Russia’s Latest Steps In the Mediterranean

2018-01-01 By Stephen Blank

In a previous article this author laid out the dimensions and capabilities in Russia’s expanding network of air and naval bases in and around the Middle East.

Recently, Moscow took another significant step towards the consolidation and extension of its naval capabilities in the Mediterranean.

Moscow announced that over the next 2-3 years it would be building a full naval base at Tartus in Syria, which it now has under lease (along with the air base at Khmeinim) for 49 years.  That base, when completed, will be able to accommodate 11 ships at a time and host nuclear-powered ships as well.  In this connection Moscow also reiterated that its Mediterranean Squadron (Eskadra) would constitute a permanently deployed element of the Russian fleet.

Ultimately Moscow aspires to possess the capability to integrate this network of air and naval bases throughout the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean (and Tartus is by no means the only one located on that sea) to form a genuine reconnaissance-strike complex.

“Former chief of staff of the Russian Navy, Admiral Viktor Kravchenko, told Interfax that the expanded base would contribute to the navy’s “operative capabilities” in the Mediterranean Sea and Middle East as a whole.”[i]

The base is part of an evolving capability not only be able to project power into the Middle East as a whole, including key strategic waterways or against our allies, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia, but also to Southern and Southeastern Europe, most of whose states are NATO allies.

While ostensibly the base and the ships stationed there are there to frustrate attempted terrorist attacks, including amphibious landings, in reality the main mission is to thwart NATO efforts to dominate the Mediterranean and enter into the Black Sea during times of conflict. 

And then,  having repulsed NATO, it could then go on the offensive and support other Russian military operations as needed.

Given Russian naval plans that revolve around submarines and multi-purpose smaller but lethally armed ships like corvettes and frigates we can expect a powerful contingent of ships to be based at Taurus.

It is entirely possible they will be armed with Russia’s naval SLCM, the Kalibr’, whose range is 1500 miles (2500KM) in either its land attack or ship-based cruise missile form.

And the nuclear version is apparently able to launch 2600 KM (1560 miles).

Thus many states in the Balkans, Turkey and potentially Italy, if these vessels sail far enough out to sea, can be targeted.

And these ships’ capabilities, not to mention those of Russian submarines who have been prowling around the coastlines of NATO members in the Mediterranean and the North Sea, are clearly intended to deter NATO and the U.S. Sixth Fleet.

These weapons like the Kalibr’ can be deployed, as Moscow now intends, along with ship-based hypersonic Tsirkon anti-ship cruise missiles which are already being tested and are expected to be deployed by the end of the decade.[ii]

The Tsirkon can be launched from the same universal shipborne platform with ZS-14 launchers that are used for the Kalibr’ and Oniks missiles making it difficult to determine what is coming at the target.[iii]

These systems taken in tandem offer both a potent offensive and defensive capability from which to erect this Reconnaissance-strike capability and an A2AD network capable of striking at great distances.

For example, in his 2015 account of Russian military strategy, Tim Thomas describes how these missiles, in their land-based or land-attack cruise missile capability support Russia’s air and missile defense network around Moscow,

“The defense ring around Moscow is called the S-50 system, and it can reportedly intercept from 400-800 complex aerodynamic targets simultaneously.

“As new radar and missile facilities and equipment are added, the defense ring will be termed the S-100. New Konteyner-type beyond-the-horizon radars are aiding distant early warning capabilities. Nebo-M complexes are being delivered.

“They can operate in several frequency ranges simultaneously at distances of 600-1800 km and altitudes of 600-1200 km.

“The complex of such systems is being created by the production firm Shlyambur, where work on strategic precision missile weaponry and other fields are brought together. This could include such missiles as the Tsirkon.”[iv]

According to Russian sources, “most current
Russian submarines, cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and even corvettes will
be capable of firing any of these three missiles. It is also likely the Tsirkon
may be fielded in air-launched variety as well.

“This practice is an example
of Russia’s current line of effort for modularity and interoperability.” [v]
 More generally these deployments reflect that new Russian orientation to cross-domain fires from land, sea, and air based systems.[vi]

In other words, systems now in production or in actual deployment can strike at a range of targets from submarines to low-earth orbit satellites.

Given the formidable air assets that will also be deployed to Syria and, if Moscow is successful, to its other bases from the Black Sea into the Middle East and Mediterranean we can see the steadily expanding contours of this A2AD system, Russia’s integrated air defense system and the dawning reconnaissance-strike concept.

Indeed, according to Western analysts, “This weaponry would allow Russia to carry out precision air strikes while disregarding missile defense systems. It would also allow Russia to bypass nuclear options, as the kinetic energy of the warhead arriving from space would be more than enough to destroy the intended target.”

The Russian military threat is hardly confined to the Baltic and Arctic or to land-based forces alone.

The transformation of Russian strategic thinking that is at least as impressive as its new capabilities that are either in production or in deployed versions indicate a comprehensive strategy to push NATO forces back and expand the envelope where Moscow’s military forces can act.

Most importantly, this envelope is a steadily expanding one in terms both of actual capabilities and of operational reach for we can be reasonably certain not only that Moscow is seeking other bases that will receive comparable or analogous capabilities but that it will also expand the reach of the Mediterranean Eskadra and its associated air and air defense capabilities as well putting much of southern Europe,

Turkey and the Balkans well within reach of devastating strikes.

Especially if Moscow can gain bases, as it now seeks, in Egypt, Cyprus, and Libya this threat will become much more conceivable.

Here too NATO must awake to the challenge and not only formulate but also implement a strategic as well as operationally deployed and tested counter-capability.

  1. Putin Wants To Expand Syria Naval Facility Into Full-Fledged Naval Base,” https://www.sott.net/article/371144-Putin-wants-to-expand-Syria-naval-facility-into-full-fledged-naval-base, December 13, 2017.
  2. “Russia’s Hypersonic “Tsirkon” Missile, Foreign Military Studies Office, Ft. Leavenworth KS. OE (Operational Environment) October 2017, pp. 44-45, www.fmso.army.mil
  3. “Russia Includes Hypersonic Missile Deployment On Navy’s Warships In New Armament Plan,” Tass, December 19, 2017
  4. Timothy L. Thomas, Russia Military Strategy: Impacting 21t Century Reform and Geopolitics, Fort Leavenworth, KS: Foreign Military Studies office, 2015, p. 184
  5. “Russia’s Hypersonic “Tsirkon” Missile, pp. 44-45
  6. Ibid.

Dr. Stephen Blank is a Senior Fellow at the American Foreign Policy Council. He is the author of numerous foreign policy-related articles, white papers and monographs, specifically focused on the geopolitics and geostrategy of the former Soviet Union, Russia and Eurasia. He is a former MacArthur Fellow at the U.S. Army War College.

"If everyone is thinking alike, someone isn’t thinking."

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