Edited by Desi Tzoneva
The Russian military forces first used the Kalibr missile system (NATO codename: ‘Sizzler’) in Syria recently against terrorists from Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) and Jabhat al-Nusra. Soon afterwards, experts began comparing the new Russian cruise missiles with the popular US missile system, the Tomahawk. However, there are limited grounds for comparing these two weapons systems, mainly because of the duration of their tactical use. The Tomahawk has been used in combat operations since 1983 and has experienced four modernisations, while the Kalibr passed into service only in 2012. Moreover, unlike the Tomahawk, the Russian missile system was tested in combat for the first time only recently.
The first cruise missile, the Tomahawk, was launched from the USS Merrill (DD-976), an American destroyer ship, in March 1980. In June of the same year, the UGM-109, the underwater version of the Tomahawk system, ran an armament test. The development of the military project lasted for two more years until 1983, when the missile system passed into service. The Tomahawk cruise missiles were first used in Iraq during 1991 and became a symbol for the American idea of non-contact warfare.
When the US first tried out the Tomahawk missiles during the operation Desert Storm, the Western media strongly praised its combat results. However, in 1992 the New York Times and the Washington Post published an official report of the US Department of Defence (USDOD), which described the lessons learned by the US military during the Gulf War and showed the real state of events, including the true capabilities of the Tomahawk.
US warships and submarines launched 288 Tomahawk cruise missiles at stationary objects in Iraq. Only 50% of the missiles managed to hit their targets. Some experts consider this estimate optimistic. However, the Pentagon refused to discuss the efficiency of the missile strikes as many of the weapon combat usage estimates were classified.
Four years later, it was admitted that the Tomahawk cruise missile system was even less effective. It was brought into line with much cheaper weapons.
The Tomahawk cruise missile system has been in service for around 30 years. This fact must be taken into account when the current technical level of this weapon is estimated. The missiles have been constantly upgraded during these years.
Today, the US Navy is equipped with 3 500 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The majority of these missiles are RGM/UGM-109E Block 4. The tactical fourth generation Tomahawk is the main modification currently in service.
For the last 30 years, the US military forces have launched more than 2 000 Tomahawk missiles. In 2014, 47 missiles were fired at ISIS military objects. In most cases, the cruise missiles were used to hit vital pin-point targets.
The main weak points of the modern Tomahawk systems are a relatively low flight speed; a large range of salvo fire near the target; difficulties with electronic warfare systems; a long cycle of flight correction, which allows using Tomahawk missiles only against stationary targets; and no high-gravity manoeuvre capabilities for resisting air defence systems and no ghost target capabilities.
While the Tomahawk cruise missile system is constantly being upgraded to eliminate its weak points, it remains the main weapon for tactical pin-point attacks.
Russian military forces first used the Kalibr cruise missile system in Syria. The missiles were launched from warships and submarines at stationary targets.
On 7 October 2015, the warships of the Russian Caspian fleet fired 26 missiles at 11 ISIS targets in three Syrian governorates (Al-Raqqah, Idlib and Aleppo). The target distance was over 1 500 kilometres (km). The targets included weapons factories, command centres, ammunition warehouses, weapons storages, fuel depots and terrorist training camps. On 20 November 2015, the Caspian fleet warships launched another 18 Kalibr cruise missiles at seven terrorist targets in the same regions.
On 8 December 2015, the Russian submarine ‘Rostov-on-Don’ launched four missiles underwater from the Mediterranean Sea aimed at two ISIS targets in Al-Raqqah. The targets included a mine factory and an ammunition warehouse.
A total of 51 cruise missiles have been fired to date. The Kalibr missile system has been tested in real combat conditions. It is too early to estimate the cost of one missile and one launch, but the new Russian cruise missile has shown strong potential.