Russia conducted strikes on ISIS targets in Syria using new cruise missiles launched from naval vessels similar in design to the American Tomahawk Missile platform on Tuesday.
According to a statement provided by the Russian Ministry of Defense, the cruise missiles were launched at militant ISIS “shelters” east of the ancient city of Palmyra. The shelters reportedly held heavy equipment and ISIS personnel transferring from the self-proclaimed capital of the Islamic State, Raqqa.
The Admiral Essen frigate and Krasnodar submarine of the Russian Navy conducted strikes by four Kalibr cruise missiles on objects of the ISIS terrorist grouping near Palmyra from the eastern part of the Mediterranean Sea,” the Ministry statement said. “All targets have been hit.”
The statement went on to state that the strike “confirmed the high combat readiness of the Russian Navy forces,” before noting that the US, Turkey and Israel were all informed of the strikes at the “appropriate time.”
The Kalibr missiles launched by the Russian Navy are fairly new. They were introduced in 2012 and have seen use only in Syria thus far. Almost immediately upon their unveiling, comparisons were drawn between the Kalibr and the American cruise missile workhorse, the Tomahawk, which has been in use by the United States and its allies for considerably longer. The first Tomahawk cruise missiles saw deployment as early as 1983, and they have undergone four modernizations in the years since.
Tomahawk missiles saw their first widespread use in the Gulf War, where they are credited with shifting U.S. military strategy toward engaging more “non-contact” targets. In other words, the Tomahawk allowed the United States to engage enemies while presenting minimal risk to American lives or equipment – a strategy that persists in U.S. strikes to this day, as demonstrated in high-profile strikes during April of this year. In retaliation for a chemical weapon strike believed to have been carried out by Bashar al Assad’s Syrian government against civilians in rebel held territory, President Trump ordered an onslaught of 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles to be fired at the airstrip that reportedly launched the chemical attack. The attack cost no American lives and limited the functionality of the airstrip until repairs could be completed, just as the missiles were designed to do.
Over the last 30 years, over 2,000 Tomahawk cruise missiles have been fired in combat by U.S. forces, and the U.S. Navy currently maintains a stockpile of approximately 3,500 of the missile platforms for ready use. The vast majority of those 3,500 missiles are the fourth generation Tomahawk, which offer a significant improvement in range and accuracy over the early models. Indeed, the Tomahawk could be characterized as much by consistent improvements since its inception in the early 1980s as it could be for its use as a pinpoint missile strike platform.
By comparison, the Russian Kalibr missiles remain comparatively untested. On October 7th of 2015, Russian warships in the Caspian Sea fired 26 missiles at 11 ISIS targets in three Syrian governorates (Al-Raqqah, Idlib and Aleppo). A subsequent strike on November 20th of the same year saw 18 more Kalibr missiles fired at the same regions in Syria, and the Russian submarine ‘Rostov-on-Don’ successfully launched four missiles while submerged in December of 2015. Prior to this week’s strikes, only 51 Kalibr missiles had been fired in combat, making comparisons to the Tomahawk’s thousands a difficult task.
On paper, the two missile platforms are fairly equally matched. While different variants of the Kalibr missile boast different ranges, the longest-strike capable version of the Kalibr has a range of approximately 1,500 miles. Latest incarnations of the Tomahawk surpass that figure by only fifty miles or so. The Kalibr is capable of reaching much higher speeds, as the Tomahawk maxes out at approximately 550 miles per hour with the slowest variants of the Kalibr moving at a brisk 613 miles per hour. Faster versions of the missile (with shorter ranges) can reach speeds in excess of Mach 3 (more than 2,300 miles per hour).
Ultimately, the Kalibr missile platform has already proven to be a capable missile that offers enough versatility to see widespread use in the Russian Navy, and its ability to dwarf the speed of the Tomahawk can certainly be seen as an advantage over the American work horse. However, the Kalibr remains fairly new, and lacks the seasoning of the Tomahawk program – which continues to see alterations in order to maximize the platform’s effectiveness in real combat situations – an advantage one can only gain through use in the field.
The jury may still be out on which platform proves to be the more capable one over time, but for now, the US retains the advantage in terms of experience, even if the Russians have fielded a worthy, and speedier, competitor.
Images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, National Interest, South Front