Following the escalation in tension between NATO and Russia after Turkey’s shooting down of a Russian jet in Syria on Tuesday, direct military confrontation between the West and Russia is at an all time high.
What many people underestimate is the advanced nature of Russia’s defence complex and their creative approach to weaponry.
Below are 4 things that the West should worry about if a World War III scenario with Russia were to occur.
Nobody should doubt Russian rocket science. After all, they have provided all the manned flights to the International Space Station since the retirement of the Space Shuttle in 2011, and Russia’s military rockets have a long pedigree.
In 1973, new Soviet-built guided anti-tank missiles carried by Egyptian infantry decimated Israeli armor in their first large-scale use on the battlefield. Similarly, Russian SA-7 “Strela,” a shoulder-launched heat-seeking surface-to-air missile, gave the Israeli Air Force real problems in the same 1973 conflict. They did not shoot down many aircraft, but forced pilots to change tactics. Portable missiles meant a plane could not just cruise over looking for targets. The SA-7 was the contemporary of an American missile, the FIM-43 Redeye. Both weapons were limited to shooting at the jet exhaust of receding aircraft only; the Russians introduced an upgraded Strela-3 which could tackle aircraft head-on in 1974, a capability which the US could not match until the FIM-92 Stinger arrived in 1982.
Russian surface-to-air missiles are still formidable, hence the long-running concerns over the possible supply of the advanced S-300 system to Iran. The Russians themselves have a more sophisticated air-defense system, the S-400, which they are now set to deploy inSyria. These are dangerous weapons. Far from being backward, the Russian developers have “mastered the difficult embedded software technology so critical for radar and electronic warfare system,” according to analyst Carlo Kopp.
In air-to-air combat, the Russians have long pursued an approach of firing salvoes rather than single shots. Planes like the Su-27 Flanker may carry a dozen missiles, launching two or three at a time. The missiles have different guidance types—a mixture of infra-red and radar-guided—that makes jamming or avoiding all of them difficult, and gives a high chance of a kill. A radar-guided missile may be fired alongside another missile that homes in on radar jamming, guaranteeing a hit whether or not a jammer is used.
Russian aircraft’s missiles are sophisticated, too. The Russian Vympel R-73 dogfight missile has an “off-boresight” capability to hit targets not directly in front of the aircraft. It was introduced in 1982, and NATO planners soon noted the advantage it gave Russian pilots in a close-quarters fight compared to their equivalent, the AIM-9 Sidewinder. U.S. pilots did not gain the same off-boresight capability until the AIM-9X version of the Sidewinder more than 20 years later. Meanwhile, the Russian R-73 has enjoyed several upgrades, and missile buffs still argue about which is better.
For longer-range air combat (40 miles or more) the Russians have the Vympel R-77, another advanced piece of hardware. The latest version has an Active Phased Array Antenna that gives it “zero reaction time to unexpected evolutions of the target,” according to the designers. Called the “can’t miss missile”, the K-77M appears to be more sophisticated than the current version of the West’s equivalent, the AIM-120 AMRAAM. War Is Boring writes that, “The U.S. military doesn’t have anything like it … or adequate defenses.” The K-77M was revealed in 2013 and may already be in production.
In any conflict, US warplanes will be heavily dependent on stealth technology to make them invisible to radar and give them the edge. Of course the Russians have long been working on counter-stealth systems. For example the Russian 55Zh6ME air defense radar released in 2013 has multiple radar modules working at different wavelengths. It is easy to design an aircraft that is invisible at one wavelength, but progressively harder the more wavelengths involved. We do not know how well this counter-stealth radar works, but aviation guru Bill Sweetman points out that the Russians have had 25 years to work on it.
The Weird Stuff
The Russians also have a surprising ability to think out of the box—for good and bad. For example, the Shkval rocket-torpedo forms a bubble around itself, reducing friction to travel at an amazing 230 mph under water – more than four times as fast as any Western torpedo. The same work produced a unique underwater assault rifle for Special Forces; US development in similar “supercavitating” projectiles lags behind.
This oddball thinking extends to the strategic arena. In 2012, Putin wrote an article for Rossiiskaya Gazeta on the strategic military balance in which he advocated “weapons systems based on new principles: beam, geophysical, wave, genetic, psychophysical and other technology.”
Some of this is dubious. In the field of new wave principles, the Soviets started research into Torsion field weapons in 1987. These are supposed energy fields (not recognized by Western science) with electrical and gravitational effects, and researchers promised to use them to shoot down ballistic missiles. A review by the USSR Academy of Sciences in 1991 concluded that torsion fields were a scam to get money, having attracted some five hundred million roubles of state funding (roughly $15 billion dollars).
Russian research into so-called “psychotronic” weapons for mind control has been similarly fruitless. “Geophysical weapons” to create earthquakes remain imaginary, though one Russian analyst suggested earlier this year that the Yellowstone supervolcano might be triggered with a nuclear strike to destroy the US. So there’s that.
We can still expect the unexpected. A recent Russian TV news report appears to have leaked Putin’s plans for a unmanned submarine carrying a 10-megaton dirty bomb. This would be detonated at a port city, submarine base, or other coastal site, spreading a lethal radioactive cloud over a wide area. The main purpose of this unusual delivery method seems to be bypassing any possible antimissile defences.
Scare stories notwithstanding, the Russians are unlikely to have any exotic superweapons. But it is dangerous for the rest of the world to underestimate its capability. A regional conflict in Syria may not be a pushover against second-rate forces with outdated equipment, but could turn into something very much bloodier.