WASHINGTON — Few naval strategists would count Russia's Caspian Sea flotilla among significant units in an order of battle. The inland sea features naval forces from the four bordering countries — Azerbaijan, Iran and Turkmenistan in addition to Russia — but most vessels are small missile-armed or patrol craft, nearly all well under 1,000 tons. The forces have been viewed purely as local craft.
But that changed on Oct. 7, when four Russian warships in the Caspian Sea launched a reported 26 Kalibr SS-N-30A cruise missiles at targets in Syria, nearly 1,000 nautical miles away. While most analysts dismissed the military effects of the missile strikes, the fact that such small, inexpensive and relatively simple craft can affect ground operations that far away is significant.
"It is not lost on us that this launch from the Caspian Sea was more than just hitting targets in Syria," said a US official. "They have assets in Syria that could have handled this. It was really about messaging to the world and us that this is a capability that they have and they can use it."
The Kalibr missile used in the strikes is an improved version of the Granat land-attack cruise missile, similar to the US Navy's Tomahawk, that travels at subsonic speeds. Designated 3M-14T by the Russians — SS-N-30A is the NATO designation — the Kalibr long-range version has only recently reached operational status. A submarine-launched version is in service, along with a ship-launched version equipping larger ships, including the Project 1161K Gepard-class light frigate Dagestan, which took part in the operation. But until now it was not clear that smaller ships, including the Project 21631 Buyan-M corvettes that also took part in the Oct. 7 attacks, could operate the weapon.
"This was not a missile seen as being normally carried by the corvettes, which had [shorter-range] Klub missiles as opposed to the land-attack version," said Bryan Clark, a naval analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments in Washington. The Kalibr, he said, "changes it from being a sea-control ship to one with distributed lethality. The US has been aspiring to that, but the Russians have shown they already have it."
Milan Vego, a long-time authority on small combat craft and professor of joint military operations at the US Naval War College, noted that many navalists overlook the capabilities of smaller craft.
"We have been somehow dismissive about the increasing combat power of small combatants," he said.
"The US Navy and other navies, blue water navies, really have to pay more attention to what is going on. These smaller ships are less than 1,000 tons. It is very dangerous to be dismissive, especially in smaller straits where they can do a lot of damage."
The Dagestan is one of two Gepard-class frigates of 1,961 tons full load displacement in Russian service, according to IHS Jane's, completed in 2012 after a prolonged building period at Zelenodolsk Shipyard in Kazan, Russia. Two export versions of the design were delivered to Vietnam in 2011 and two more are under construction. So far, the Vietnamese versions do not seem to be armed with the Kalibr missile.
The other three ships taking part in the Oct. 7 missile strikes are 949-ton corvettes also built at Zelenodolsk, all for Caspian Sea service. The six Buyan-M corvettes were known to be fitted with an eight-cell vertical launch system mounted amidships, capable of launching the SS-N-27 Klub missile, but this is the first demonstration of their ability to use the longer-range Kalibr.
It is not clear how effective the missile strikes were. The Russian Defense Ministry claimed that all 26 missiles hit one of 11 different targets in Syria — according to Pentagon sources, most around the Aleppo area, where ISIS is not known to be operating.
The flight path from the Caspian Sea crossed Iranian and Iraqi airspace en route to Syria, said the Russian Defense Ministry, adding that pre-strike approval was granted by both countries. On Oct. 8 reports emerged that four of the 26 missiles landed prematurely in Iran. The reports were discounted by official Russian sources, while Pentagon sources were confident the stories were accurate.
But military effectiveness was not likely the point of the sea-based strikes.
"It's all psychology," Vego said. "I don't think there is much military use. It's a demonstration of power."
Clark pointed out some of the complex calculations involved in the Russian attack, which took place in an environment already cluttered with simultaneous Russian missile and air attacks.
"The strikes are mostly indicative of this dramatic improvement in Russian command and control," Clark said. "They involved deconfliction of multiple aircraft and missiles in the same airspace. That's no mean feat, and generally has been a place where someone like Russia has problems. Seeing that they were able to do it here implies they're getting better at that."
Aiming the missiles at fixed, land-based targets also simplified the operation, he noted, as the ships didn't need sophisticated sensors or fire control systems to carry out the strikes.
"As long as you're going after a fixed target you can get someone else to figure out the target location and transmit that to the ship," Clark said. "All you need is a stand-alone console where you can plug that data into the missile.
"If you're going after a moving target you need some kind of data link, some way to get that into the missile. It gets a lot more complicated."
The operation was a good demonstration of the concept of distributed lethality, Clark said, where weapons and sensors do not need to be concentrated on a few large platforms but can be spread out to multiple units.
"The Russians are adopting distributed lethality faster than the US," he noted. "The arguments made for distributed lethality are to put firepower on a bunch of smaller ships, have them disperse, in turn increase targeting problems for the enemy, and you may be able to generate the same kind of firepower if you concentrate the platforms.
"With the Russians, these 900-ton corvettes are harder to find than a [4,000-ton US] littoral combat ship. You can buy them in larger numbers, and they also carry land-attack weapons," unlike LCS. "It would seem to give you a much more effective land-attack lethality than what the US Navy is pursuing."
The US Navy is working on a more heavily armed version of the LCS, dubbed the LCS frigate, but those ships are not likely to have a Kalibr-like weapon.
"We have a new class of ships that we're not equipping with anything that's like this missile," bemoaned Clark. "The Navy should feel embarrassed that they let this happen."
Christopher P. Cavas was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.