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How and Why Russia Launched Its Cruise Missiles Against ISIS

An impressive - and unexpected - display of military capability, increasing the military pressure on the Islamic State

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This post first appeared on Russia Insider

The Russian Defence Ministry has just confirmed that Islamic State positions in Syria have been attacked with 26 long range cruise missiles launched by four Russian warships in the Caspian Sea.

The missiles would have been the long range subsonic land attack version of the Klub cruise missile family.

The Klub family is a modular family of different cruise missiles tasked for different roles depending on their motors and guidance systems.

Some members of this family of missiles are used for attacking surface warships, and others for attacking submarines.  Those that are used to attack surface warships typically skim close to the sea, but have a supersonic terminal phase.  Those used to attack submarines are short range, sometimes supersonic, and launch a light anti-submarine torpedo into the sea near the point where the submarine has been spotted.

The land attack version of the Klub used in this attack uses a combination of inertial and satellite guidance and in order to achieve a longer range (up to 2,500 km is claimed) uses a turbojet as opposed to a rocket engine to fly subsonically at Mach 0.8.

It is exactly analogous to the subsonic long range cruise missiles the US has regularly used in conflicts starting with the 1990 Gulf war.

The Russians have not identified the warships that were used to launch the missiles.

The key point about the Klub missile family is however that it is modular.  This means that different versions of the missile can be launched from the same launcher.

Russia’s Caspian Sea Flotilla is known to possess two Gepard class frigates and six Buyan class missile corvettes, all of which would be capable of launching these missiles.

In order to strike Islamic State targets in Syria, the Russians will have needed to obtain permission from Iran and Iraq through whose airspace the missiles would have had to fly.

The missile strike therefore confirms two things (1) that the Russians again have demonstrated a capability that previously only the US had demonstrated; and (2) that the coalition they have created with Syria, Iran and Iraq is a fully operating reality, that is able to confer and agree on missile strikes.

Missile strikes have certain advantages over air attacks.

They limit the risk of casualties, making it easier to attack fixed targets that are more likely to have strong anti-aircraft defences. 

The Islamic State is known to possess man portable short range surface to air missiles including Russian made Strela and Igla missiles.  They are also known to have anti-aircraft cannon. 

Whilst their air defence systems are unlikely to be very strong or sophisticated, and the Russians have well developed methods to protect their aircraft from such systems, there is no reason why the Russians should risk their aircraft and pilots when an entirely safe alternative exists.

In addition, supplementing the aircraft strike force with long range missiles greatly increases tactical flexibility, enabling a greater number of targets to be attacked.  For obvious reasons, cruise missiles are suitable for attacking fixed targets, such as weapons depots or headquarters. Using them to do so frees the aircraft to attack mobile targets, such as artillery or tanks.

Subsonic cruise missiles are exceptionally difficult to observe and track - and shoot down - so the element of surprise is increased.  The Islamic State now knows it can be attacked anywhere and at any time - day or night - without warning.

Lastly, it is significant that the Russians have chosen to launch their missiles from the Caspian Sea rather than the Mediterranean (land based versions of long range cruise missiles are prohibited by the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces ("INF") Treaty).

The choice of the Caspian Sea is dictated by the political situation.  The US has very powerful fleet and intelligence assets in the Mediterranean - as do US allies such as Israel.  Launching their missiles from the Caspian Sea enables the Russians to do so without outside observation or interference.

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