seems to depict the twisted remains of a crashed or exploded cruise missile on the ground in Syria. The debris includes the Kh-101’s distinctive engine pod. And Pavel Podvig, an independent military analyst based in Geneva, told The Daily Beast there’s no reason Moscow wouldn’t use the new missile. “As far as I can tell, Kh-101 is tested and ready,” Podvig said.
Of course, all this high-tech new weaponry won’t necessarily change the balance of power in Syria or bring the country’s bloody war to a swift end. Various air forces have been bombing Syria for years now with their best planes and munitions without significantly altering the conflict’s awful trajectory.