Russia’s shadowy SSC-8 land-based land-attack cruise missile has been in testing for nearly a decade, but now, according to The New York Times, the system has gone operational and has been deployed to two separate locations. Although both the US and Russia have thousands of cruise missiles they are not supposed to have land-based cruise or ballistic missiles capable of delivering nuclear or conventional warheads over a range of 300 to 3,400 miles according to the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty of 1987. The SSC-8 is speculated to have a range of of well over 1,000 miles, and possibly as far as 1,500 miles.
Since the treaty’s execution, both the US and Russia have concentrated their cruise missile arsenals to sea-based and air launched varieties, with the US throwing away its Pershing II medium-range ballistic missiles and BGM-109G Gryphon cruise missiles based on the Navy’s Tomahawk. Then in 2008 Russia began testing what US intelligence believed was a land-based cruise missile, possibly based on the Kalibr family of cruise missiles used by Russian naval units today. This was a blatant violation of the treaty, and the Obama administration worked to stop Russia’s testing of the missile in an effort to keep the treaty intact. The administration even floated the possibility of reconstituting America's own ground-based cruise missile program in Europe as a reaction to Russia's actions. Obviously these efforts proved futile and the fact that the SSC-8 is now operationally deployed leaves no room for interpretation as to Russia’s intentions.
The US Gryphon and Pershing II missile programs both ended following the execution of the IRNFT:
The New York Times writes:
“Administration officials said the Russians now have two battalions of the prohibited cruise missile. One is still located at Russia’s missile test site at Kapustin Yar in southern Russia near Volgograd. The other was shifted in December from that test site to an operational base elsewhere in the country, according to a senior official who did not provide further details and requested anonymity to discuss recent intelligence reports about the missile.”
Russia, which has become an adept player at using their easily deployed missile systems— namely their S-400 air defense system, Iskander short-range ballistic missile system, and Bastion coastal defense system—as strategic “anti-access/area denial chess pieces in Syria, Crimea and in Europe. Yet all these systems have a range of less than 300 miles, treaty defined or not, giving them formidable but still limited reach.
If the SSC-8 were deployed among these systems, Russia could strike targets across entire continents, not just across a border or two. Considering Russia’s missile-heavy foreign policy playbook, you can see why such a capability would be attractive, especially in an effort to level the playing field against a coalition with advanced airpower and naval systems like NATO.
Russia used cruise missiles extensively during their air campaign in Syria, launching them from ships, bombers, and even submarines, which was strange because the airspace was permissive and there was no need for standoff weaponry. Part of this was to test and showcase available weaponry and capabilities to potential buyers on the world stage, and for propaganda purposes. Another part was because Russia still lacks precision attack capability and weapons for most its tactical aircraft units, leaving expensive cruise missiles as the default heavy precision strike option. Even Russia's Bastion coastal defense system deployed to Syria used its P-800 Oniks supersonic missiles in land-attack mode against targets in Syria during the campaign. Here is both the Kaliber and Bastion in action during Syrian operations:
If Russia could deploy large numbers of these missiles, possibly both conventionally and nuclear armed, along their western border, as well as in the enclave of Kaliningrad and in Crimea, it would give Moscow a massive precision strike capability that can range across Europe, something that by and large Russia’s tactical air forces continue to lack.
Fielding large quantities of road-mobile, conventionally armed land-based cruise missiles is also a relatively cheap proposition, at least in terms of the alternative. After the initial acquisition cost of the missiles and their transporter-erector-launchers (TELs), upkeep and training is just a tiny fraction of the cost of a high-end combat aircraft. And even those are not as survivable and do not possess the range of land attack cruise missile.
The fact is that Russia is not the only one that appears to be moving away from some of the landmark arms treaties that have kept both countries’ arsenals in check. The US may also be heading down this road. During a recent phone call with Vladimir Putin, President Trump was supposedly asked if he wanted to renew the New START treaty, he paused, asked his aids and replied that he thought it was a bad deal for the US that favored Russia.
New START is a key treaty that demands caps on deployable nuclear weapons stockpiles, including these aggregate limitations:
700 deployed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), deployed submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments;
1,550 nuclear warheads on deployed ICBMs, deployed SLBMs, and deployed heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments (each such heavy bomber is counted as one warhead toward this limit);
800 deployed and non-deployed ICBM launchers, SLBM launchers, and heavy bombers equipped for nuclear armaments.
There are also other important stipulations on verification and inspections included in the agreement. Maybe above all else, New START could work as a jumping off place for increasing limitations on nuclear arms and their delivery systems, and is the best route to potentially get to a place where either country cannot destroy the planet many times over with their own arsenal alone.
With all this in mind, what’s most concerning is that both sides, Russia and the US, seem to be moving away from cooperating on arms control overall, which is a dangerous and dark path to stroll down to say the least.
As for the SSC-8, if the system gets fielded in large numbers, European countries may decide to invest in their own land-based land-attack cruise missiles to provide long-range precision striking capabilities into Russian territory—if the US does not protest it. This is not a good outcome as one mistake, one errant missile from either side, could elicit a much a wider response and become a springboard to an all-out conflict. Also, when you consider that conventionally armed weapons do not have the same rigid command and control structures that nuclear ones do, and that there is no way of really knowing if one is armed with a nuclear or conventional warhead, this is even more concerning.
As for the US, drastically increasing ballistic missile defenses in Europe may be an abstract response, but it won’t help with countering a dramatically enhanced cruise missile threat. These missiles fly nap-of-the-earth using terrain and contour matching. Shooting them down is problematic for ground-based systems, and until recently, shooting them down over land in the air-to-air realm also had its issues as they hide in the ground clutter and shadows on radar.
The advent of advanced electronically scanned array (AESA) radars and airborne early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C) with similarly advanced radar systems and large quantities of processing power have made shooting down low-flying cruise missiles overland a more reliable affair. This was one of the main reasons American Air National Guard F-15C/Ds have been re-equipped with powerful APG-63V3 AESA radars and why America’s, and other nations’, airborne early warning and control aircraft have received substantial upgrades.
Existing fighters, like the F-16 and soon the Eurofighter Typhoon and others, can be upgraded with AESA radar sets, but it costs millions per aircraft and you still need to train pilots for the mission and have plenty of aircraft and costly air-to-air missiles on hand to actually execute it successfully. Ground-based SAM systems could also be used to shoot down cruise missiles by leveraging a common data-link picture provided by an AEW&C aircraft and any AESA-equipped airborne fighters under a cooperative engagement-like concept. But even this capability is still relatively new at its time, and interoperability among diverse air and ground based defensive systems will be a major ongoing issue in realizing it on a wide scale.
Some eastern european air arms that have antiquated Soviet-era fleets are slowly upgrading with second-hand F-16s and other fighters, but equipping these aircraft with AESA radars would be a high cost for already cash-strapped forces:
NATO could work together to fund common systems and their supporting architecture to built a credible cruise missile defense, but it will take time and cost considerable amounts of money. Many of the countries that are closest to the threat are not wealthy and some don’t even have their own fighter aircraft at all (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia). As such doing so would be a huge undertaking that would still take years to develop and field, and even then it would be hard-pressed to be able to counter larger volleys of SSC-8s skimming over the eastern European countryside. The US could deploy AESA equipped fighters on a permanent basis to the region, but that would require a major expansion in force structure to support.
The cheapest and safest way to counter new military capabilities is to stop their development before they become operational. President Obama failed miserably in this respect with the SSC-8, in the same way he failed to forestall China’s island-building campaign in the South China Sea or North Korea’s missile and nuclear programs. Will Trump replicate this failing record? We’ll have to wait and see, but by most indications, at least when it comes to Russia and strategic arms, he seems in favor of throwing away at least some of the stability-infusing agreements of the past and in his own words “let it be an arms race.”
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com