Long-Range and Pointless

In the last several weeks, military officials, including Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov, have announced that Russia is ready to deliver long-range preventive and pinpoint strikes on terrorist targets. The persistence of these boasts does not allow one to dismiss them as empty posturing. Ivanov has ruled out the use of nuclear weapons in such attacks. The Navy does not have conventional long-range ground attack capabilities. This leaves the Air Force as the only branch of the military capable of making a strike.

Speaking to reporters at the main strategic air base in Engels in the Saratov region, General Vladimir Mikhailov, commander of the Air Force, announced that this year Russia deployed its first conventional long-range cruise missile -- the X-555, a modification of the nuclear-tipped X-55 -- which can be delivered by the Tu-160 Blackjack or Tu-95 Bear strategic bombers.

To Our Readers

Has something you've read here startled you? Are you angry, excited, puzzled or pleased? Do you have ideas to improve our coverage?
Then please write to us.
All we ask is that you include your full name, the name of the city from which you are writing and a contact telephone number in case we need to get in touch.
We look forward to hearing from you.

Email the Opinion Page Editor

In 2000, President Vladimir Putin threatened to make long-range preventive strikes against terrorist bases in Afghanistan. This declaration caused dismay in military circles in Moscow, because Russia could not attack targets in Afghanistan with conventional weapons without using Central Asian airspace or bases. Central Asian governments were afraid of provoking the Taliban and al-Qaida and reluctant to provide bases, so Putin's threat sounded more like a bluff.

The easiest way to rectify the situation was to do what the U.S. military had done some 20 years before: modify nuclear-tipped long-range cruise missiles for conventional use. Work began almost immediately, tests were successful and now the X-555, with a range of more than 2,500 kilometers, has been deployed.

The Russian Air Force today has 14 Tu-160 and 63 Tu-95 strategic bombers. Each Tu-160 can carry 12 long-range cruise missiles, each Tu-95 -- six. Apparently, not all of the strategic bombers are fully operational, but Russia still has a formidable fleet, capable of delivering a massive strike.

The main problem is the prohibitively high cost of long-range cruise missiles. A conventional cruise missile inflicts relatively limited damage, which 0military used thousands of them in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yugoslavia to make an impact. To reduce production costs to less than $1 million per item, cheap global positioning system targeting devices were introduced.

Yet the Russian military is strictly forbidden to use these devices. This is because an old Soviet rule is still in force that prohibits foreign components and systems from being installed in Russian weapons. Our satellite positioning system, GLONASS -- the equivalent of the American GPS -- is currently not functional and cannot be used for precision targeting.

The new X-555 uses first-generation cruise missile targeting instead, which includes a radar scanner and an onboard computer that compares the terrain with a digital map. This means we can afford only a handful of conventional cruise missiles, and the announcement of their deployment is just so much hot air.

Finally, what would we attack with the X-555, anyway? The London homes of self-exiled oligarch Boris Berezovsky or Chechen rebel envoy Akhmed Zakayev? This is technically possible, but politically counterproductive, especially if the missiles malfunction and miss their targets. Would we attack the Pankisi Gorge in Georgia, where Major General Ilya Shabalkin claims 200 Chechen rebels are now hiding? Pankisi is only 40 kilometers from the Russian border, and using the expensive X-555 would be a waste.

Last week the commander of the 37th Strategic Air Force Division, Lieutenant General Igor Khvorov, told reporters it would be more expedient to use shorter-range Tu-22M3 Backfire bombers, of which Russia has 158, to bomb terrorist targets "as we did in Afghanistan in the 1980s." Tu-22M3 supersonic jets could surely wipe out many potential sites in Georgia or other former Soviet republics. However, the military lacks modern online intelligence-gathering capabilities to accurately track the movement of suspected rebels in Pankisi or in Chechnya proper. The chance of missing a target and killing civilians is high.

Still, preventive attacks are possible, especially against Georgia. The Kremlin has been slapped in the face so often over Ukraine recently that bombing targets in vulnerable Georgia may seem like a great solution. The government can look busy and get public attention away from Kiev.

Pavel Felgenhauer is an independent defense analyst based in Moscow.