Weapons: Kalibr The Savior

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October 26, 2019: Russia recently announced improvements in its primary submarine-launched missile, the 3M54/14, also known as the SS-N-27, Sizzler or Klub/Kalibr. This was mainly for the benefit of current and potential export customers and was based on experience during the Syrian campaign. Many Russian and some Indian, Vietnamese, Algerian and Chinese subs are already equipped with Kalibr. Even before the Syrian campaign the Kalibr (Klub is the less capable export version) had growing pains that the Russians appear to have remedied.

For example, India was an early adopter but encountered reliability problems in 2010 when there were repeated failures of the Klub during six test firings. The missiles were fired off the Russian coast using an Indian Kilo class submarine, INS Sindhuvijay. That boat went to Russia in 2006 for upgrades. India refused to pay for the upgrades, or take back the sub until Russia fixed the problems with the missiles, which Russia eventually did.

The Kalibr 3M14 land-attack cruise missile version had been around since the 1990s but had a lot of problems. These were addressed and the 3M14 officially entered service in 2012. This version has turned out to be the most popular and most frequently used. Russia has used it extensively in Syria. The 3M14 was launched from submarines, surface ship and aircraft against targets in Syria. Among the improvements made to the 3M14 based on the Syrian experience was to make it easier to change the target parameters before launch. The latest versions of American Tomahawk also allows targets to be changed while the missile is on the way. Russia is working on that upgrade.

One thing to keep in mind that there are basically two distinct versions of the Kalibr. Most versions are the shorter-range 3M54 anti-ship version with a supersonic final approach speed feature. All of those used in Syria were the 3M14 land attack cruise missile which is basically a Russian version of the American Tomahawk. About a hundred of these were used in Syria, many of them fired at extreme range (over 1,000 kilometers) and a lot of tweaks and fixes were applied to the 3M14 and, where applicable, applied to the 3M54. The anti-ship version does not have any combat experience but the many tests have shown that 3M54 reliability has improved because of the frequent combat use of the 3M14. Each new variant has to undergo several test firings at actual targets after a system modification and this is where the Russians have noted improved reliability and performance with both versions.

Since the first version of 3M54 appeared in 1994 about a dozen anti-ship and land-attack variants have been developed. All are basically designed to be launched from a torpedo tube but the ship/land based and air-launched versions vary in their configuration. As a result 3M54/14 weight varies from 1.3 tons to 2.3 tons. The basic submarine version is launched from a 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tube on a Kilo class or nuclear sub. The 3M54 warheads vary from 400-500 kg (880-1,100 pounds). The anti-ship version has a range of 220-600 kilometers but speeds up to 3,000 kilometers an hour during its last minute or so of flight. The export versions have a shorter range.

The land-attack version does away with the high-speed final approach feature and has a 400 kg (880 pound) warhead. Current versions of the 3M14 have a max range of 2,500 kilometers (with a smaller warhead) and a new version, with a range of 4,500 kilometers, is in development. These longer-range 3M14s are believed to be mainly for use with nuclear warheads.

What makes the 3M54 anti-ship version particularly dangerous is its final approach, which begins when the missile is about 15 kilometers from its target. Up to that point, the missile travels at an altitude of about 30 meters (hundred feet). This makes the missile more difficult to detect. The high-speed approach of the anti-ship version means that it covers that last fifteen kilometers in less than twenty seconds. This makes it difficult for current anti-missile weapons to take it down.

The 3M54 is similar to earlier, Cold War era Russian anti-ship missiles, like the 3M80 ("Sunburn"), which has a larger warhead (300 kg/660 pounds) and shorter range (120 kilometers). Even older is the P700 ("Shipwreck"), with a 550 kilometers range and 750 kg (1,650 pound) warhead. P700 entered service in the 1980s and the improved P-800 in 2002. The first Russian version of the Tomahawk (3M14) was still in development at the end of the Cold War and was finally put into service by 2001 as a land-attack missiles. It took another decade to perfect the anti-ship (3M54) version, as the Indians noted in 2006.

The success of the Kalibr came at the right time because the Russian navy has lots of problems that Kalibr can either solve or make less troublesome. This was clear in 2017 when the Russian defense budget was cut substantially and for the foreseeable future. There were already contingency plans for current procurement programs. For the navy that means fewer new submarines and instead more major refurbishment of boats worth keeping in service. The Russian submarine admirals were hoping they would get the money to build more competitive nuclear boats and put the Americans on the defensive some of the time. But now that goal has to be deferred. The refurbed boats will have better sensors but little can be done to improve noise control (how quiet the sub is underwater). They will not be able to go to sea as much as the American boats but that will mean Russia will have a nuclear submarine force nearly half the size of the American one and, with China building more nuclear boats, the West will still feel threatened at sea. Russia is also depending more on existing Kilo diesel-electric boats and new diesel-electric models with AIP (Air-Independent Propulsion) systems that allow a diesel-electric sub to stay underwater, silently, for several weeks at a time.

For this strategy to work Russia needs better weapons for its remaining subs. Thus it was no surprise that in early 2017 the navy confirmed that it would replace most of the older heavy anti-ship (“carrier killer”) missiles on its subs with a more recent design that is very similar to the American Tomahawk. The Russian equivalent is 3M54/14 anti-ship missile.

A 2017 upgrade announcement confirmed that the 24 P700 missiles (7 tons each) then carried by the Oscar II (Antey) SSGNs in silos would have those 24 silos replaced with silos that can carry 72 3M54/14 (Kalibr) cruise missiles that are smaller and weigh two tons. The American Tomahawk approach, the Russians discovered, is cheaper, more reliable and smaller. That made it worth refurbing some late Cold War era SSGNs for. Back in 2015, the Russians announced that it would spend $180 million each to modernize the eight Oscar II SSGNs in order to extend their service lives twenty years. With the 2017 announcement that price went up to $250 million per Oscar II.

Russia considers the new Yasen SSN their answer to the American Virginia class. But the Virginias are a more recent design while the Yasen is a late Cold War effort that had some tech upgrades in the two decades it took to build the first one. The first Virginia began construction in 1999 and entered service in 2004. So far 17 are in service and they are entering service at the rate of two a year. A total of 48-66 are to eventually enter service. The 9,500 ton Yasen were built after the Cold War but from Cold War era designs and are armed with 32 P-700 (SS-N-26 Oniks) anti-ship missiles fired from eight VLS (vertical launch system) silos. The seven ton P-700 has a range of 600 kilometers. Each of these silos can hold five Klub/Kalibr anti-ship or cruise missiles instead of four P-700s and that shows how the Russians already saw the possibility of Kalibr displacing all the older Cold War carrier-killer missile designs. There are also ten torpedo tubes (8 650mm and two 533mm). Kalibr makes older Russian subs much more effective and to ensure that Russian used the Syrian battlefield to test Kalibr at every opportunity and in as many different situations as possible.

 


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