Yesterday was a landmark day of sorts for the Russian Navy. For the first time it employed submarine launched cruise missiles in combat. Six SS-N-27A Sizzler (3M-54 Klub) cruise missiles were launched against two targets in Syria by a Kilo class submarine in the Mediterranean. Moscow has claimed that the targets belonged to ‘Islamic State’ positions outside of Raqqa, however, this cannot be confirmed. While Russia has devoted a fraction of its military efforts to hitting ISIS targets, the majority of it appears to be directed against more moderate opponents of the Assad regime.
The strike appears to be part of a major offensive by Russia against rebel targets over the past three to four days. Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu stated that Russia’s air force has flown more than 300 sorties over Syria and struck more than 600 targets of various types. The numbers could be exaggerated considering the number of aircraft that Russia currently has in theater. Also, 600 is a large number, so what Russia considers a target might be up for debate. In this war, though, public relations are nearly as important as the results on the battlefield. Whether or not the Russians are making headway with their effort remains to be seen, but the appearance that they are will score Putin sorely needed political capital at home and abroad. Further, the impression that Russia using some of its most advanced and lethal weapons effectively in Syria is causing consternation among US and NATO officials.
Russia has been using its involvement in Syria as a defense exhibition of sorts, giving the world an up close and personal look at the capabilities of its military. Vladimir Putin wants to portray Russia’s military as being as technologically advanced and capable as its Western counterparts. To the untrained eye it certainly looks that way, but professional military observers are going to be more difficult to persuade. Yesterday’s cruise missile attack is an excellent example. The US has been using submarines to deliver cruise missiles against hostile targets since 1991. It has become a standard part of US doctrine. For Russia, however, this marks the first time it has used them. If anything, the fact that the number of missiles used was limited and restricted for use against undefended ‘soft’ targets highlights the inadequacies of Russian naval doctrine and weaponry.
The Russian military is improving, but it is not yet anywhere near the United States in terms of capabilities and weapon effectiveness.