A Cold War-era supersonic anti-ship missile has apparently been used by Russia for the first time in its war in Ukraine, almost certainly having been repurposed for the bombardment of a land target.
Evidence of the huge missile — known to NATO as the SSC-1B Sepal — having been used in this way points to the fact that Russia is increasingly making use of much older weaponry in this conflict as well as using missiles in roles for which they were not primarily designed.
Years before Russia’s all-out invasion of Ukraine began, The War Zone highlighted how this weapon was still in use in Russian-occupied Crimea.
Photos showing the wreckage of the missile began to appear on social media yesterday. Unconfirmed reports suggest that the weapon was brought down by Ukrainian air defenses, although this hasn’t been independently verified. It’s also unclear where and when the missile came down. Also unknown is how the missile was launched — truck-mounted launchers and a unique bunker system in Crimea (as seen in the video below) are the two options.
What does appear to be certain is that this is an example of the SSC-1B Sepal, a missile not previously known to have been used in the conflict. Apart from its considerable size, salient features of the missile include its cigar-shaped body with an engine air intake below it and highly swept wings that deploy after launch.
Different online sources have identified the missile by its Russian designation, either as a P-35, a P-35B, or a 3M44. All of these missiles are related, look superficially similar, and have been used to arm coastal defense systems, collectively known in the West as SSC-1B Sepal.
Cold War history of the missile
The P-35B anti-ship missile began to be fielded for coastal defense in the early 1960s and had a reported effective range of 168 miles. Powered by a turbojet engine, plus two solid-fuel rocket boosters for launching, the P-35B weighs around 4.6 tons and has a length of approximately 33 feet.
By the early 1980s, the P-35B coastal defense missile was being superseded by the 3M44, with a reported effective range of 286 miles, plus the option of a nuclear payload instead of the standard 2,000-pound conventional warhead.
Returning to the missile wreckage, it seems likely that this is the 3M44, although it’s also possible that stocks of the older P-35B may have been retained. Either way, the missile would have been directed against a land target, rather than a ship, since Ukraine currently operates no large naval vessels.
It’s worth noting that these missiles are part of an extensive family, the development of which began in the 1950s, at the Chelomey Design Bureau, starting with the P-5. Known to NATO as the SS-N-3 Shaddock, these liquid-fueled missiles were ultimately fielded in a variety of roles, including for tactical anti-shipping and strategic strike. They were used to arm warships and submarines, as well as coastal defense systems, both mobile and static.
Ship- and sub-launched versions of the family (lumped together by NATO as the SS-N-3 Shaddock) have long been withdrawn, but Russia does still use the SSC-1B Sepal coastal defense versions of the same basic missile.
The Western reporting names for these missiles are something of a minefield, having been assigned out of sequence compared to when the missiles were actually fielded and not properly reflecting the developmental relationships between them. This reflects the limited intelligence available at the time.
The Crimean context
Significantly, these coastal defense missiles have a specific relationship with Crimea, occupied by Russia since 2014 and now embroiled in the ongoing war with Ukraine.
These missiles were, as of late 2020, still used to protect the strategic port of Sevastopol, as part of a static coastal-defense anti-ship missile system known as Utes.
The Utes comprises a hardened battery that’s built into the cliffs near Balaklava, overlooking the maritime approaches to Sevastopol. Two twin-tube missile launchers, located 3.7 miles apart, are concealed within an underground bunker when not in use, protected by huge metal doors.
All in all, this is an impressive installation, as we described in the past:
"Buried under thick layers of concrete to protect it from nuclear attack, the complete facilities included command posts, missile storage, and workshops for preparing and refueling the missiles, which were themselves transported on special trucks, with their wings folded."
When the system first went online in 1957, it was armed with subsonic Sopka anti-ship missiles, subsequently superseded by the supersonic P-35B and finally the 3M44.
After the demise of the Soviet Union, the Utes site ended up in Ukrainian hands and then fell out of use. It was reactivated by Russia after Moscow annexed the Crimean peninsula, although it seems likely that the main role of the Cold War-era missiles was as target drones, to test air defense systems during live-fire exercises.
After all, there are much more modern coastal defense missile systems now available to Russia’s Black Sea Fleet, namely the shorter-ranged but mobile 3K60 Bal (SSC-6 Sennight) and the supersonic K-300P Bastion-P mobile system (SSC-5 Stooge). The missiles launched by this system reportedly have a range of 186 miles and a speed of around Mach 2.5 and have apparently been used in a land-attack role against Ukraine.
Bal and Bastion coastal defense missile systems of the Black Sea Fleet carry out live firing against sea targets during the Kavkaz-2020 maneuvers:
While a missile launch from the Utes site in Crimea is a distinct possibility, the P-35B and 3M44 are both also used in a road-mobile coastal defense system, known as Redut. A missile could also have been launched from one of these vehicles, which would be much more flexible and survivable than the Utes. However, the current status of the truck-based Redut with the Russian Armed Forces is unclear. In a 2022 assessment, the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS) stated only that “some” examples were still in use.
Bearing in mind a launch from the fixed site at Balaclava, and the reported 286-mile range of the 3M44, even this improved version of the missile would likely only be able to reach Ukraine targets around the Kherson region, although this is an area that has seen heavy Russian bombardment by other means.
Another standoff land attack missile substitute
Whatever the origin of the missile, and the specific variant, there’s little doubt that the wreckage provides more evidence of Russia using non-standard missiles in a land-attack capacity.
This is likely driven by the shortage of purpose-designed land-attack cruise missiles and ballistic missiles, a result of the heavy use of these weapons in the conflict so far, compounded by sanctions, which make the production of new missiles — and other high-tech equipment — more complicated.
Among the responses have been the Russian deployment of huge numbers of Iranian-designed Shahed-series one-way attack drones, and the acquisition of short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs) from North Korea, as you can read more about here, as well as reported efforts to obtain additional ballistic missiles from Iran.
But there have also been examples of more ad-hoc Russian-developed solutions to the missile shortage.
While the Kh-22 and Kh-32 are poorly suited to attacking targets on land with any precision, their supersonic speed, as well as a steep terminal dive onto the target makes them a huge problem for Ukrainian air defenses. It may well be that Russia hopes to exploit the speed and terminal dive of the 3M44 in a similar way, as it has also down on occasion with the much more modern Bastion-P, another missile that has proven very hard for air defenses to defeat.
There remains a question about the utility of a Cold War-era anti-ship missile — be it the Kh-22 or the 3M44 — for attacking targets on land. The 3M44 has an inertial guidance system that would at least bring it somewhat close to pre-programmed coordinates, although it would likely be unable to use its active radar seeker for terminal guidance, as it would when targeting a warship. Regardless, these are really area land attack weapons.
On the other hand, in the absence of a threat from warships, and no naval exercises in which they can serve as targets, using the geriatric Kh-22 and 3M44 missiles against targets on land goes with Russia's established playbook. This is especially the case given Russia’s scant regard for avoiding civilian casualties.
Other, semi-extemporized responses to the standoff missile shortage include the widespread use of the S-300 and S-400 long-range surface-to-air missiles to attack land targets in Ukraine. In this case, however, the S-300 possesses a little-known surface-to-surface capability. Perhaps more significant is the simple fact that these missiles are already available in theater in large numbers, meaning they can be switched from their air defense role to engage surface targets when required.
Regarding this particular anti-ship missile, it appears that the probable 3M44 was either brought down by Ukrainian air defenses or suffered some kind of failure before it got to its target.
Presuming this wasn’t just a one-off attack, we may well see more of these huge missiles in due course, especially as Russia maintains its high-intensity campaign of missile and drone strikes against Ukrainian targets during the winter months and rummages ever deeper into its arsenal looking for weapons to fulfill that objective.
Contact the author: firstname.lastname@example.org