JANUARY 29, 2020
ΒΥ MICHAEL KOFMAN
This is a follow up post to the A2/AD discussion dealing with Russian VKS and PVO-SV air defense, it is also meant to flog the discussion in this WOTR article on whether Russian A2/AD is a really a problem from a maritime perspective. Anti-access/area-denial has some purchase as a concept in the maritime domain, but it was meant to be a conversation about China. The term has been lackadaisically applied to Russia because defense ‘strategists’ group similar capabilities into a common functional problem. This then allows them to say ‘Russia and China’ = problem X, and even worse, if we buy capability Y to deal China then it will definitely work for Russia because we have now declared these to be the same problem set.
This post is not about operational concepts, but again the tactical side of things, as there has been some debate on the efficacy of Russian A2/AD systems. Hence I hope to tease out a conversation on how things work, or don’t probably work, and areas where I think we don’t necessarily know (or maybe just I don’t know).
In the Russian case what gets touted as A2/AD capabilities are just land based coastal defense systems, which for Russia is somewhere between Plan C or Plan D in order of echelonment for dealing with a blue water navy. It mostly misses the plot of Russian thinking about maritime strike. The Russian Navy has historically pursued a damage limitation strategy, starting with forward deployed guided missile ships/submarines, land based aircraft with anti-ship missiles, then offensive/defensive mining and CDCMs.
However, for littoral NATO states in the Baltic/Black Sea with small navies the missile batteries pose a pretty big problem, quite relevant for those who start within the alleged range rings. Think tanks and defense industry advocacy organizations often offer us these scary circles, but does starting within range of these systems equal automatic attrition? The answer is depends.
How capable are Russia’s coastal defense cruise missile batteries? (A2/AD things) Precision strike in the maritime domain depends heavily on queuing, and having a workable kill chain, because unlike buildings ships move around. This means having to address technical things like over the horizon targeting, satellite targeting, etc. Being able to find and fix the actual target is most of the problem. The range rings drawn based on missile flight range don’t mean anything, plus they probably don’t reflect the actual ranges anyway. Second, the most important leg in this supposed A2/AD chain is still land based aviation, both for queuing with maritime patrol aircraft, and the ability to conduct strikes against maritime targets.
The bulk of the Russian coastal defense force includes the BAL, which fires 8 x Kh-35E subsonic missiles per TEL. This system delivers a salvo of up to 32 missiles per battery, with subsonic anti-ship missiles at a max range of 260km. The Bastion-P fires the P-800 Oniks, which is advertised at 450/500km on a high trajectory, 300km combination medium-low, and 120km with a low-low flight profile. It is possible that P-800 Oniks actual range could be further than officially stated given some of the statements that occasionally come out of India about the capability of their Brahmos. Of course ships have numerous countermeasures, defenses, and can use geography to hide, so one should not presume that the Russian ability to hit a ship guarantees that a missile will connect with the target.
These CDCM batteries come with their own Monolit-B targeting radars. Russia’s defense export sites claim that they have an active radar mode (35km), over the horizon radar using waveguide (90km), over the horizon using refraction (250km) passive targeting mode to detect emitting radars (450km). We can take that with a grain of salt, but the numbers listed don’t seem especially fantastical. It comes in a pair of transmitting and receiving vehicles. They can receive targeting data via data link from airborne units, like Ka-31 helicopters, reconnaissance aircraft like Su-24MR or MP, or potentially the much longer range Il-38N and Tu-142 (Bear F). Russian forces also use larger over-the-horizon radar (OTHR) arrays, such as the high frequency surface wave Podsolnukh-E (OTH-SW) systems found based around Russian fleets (200-450km), or the much bigger Container (OTH-B) array located deep in Russia with a range of 3000km+.
One of the questions occasionally raised is whether they can they hit anything using the OTHR? It has been alleged that using OTHR is basically just firing blind, and I don’t think that’s the case. I’m not an expert on OTHR systems, but it would be a really poor investment to buy such long range missiles without investing in a viable targeting system for them, and to pair them with so many unhelpful mobile OTHR systems. The battery’s organic Monolit-B radar is relatively short range, but it is supposed to not only detect targets beyond the radar horizon, but also classify them, and one wonders whether that is all a big lie. OTHR has a lot of problems, but with modern signal processing technology the current generation of OTH-SW and OTH-B systems could be much better. I would not bet the ship on the proposition that Russian OTHR systems cannot effectively see and classify targets over the horizon.
Given the various forms of civilian traffic control, ship automatic identification systems, it may also be possible to easily cross reference signals to separate military from civilian traffic. In a Russia v NATO fight, most of the traffic will belong to combatant nations, and might be considered fair game by the adversary. ELINT based targeting seems to be another functionality of the Monolit-B, and is useful for space-based targeting, which we will get to late. The extent to which a target is cooperative makes a significant difference.
Of course coastal defenses often rely on Su-24MR or Ka-31 helicopters to confirm targets at longer ranges, and while these can be shot down, the numbers game doesn’t look great. Also the act of shooting down an aircraft with ship based air defense system means becoming a cooperative target that identifies you to passive means of detection. Coastal defense units are shifting to drones for recon-strike targeting, like much of the Russian ground force, which means there are simply going to be too many cheap ISR platforms in that tactical-operational range of 100-300km. There is a panoply of means to classify a target, from a guy with a radio on a fishing trawler, to an AGI, to drones, aircraft, and helicopters.
The second half of the package is the missile. Russian anti-ship missiles are advertised as having a sophisticated seeker with active radar, home on jam, ability to de-conflict with other missiles, and a complex flight profile. Soviet missiles were known to be quite smart, able to de-conflict with each other, execute search patterns to actively scan for targets. There is no reason to assume modern Russian missiles can’t do the same, but better. The missile can do quite a bit of the work of classifying and differentiating targets, i.e. it will figure out which one is a fishing boat and which one is an AEGIS destroyer on approach.
What about land based naval aviation?
The Russian A2/AD discussion often overlooks the fact that coastal defenses are just a backup for other defensive layers, from ships and submarines to the Russian air force, which is partly what makes it unworkable as an alleged strategy. It’s the last layer of defense for Russia’s maritime approaches, not the primary one. Against a blue water navy it is near useless since there is no reason cruise missile carrying platforms, or carriers, need conduct operations within range of Russian ‘A2/AD’ capabilities.
The USSR began to think along these lines in the early 1960s once carrier based aviation got longer legs, hence the damage limitation strategy. Basically the A2/AD business doesn’t solve any of Russia’s central problems with U.S. naval power projection, which is again why there is no strategy just based on these capabilities. They are a relatively close-in layer for defending Russian littorals and maritime approaches but not the basis of Russian strategy. (More on that in this article.)
Russian long range aviation took the Tu-22M3s from the Navy back in 2011, then got converted into the VKS Aerospace Forces in 2015. This means that part of the maritime strike mission is in the possession of the long range aviation component (LRA) of the VKS. We can add to this the Su-34 bomber, Su-24M2 tactical bomber, and the Su-30SM heavy multirole fighters assigned to naval aviation regiments. It is hard to know what might be operational from the Tu-22M3 force, but it is safe to assume that what’s left is a relatively small force compared to the heyday of Soviet naval aviation – a couple regiments strong at best. Tu-22M3s, even in small numbers, pose a challenge because of the range of their Kh-32 missiles.
The Su-34s are worth looking at, because the Russian VKS has received 125 of them and they have increasingly been practicing anti-ship strikes with Kh-31 and Kh-35 in exercises. The Su-30SM is also suitable for this role with 114 delivered, although a relatively small portion of these went to naval aviation regiments. Land based aviation is becoming more of a player in maritime strike and I think this space is worth watching. I will skip the Mig-31K because it’s not clear right now where it will get the queuing from to target the Kinzhal ALBM against high value naval platforms.
The main limitation on Russian naval aviation is the availability of Il-38N and Tu-142 long range maritime patrol aircraft. This means that Russian aviation looks good at the operational range of 300-500km, but anything beyond that starts to get problematic given the limited availability of long range ISR platforms. Limited availability is sometimes used as a euphemism for ‘they can’t do it,’ but what it translates into is intermittent coverage, or a high chance of running out of assets due to attrition.
Can space based means be used to target at sea? It depends.
The Soviet Union used two space based ISR systems for targeting: Legenda for maritime reconnaissance and targeting, and Tselina for radio-technical reconnaissance (ELINT). These constellations used nuclear powered, and solar powered satellites of the «УС-А» (active radar) и «УС-П» (passive detection). They provided targeting information at sea and transmitted it to ships or guided missile submarines, like the Oscar-II armed with Granit missiles.
However, both space based recon systems are considered to have ceased functioning some time ago, to be replaced by the Liana system which has had trouble getting off the ground. Liana was meant to consist of two Lotos electronic signals intelligence satellites, and two Pion-NKS radar reconnaissance satellites. Lotos had problems in development, consistent with much of Russia’s space program, but the first satellite went up in 2009. It was followed by three Lotos-S1 satellites, though none of the Pion-NKS satellites have been launched. Izvestia reported last year that both Pions were supposed to be launched by January 2020. Given I’m writing this on January 28, it’s safe to say that’s probably not going to happen this month.
According to numerous public sources a Russian constellation of ELINT satellites designed to listen for cooperative targets does exist (possibly 3x Lotos-S1), but the two Pion-NKS radar satellites do not. Once the Pion-NKS are launched though, which could be this year, the Liana system will be working with satellites able to see ships on the ocean’s surface and transmit that data to Russian forces. This will make a difference in kind when it comes to the Russian forces’ ability to target ships via any land based or sea based platform.
There are limitations to Russian A2/AD capabilities, but they were never meant as a strategy. The strategy was and remains damage limitation, which in part is based on layered defense, but also preemptive destruction of long range strike platforms. Coastal defense is about covering the littorals and key maritime approaches. The challenge began to loom because missiles got better, radars got better, and NATO expanded – so now what was a layer of coastal defenses has become an A2/AD capability affecting sea denial in much of the Baltic and Black Sea.
This places the emphasis on the wrong capabilities. The focus should be on ISR, and the potential for land based strike aviation to make an impact. I also think offensive and defensive mining gets overlooked as one of the most effective means of denying an entire area to an adversary because its not as flashy as modern missiles. Limitations in ISR make ‘a2/ad’ rather dodgy beyond tactical-operational ranges, and there are legitimate questions about what Russian OTHR can actually deliver without additional sources of target identification. That sets up a somewhat bifurcated threat, as the Russian ability to see is pretty good at tactical-operational ranges, and not so good beyond them.
These complexities of course do not stop defense intellectuals from trotting out theories that Russia has an ‘A2/AD strategy’ and will terribly coerce NATO in a crisis with shiny missiles. A real interdiction strategy would involve sea lines of communication. During the first half of the Cold War it was long held that the USSR had a SLOC interdiction strategy before the navy eventually conceded that actually it was chiefly a withholding strategy for SSBN bastion defense. There is no evidence that anything has changed on the Russian side, besides having far fewer operational submarines available to pursue SLOC interdiction.
However, we should not tilt towards cavalier or overly dismissive assessments. Russian forces are getting more eyes, buying more aircraft, drones, missiles, and upgrading maritime patrol aviation – so the trend line is clear. I think the extent to which ships become cooperative targets as they maneuver will have a significant impact on the ability of these various systems to detect and classify targets at longer ranges. That’s probably not a revelation, but it is interesting how much passive detection plays a role in the efficacy of Russian anti-ship targeting systems.