One thing the Syrian Civil War has done is give Russia the chance to test systems it has developed since the end of the Cold War. In one sense, Russia has needed to prove systems in the field after theT-72 and MiG-29 flopped big-time during Desert Storm.
How badly did they flop? During the 1991 conflict, rounds from a T-72’s main gun bounced of an M1A1 Abrams that was only 400 yards away. MiG-29s failed to do anything but get shot down by American planes. Export sales took a hit – perhaps the only saving grace for Russia was that the collapse of the Soviet Union meant that they could sell their weapons at bargain basement prices. India and China particularly cashed in on “the yard sale at the end of history” during the 1990s.
The end of the Cold War also put development of newer systems on hold for a while. One of those systems was a missile system designated 3M54, which the Russian military calls the Klub, but is known by NATO as the SS-N-27 and SS-N-30 “Sizzler.”
The Sizzler represents a game-changer, particularly for Soviet submarines. During the Cold War, only specialized submarines (the Juliet, Echo, Charlie, and Oscar classes) carried anti-ship missiles. Most Soviet and Russian submarines were stuck with torpedoes, which had a shorter range. Russia also did not deploy a land-attack cruise missile until 1988, near the end of the Cold War, when the Akula and Victor III-class subs received the SS-N-21 Sampson, which was comparable to the Tomahawk.
The Sizzler, like the SS-N-21, can be fired from a submarine’s torpedo tubes. It comes in land-attack and anti-ship varieties. But what makes the Sizzler very deadly against ships is that it can do a dash at over 2,200 miles per hour in the last phase of its attack – about four times the speed of a Harpoon, Tomahawk, or the Navy’s AGM-158C – which is about a distance of ten miles, beyond the range of the Mk 15 Phalanx Close-In Weapons System or the RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile. In short, targets will have a lot less time to react to an incoming threat. The land-attack missiles have a range of up to 1,550 miles – about 55% more than the latest versions of the Tomahawk. Russia’s Kilo-class submarines, as well as the Akula and Yasen classes, are capable of firing this weapon.
The Sizzler is a game-changer in another sense: Russia launched some of them using Gepard-class frigates and Buyan-class corvettes. The Gepard (1,500 tons) and the Buyan (500 tons) are far smaller than the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships (the Freedom displaces 3,500 tons, the Independence displaces 2,176). While the Gepard and Buyan-class vessels are currently assigned to the Black Sea Fleet and the Caspian Sea Flotilla, deployment of one or both classes of vessels to the Baltic Sea Fleet could allow Russia to easily hit targets in Western Europe and Scandinavia. Russia also has developed a version that can operate off of container ships.
In short, Russia has been working very hard to develop new weapons, and the Sizzler shows that their efforts are bearing potentially deadly fruit. While the Islamic State and other Syrian rebel groups are easy pickings for the new systems Russia is now testing in the field, they remain unproven against top-of-the-line defenses. That said, if those missiles were to go up against the U.S., things could be much too close for comfort.