A Higher Kalibr: Russia’s Development of New Long-Range Missiles
Russian state media announced on January 8th that the Russian military is developing a new iteration of their Kalibr land-attack cruise missiles.
Concrete details about the new missile’s capabilities are scarce, all available information comes from an anonymous Russian defense industry insider speaking to state-run news agency TASS. According to the source, the new missile, dubbed the Kalibr-M, will reportedly have a range of about 2,800 miles (4,500 km). Its predecessors reached only around 1,250 miles. Kalibr-M is also said to be much larger than existing Kalibr missiles, which are about 20 feet long and 1.4 feet in diameter. It will be capable of carrying payloads weighing almost 1 ton and comprising of either nuclear or conventional payloads. TASS also reported that development of the missiles is still in the early stages, and they will likely not be operational until the late 2020s, at which time they will be deployed on frigates and submarines.
Kalibr missiles were an area of western concern even before this upgrade. The weapons generated widespread interest when, in 2015, Russia used them against ISIS targets in Syria. Admiral James Foggo III, the commander of U.S. Naval Forces Europe described them as something that kept him “vigilant” and “concerned” in remarks from the Pentagon last October. He added that they had “a range which, if launched from any of the seas around Europe, … could range any one of the capitals of Europe.” That range is more than doubled in the Kalibr-M missile.
Accordingly, many in the west are now wondering what these developments could mean for U.S. and NATO security. Unverified reports claim that these missiles will be deployed in the western Atlantic as Russia revives Cold War era patrols near the along the U.S. coast. Others point out that if the INF Treaty ends, as U.S. President Donald Trump has signaled it might, Russia will be free to pursue land-based launch options for the Kalibr-M.
However, the few details reported by TASS raise more questions than they answer. Clearly, the missile furnishes some technical improvements in size and strength, but whether or not it has made additional improvements in technology, especially defense penetration technology, is still unknown. Current Kalibrs are able to perform evasive maneuvers, rather than stay tethered to a straight path, and are designed to both accelerate and descend as they close in on their target, all of which makes them extremely difficult to shoot down. Improvements in these areas are not out of the question since they would loosely parallel the updates made to aspects of Russia’s ICBM arsenal earlier this year. It could be that upgrading defense penetration capabilities is a priority across Russian missile programs.
However, the scant details that have been released on the new Kalibr-M missiles are not enough to support any concrete conclusions. Even the information that is available comes from Russian state-run media and should therefore be considered with a healthy amount of skepticism. A complete understanding of the implications of this new program is likely still several years on the horizon.