U.S. near-shore combat ships are staying very near shore, away from combat.

Photographer: Lockheed Martin via Getty Images

Putin's Navy Sends a Shot Across Obama's Bow

Tobin Harshaw writes editorials on national security, education and food for Bloomberg View. He was an editor with the op-ed page of the New York Times and the paper's letters editor.
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Russia's attack on Syrian territory last week, using cruise missiles fired from the Caspian Sea, led to a fair amount of chuckling in the West, after U.S. reports that four of the missiles crashed in Iran. But this is no laughing matter. Arguing over the attack's effectiveness misses the point.

If Moscow had only wanted to hit Bashar al-Assad's enemies in Syria, it has plenty of ships nearby in the Mediterranean to do the job. Rather, the Russians launched the 26 missiles from the Caspian simply to show they were capable of doing so. The U.S. and its allies should be warned: Vladimir Putin notched another success.

Western militaries were already well aware that Russia had capable cruise missiles, which are self-propelled weapons that can fly great distances at supersonic speed and below radar detection. The West also knew that Moscow had deployed four armed corvette warships in the Caspian, where it has maintained a naval presence for centuries.

The revelation was that Russia had combined the two: giving the relatively small ships -- the Buyan-M class displaces just 950 tons -- firepower comparable to much larger U.S. Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and Ticonderoga-class missile cruisers. By using the corvettes and the Kalibr NK cruise missile system, the Kremlin sent a shot across America's bow, and in two ways.

The first was showing off its increasing capability in what military analysts call distributed lethality warfare. The strategy here is to avoid giving the enemy one big target, by spreading out the weaponry of war and the related technology, including guidance systems and sensors, to a host of smaller units. This creates two sets of problems for an adversary: Smaller targets are harder to find, and hitting just one does little to undermine the enemy's offensive capability. Think of Hercules's Hydra on a regional or global scale.

This ability to threaten the U.S. from a host of locations makes a good counterstrategy to the Navy's emphasis on denying hostile powers access to vital areas and ensuring free passage in air and sea trade routes. While the U.S. builds its gigantic new Ford-class aircraft carriers, sitting ducks at $10 billion a pop, China in particular is investing heavily in anti-ship missiles, submarines and surveillance craft, as well as creating islands in the South China Sea.

As for Russia, the Buyans aren't the only tiny threat under development: It is reportedly renovating and adding to its fleet of Cold War-era Piranya mini-subs that can lay underwater mines, fire torpedoes and dispatch small underwater combat teams. With a minuscule displacement of 390 tons and a titanium-alloy hull, they run virtually silent. Last fall the Swedish military accused the Russians of testing covert subs in Swedish territory in the Baltic Sea, leading to a brief but tense standoff. (Some peace activists took a decidedly nontraditional approach to deterring Russian incursions.) Above the Baltic surface, Russia has made a bigger show of its increased capabilities, this week publicizing a search-and-destroy simulation in which three corvettes tracked a new Varshavyanka-class stealth sub.

The other likely reason the Russians carried out the Syria attack was an old-fashioned sales pitch. With its fossil-fuel economy faltering and expensive new foreign entanglements in Ukraine and the Middle East, Russia needs cash. No surprise that exports of major weapons increased 37 percent between 2005 and 2014. The offerings include the Klub-K cruise missile system, a version of the Kalibr that fits into a few shipping containers and retails for up to $20 million. The manufacturer produced this animated marketing video of a Klub-K system destroying what appears to be a pair of U.S. missile cruisers, ending with the unsubtle catch phrase "Every State Has the Right to Independence."   

The Buyan corvette, made at the privately owned Zelanodolsk Shipyard in the Russian republic of Tatarstan, is also available to the highest bidder. Russia plans to take delivery of two more by the end of this year as part of an eventual fleet of 12, according to the International Institute for Strategic Studies.

So, how does the U.S. counter this threat of dispersed offensive firepower? In part by copying our rivals' playbook. At sea, this means becoming less dependent on huge, expensive watercraft such as the Ford carriers, Burke cruisers and new Zumwalt-class destroyers, and emphasizing smaller, more flexible ships. (An analyst from Jane's Defense Weekly said of the Klub-K: "It's a carrier-killer.")

More generally, the decentralizing of offensive capability has to part of the thinking behind Pentagon's far-reaching "third offset" initiative, the largest shift of military priorities since the waning days of the Cold War.

The Pentagon has not entirely ignored distributed lethality, recently carrying out wargames under its tenets, and the independent U.S. Naval Institute published an influential study of the concept in January.

Yet one new piece of technology that should be central to distributed lethality is the littoral combat ship, an acquisition that has been shockingly mishandled even by Pentagon standards -- years behind schedule, far over budget and riddled with design flaws. The 400-foot craft is envisioned with interchangeable hardware for missions like mine countermeasures, anti-submarine warfare and surface warfare. Even if either of the two versions of the ship ever takes to the seas, there are no plans to outfit it with heavy firepower like a cruise missile. (One option to extend the littoral ships' lethal range is adding the Norwegian-made Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile, a stealthy piece of technology that performed well in U.S. Navy tests last fall.)

President Barack Obama can insist all he wants that Putin's intervention in Syria is a sign of weakness, but the cruise missile launch showed rising strength, even if a few missed their targets. It's a reminder that the U.S. is a long way from the goal of having a fleet in which nearly every ship presents some offensive threat. To get there, as with all major shifts in military priorities, this means convincing not only the uniformed brass but also the civilian leadership and Congress, and their friends in the private sector. They all must realize that when it comes to taking on major powers such as Russia and China, smaller may be better.    

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Philip Gray at philipgray@bloomberg.net