Ten Weapons That Would See Combat In A War Between Russia and the U.S.
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From The National Interest
Between the never ending conflict in Ukraine, the crisis in Syria and now allegations that Russia has engaged in cyber hacking against America, relations between Moscow and Washington have reached a low not seen since the darkest days of the Cold War.
And to make matters even worse, with NATO and Russian forces in close proximity in Europe—as recent events keep demonstrating--as well as both nations having air assets over the war torn skies of the Syrian Civil War, there is the chance that an accidental collision could spark a diplomatic crisis, a crisis that could lead to a place no one wants to go: some sort of open conflict.
While no one certainly dares wish for such an eventuality, taking stock of America and Russia’s military assets is important. For example, what are the key weapons platforms each nation has? Which are the very best? What would prove the most decisive in a conflict?
Authors Dave Majumdar, defense editor for TNI, as well as former managing editor, Zachary Keck, tackled this question in the beginning of 2015. For your reading pleasure (or horror), we have combined two articles that examine the various weapons platforms both sides would be worried about--even fear--in such a hypothetical matchup, into this one post. Let’s just hope it never happens, considering both sides still hold thousands of nuclear weapons that could destroy the entire planet in just a few hours. Let the debate begin.
Even with the ongoing conflict in Ukraine and heightened tensions, it is very unlikely that the United States will ever directly face off against Russia. A shooting war with Russia would almost certain end poorly for all concerned.
Modern Russia is not the Soviet Union, but it is still possesses a very formidable arsenal of both strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Moreover, given the uneven state of Russia’s conventional forces—which have greatly atrophied since the Soviet collapse—the country relies much more heavily on its strategic deterrent to ward off enemies than the USSR ever did. Indeed, in November 1993, Russia dropped the Soviet Union’s pledge not to be the first to introduce nuclear weapons into any conflict. Instead Russia reserves the right to use its nuclear weapons under a doctrine that it paradoxically calls "de-escalation."
The bottom line is that the United States is not going to engage Russia in a war—however it might face Russian weapons during a conventional conflict where those weapons have been sold abroad. Therefore, the article won’t address the most obviously dangerous Russian weapons—such as nuclear weapons or nuclear-powered submarines—but will instead focus on systems that American forces may realistically face in combat one day.
Here is a selection of five of the most potent Russian weapons that U.S. forces might face.
Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E:
The Sukhoi Su-35 Flanker-E is the by far the best operational fighter aircraft Russia has produced to date. An advanced derivative of the original Soviet-era Su-27, the new Flanker variant is high flying, fast and carries an enormous payload. That, combined with its advanced suite of avionics, makes the Su-35 an extremely dangerous foe to any U.S. fighter, with the exception of the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.
As an air-superiority fighter, the Su-35’s major advantages are its combination of high altitude capability and blistering speed—which allow the fighter to impart the maximum possible amount of launch energy to its arsenal of long-range air-to-air missiles. During an air battle, the Su-35 would launch its missiles from high supersonic speeds around Mach 1.5 at altitudes greater than 45,000 ft. It also has three-dimensional thrust vectoring—which gives it exceptional maneuverability, advanced avionics and a powerful jamming capability.
The Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force is keen to acquire the new jet and there have been reports that North Korea would also like to buy some number of Su-35s. As the Su-35 begins enter service in numbers, additional customers are likely to start lining up to buy the new fighter.
While Russia builds sophisticated nuclear-powered ballistic missile and attack submarines like the new Borei-class and the Severodvinsk-class boats, it is a near certainty that those vessels will never be exported. Russia has only ever allowed India to lease its nuclear-powered submarines. India currently leases the Akula II-class attack submarine INS Chakra—also known by its Russian name Nerpa (K-152)—and it also previously leased K-43, which was a Charlie I-class attack submarine. Most other client states will buy advanced Russian diesel-electric attack boats the latest of which is the Amur-class.
Diesel-electric boats—though they lack the endurance of a nuclear-powered vessel—are extremely quiet and pose an extremely dangerous threat to surface warships. This is especially true in confined littoral waters close to shore. Even older diesel-electric boats have proven to be surprisingly dangerous. In 2007, for example, a relatively elderly Chinese Song-class boat approached the carrier USS Kitty Hawk undetected until the crew announced themselves by surfacing near the giant warship. The Russian Kilo-class and its newer Amur-class successor are far quieter and far more capable than the Chinese boat.
The Amur-class boats, which are derived from the Russian Navy’s Project 677 Lada-class submarines, are designed specifically for the export market. Compared to the older Kilo-class design, the Amur is much quieter—largely thanks to its new single hull design--and is far better armed. It can also be fitted with an air independent propulsion system—which means it can stay underwater for a lot longer than conventional submarines that are not so equipped. The Amur-class is equipped with four 533mm torpedo tubes and 10 vertical missile launch tubes. It can travel at speeds of 20 knots and has an endurance of at least 45 days.
Russia has not yet found a client for the Amur, but given that the older Kilo was very popular, it is near certainty that they will make a sale sooner rather than later.
The Russian T-90 main battle tank is the most advanced current Russian armored vehicle until the Armata series enters service. Though the designation is new, the tank is at its core a very heavily upgraded Soviet-era T-72.
The T-72 was originally intended to be produced in huge numbers as the Soviet Army’s lower tier tank while the more capable T-80 was reserved for elite units. However, after the T-80’s less than stellar performance during the first Chechen conflict, the Russian Army chose the T-90 over upgraded version of the T-80 for future orders.
While its origins lie in T-72, the T-90 is an excellent tank that is far less costly than its Western counterparts like the Leopard 2 or M1A2 Abrams. In effect, the T-90 combines the armament, sensor and fire-control systems of the latest version of the T-80 onto the T-72 chassis. It also adds a new composite armor matrix and Kontakt-5 explosive reactive armor.
The Russian Army has almost a thousand T-90s, but the tank has proven to popular with the Indian Army which fields perhaps the most advanced version of the vehicle (with better sensors and protection among other features). In addition to India, Algeria, Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and Uganda have purchased the T-90. There are also reports that Vietnam and other countries have expressed interest in the vehicle.
Russia is currently offering an upgraded version called the T-90MS for sale.
P-800 Oniks/BrahMos anti-ship missile:
Originally developed by the Soviet Union, the P-800 is a supersonic anti-ship missile that was later jointly developed into the Indian-Russian BrahMos. The weapon can launch from ships, submarines, aircraft and from land. While it is primarily designed to be used as an anti-ship weapons, the near Mach 3 capable missile can also be used against land targets. It has a range of about 300 km (or roughly 186 miles)—which means it far out-ranges the U.S. Navy Harpoon anti-ship missile.
According to U.S. Navy sources, the BrahMos is a particularly dangerous anti-ship weapons. While they would not disclose specific details, something about the BrahMos’ flight profile make it especially problematic to counter using existing American ship defenses.
Both the original Russian version and the Indian/Russian version of the weapon are available for export. Vietnam, Indonesia, and Russia operate the Bastion-P shore-based version of the P-800 weapon. India operates the BrahMos from its ships, aircraft and shore batteries, but Russia will likely install the weapon onboard its new Admiral Gorshkov-class frigates.
Meanwhile, a number of countries have express interest in purchasing the BrahMos including Vietnam and Egypt.
Type 53-65 wake-homing torpedo:
While anti-ship missiles get a lot of attention, submarine launched torpedoes are arguably a much more dangerous threat to U.S. Navy surface warships. Perhaps the most dangerous torpedoes that the Navy might encounter are high-performance Russian-made wake homing torpedoes.
Wake-homing torpedoes have sensors that track the churn in the water as a ship passes through and homes in on the turbulence following a snake-like pattern. Wake-homing torpedoes have long vexed the Navy because the weapons ignore counter-measures, like the Navy’s Nixie decoy, and attack the ship directly. Further, the weapons are believed to have a very high probability of kill, which means they pose a deadly threat. The only real counter to the wake-homing torpedo problem is to develop an anti-torpedo torpedo (ATT). The Navy has deployed a prototype onboard the carrier USS George HW Bush, but it not clear how effective the new ATTs are.
Russia has exported wake-homing torpedoes. China is known to have bought some, but it not clear how many other countries have purchased such weapons.
During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union battled for global primacy. Although this rivalry often played itself out in proxy wars, the two superpowers obsessed over how a direct war between them would unfold. For the United States, conflict scenarios primarily envisioned using America’s technological advantages to offset the numerically superior Russian forces.
The end of the Cold War has greatly dampened the potential for conflict between Russia and the United States, and their massive nuclear arsenals make it further unlikely that they will come to blows. Nonetheless, the post–Cold War era did not herald an end to great-power politics, nor did it bring about anything approaching an alliance between Moscow and Washington. Real and persistent tensions have remained in bilateral relations, and these have grown considerably in recent years.
As such, U.S. and Russian strategists continue to draw up war plans for one another. In this endeavor, Russian military strategists have had to contend with America’s growing technology supremacy in many areas, with five weapons of war foremost in their minds:
Ohio-Class Ballistic Missile Submarines:
Any analysis of the U.S.-Russian military balance must begin with their respective nuclear arsenals. And the core of America’s strategic deterrent is the Ohio-class Ballistic Missile Submarine (SSBN).
Of the three legs of the nuclear triad, America’s fourteen Ohio-class SSBNs provide it with its “most survivable and enduring nuclear strike capability.” Each submarine is at sea roughly 68 percent of the time, with seventy-seven days at sea followed by thirty-five days of in-port maintenance.
Each SSBN stretches 560 feet with a beam of 42 feet and a weight of 18,750 tons when submerged. Powered by a pressurized water reactor (PWR) and a single propeller shaft, the Ohio-class can travel over 25 knots at depths exceeding 800 feet.
Each vessel carries twenty-four Trident II D-5 Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles and four MK48 torpedoes. Developed by Lockheed Martin to replace the Trident I C4, Trident II SLBMs are three-stage, solid propellant, inertially guided SLBMs with a range in excess of 4,000 nautical miles (4,600 statute miles or 7,360 km). They have a greater payload capability than the Trident I SLBMs they replaced. Perhaps the biggest advantage Trident II SLBMs enjoy over their predecessors is a new, GPS-enabled navigation system that gives them a circular error probable of just 90-120 meters, as little as one fourth of the CEP of the Trident C-4.
Trident II SLBMs also are equipped with multiple independently targetable reentry vehicles (MIRVs), allowing them to carry up to eight warheads. Thus, each Ohio-class SSBN could carry up to 192 nuclear warheads on board. Altogether, America’s sea-based deterrent boasts 336 nuclear-armed missiles, with about half of America’s deployed nuclear warheads on board. However, under the terms of the New START Treaty, the United States will deactivate four of the missile tubes on each SSBN before 2018.
B-2 Stealth Bomber:
When Ukraine began heating up in the spring of 2011, the United States sent a pair of B-2s to Europe on a short-range mission. Although the Air Force claimed their purpose was simply to train with European allies, the message to Russia was unmistakable.
Indeed, the B-2 Spirit would almost certainly be an integral plan of any war between Russia and the United States, as its “revolutionary blending of low-observable technologies with high aerodynamic efficiency and large payload gives the B-2 important advantages over existing bombers” like the B-52.
Particularly essential, in light of Russia’s more-sophisticated anti-air systems, is the B-2’s low observability, which is “derived from a combination of reduced infrared, acoustic, electromagnetic, visual and radar signatures.” These make the plane highly survivable and allow it to penetrate the most sophisticated adversary defenses.
The B-2 also boasts impressive range. With a fuel capacity of 167,000 pounds, each plane can travel around 6,000 nautical miles without being refueled, according to Northrop Grumman, the plane’s primary contractor. Although it flies at subsonic speeds, it can reach altitudes of up to 50,000 feet, which enhances its targeting capabilities. Speaking of targeting, it can receive retargeting information in the air. In fact, thanks to recent upgrades, B-2s can receive presidential orders directly, even in a postnuclear detonation environment.
The B-2 also has an enormous payload capability. Each plane can carry 20 tons (40,000 pounds) of conventional or nuclear weapons to drop on high-valued enemy assets. This makes it the only aircraft in the U.S. arsenal capable of carrying the 30,000-lb GBU-57 Massive Ordnance Penetrator (MOP), which can reportedly penetrate 200 feet of solid concrete before exploding. In other words, Russia can run, but it can’t hide from the twenty B-2 stealth bombers.
The F-22 Raptor would alone be on the front lines of any U.S.-Russian war.
The aircraft “combines stealth design with the supersonic, highly maneuverable, dual-engine, long-range requirements.” It was built to replace America’s aging F-15 fighters, however, unlike its predecessor and other air superiority fighters, the F-22 is the first highly survivable fighter to be able to simultaneously conduct air-to-air and air-to-ground combat missions. It can also conduct numerous other missions, including “intelligence gathering, surveillance, reconnaissance and electronic attack.”
The aircraft’s stealth capabilities are enhanced by its high maneuverability and particularly its ability to reach speeds of greater than Mach 1.5 without afterburners. Its advanced avionics suite gives it a “first-look, first-shot, first-kill capability.” In other words, it fights beyond the visual and radar range of adversary aircraft. This is made possible by the F-22’s weapons bay. Most notably, its six Raytheon-built AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missiles (AMRAAMs). It also boasts two AIM-9 sidewinder missiles, which—after scheduled upgrades to the aircraft are complete—will be of the AIM-9X variety.
In any conflict with Russia, the F-22’s primary purpose would be to “knock down the door” in establishing U.S. air superiority. The fifth-generation F-22 would be particularly crucial in defeating Russia’s highly effective Sukhoi Su-35S Flanker-E. As Dave Majumdar has noted in the National Interest, “the Su-35 an extremely dangerous foe to any U.S. fighter, with the exception of the stealthy Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor.”
As Russia’s conventional military power has atrophied since the Cold War, it has become increasingly reliant on its strategic deterrent to meet its security needs. That is why, as Dave noted, Russia withdrew its “no first use” pledge and it is now willing to use nuclear weapons to “de-escalate” conventional conflicts. The vast majority of Russia’s nukes are deployed on ballistic missiles, particularly land-based ballistic missiles.
This is what makes missile defense such a harrowing prospect for Russia. Before the crisis in Ukraine last year, missile defense was without question the most potent disagreement between the two former Cold War adversaries.
Russia was especially irked about U.S. plans to deploy a missile-defense system in Europe ostensibly to counter Iran’s ballistic-missile capabilities. Under the Obama administration, U.S. theater missile defense in Europe takes a “Phased Adaptive Approach.” Specifically, the United States will rely on more sea-based Aegis BMD ships and “Aegis-Ashore” sites in Romania and Poland” to counter up to fifty short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
This is part of a “layered” ballistic-missile defense approach that also includes NATO’s own missile-defense system, as well as the Ground-Based Mid-Course System (GMD) that protects the U.S. homeland. The core of the GMD system, which uses ground-based kill vehicles to intercept strategic ballistic missiles in their mid-course phase, is the thirty interceptors the United States currently deploys in California and Alaska. This number will increase to forty-four interceptors by 2017, with the fourteen new interceptors using an updated kill vehicle known as the Capability Enhancement (CE)–II. Notably, the United States is considering the deployment of more interceptors on its eastern coast.
The system itself consists of ground-based interceptors and Ground Support & Fire Control Systems. The ground-based interceptors use a multistage, solid fuel booster with an Exo-atmospheric Kill Vehicle (EKV) payload. When launched, the booster carries the EKV to the target’s predicted location in space. After being released from the booster, the EKV uses “guidance data transmitted from Ground Support & Fire Control System components and on-board sensors to close with and destroy the target warhead.” The Ground Support & Fire Control Systems have a communication system that “receives data from satellites and ground based radar sources, then uses that data to task and support the intercept of target warheads using GBIs.”
Russia has maintained that these missile-defense systems threaten to upset the nuclear balance by negating its strategic deterrent. The United States correctly points out that its missile-defense systems could never contend with a missile arsenal the size of Russia’s. However, this view assumes that Russia would be launching the first strike against the United States or its allies. Moscow’s fear is that the missile-defense system will give the United States greater confidence in its ability to conduct a surprise first strike to eliminate Russia’s nuclear arsenal, with missile-defense systems able to handle any missiles that aren’t destroyed in the initial attack. Moreover, today’s systems could be expanded in the future.
While not a “weapon” in the traditional sense, the U.S. global alliance network would greatly enhance America’s ability to wage war against Russia. In this sense, it is telling that Russia lists NATO (rather than the United States) as its greatest security threat.
For one thing, allies provide forward deployed bases for the U.S. military, many of them along Russia’s perimeter. From NATO in Europe, to the GCC in the Middle East and Japan, South Korea and the Philippines in Asia, the United States has encircled Russia (as Truman ably demonstrated to the Soviet Union with conspicuous air exercises during the 1948 Berlin blockade). These bases would not only enhance the potency of America’s military capabilities by reducing their range, they would allow the United States to attack Russia from all sides.
The allies’ own military capabilities also pose a threat to Russia. With some exceptions like China, India and Brazil, most of the top military spenders in the world are U.S. allies. Although the United States frequently (and justifiably) chides NATO members for not spending enough on defense, even without the United States, NATO still spends about three times as much on defense each year as Russia does. Indeed, any combination of Germany, France and the UK greatly outspends Russia on defense. And this doesn’t factor in other countries like Japan, which itself has a military budget that is over half that of Russia’s. No Russian allies come anywhere close in terms of the contribution they could make to any war effort.
This article first appeared several years ago.