The Trouble with Missiles

Russian Army's MI-28 attack helicopter flies as salute cannons fire during a show at a shooting range in Alabino, outside of
Russian Army's MI-28 attack helicopter flies as salute cannons fire during a show at a shooting range in Alabino, outside of Moscow, Russia, on Tuesday, June 16, 2015. Russia’s military this year alone will receive over 40 new intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of piercing any missile defences, President Vladimir Putin said Tuesday in a blunt reminder of the nation’s nuclear might amid tensions with the West over Ukraine. (AP Photo/Ivan Sekretarev)

On October 7, 2015, four ships belonging to the Caspian Sea flotilla of the Russian Navy fired 26 long-range "Kaliber" cruise missiles (officially referred to as the 3M-14 by Russia, or by its NATO designation, SS-N-30), at 11 targets inside Syria. According to the Russians, all 26 missiles hit their targets. According to unnamed Pentagon officials, four of the 26 did not, falling instead into a "mostly rural" area of Iran, where two of the missile's 1,000 pound warheads detonated, causing damage to some buildings and possibly several civilian casualties. Both the Russian and Iranian governments vehemently deny these claims, and the United States has provided no factually-based evidence to sustain these unsourced allegations.

On the surface, claims that four cruise missiles failed to reach their targets should have generated little alarm or concern among either military professionals or those in the media who report on such matters. After all, the United States has been employing naval-fired long range cruise missiles - the BGM-109, or "Tomahawk" - in combat operations since 1991, and the reality associated with operational malfunctions and other technical issues that arise from the employment of technologically advanced weapons systems are known all-too-well. During the Gulf War in 1991, 297 Tomahawks were attempted to be fired by the US Navy. Nine failed to leave their launch tubes, and six suffered booster malfunctions which caused them to fall into the water shortly after launch, representing a 5% failure rate on launch. Of the 282 missiles successfully launched, 245 hit their targets; 37 did not. The Pentagon claims that Iraq shot down between two and six Tomahawks, meaning that between 31 and 35 Tomahawks went "astray", or around 12% of the missiles launched. These calculations are consistent with the Pentagon's claims of an approximate 85% success rate for the Tomahawk during that conflict.

In the coming decade, Iraq continued to be the favorite target for American cruise missiles - 46 were attempted to be launched against a manufacturing plant outside Baghdad in January 1993 (42 left their tubes, 34 of which hit their intended target); 25 were fired at the Iraqi Intelligence Service's headquarters in June 1993 (23 of which launched, 16 hitting their target), 44 against Iraqi air defense sites in August 1996 (31 hitting their target), and 325 against a wide variety of targets in December 1998 (there is no data on how many of these actually hit their target - the Pentagon assigned a success rate of around 90%, meaning less than 300 did so.) In every instance, missiles went astray and struck unintended targets, causing significant damage and civilian casualties. Although the Navy began employing improved versions of the Tomahawk in the late 1990's, the problem with missiles going awry did not go away - the Serbian government reported missiles hitting the water and striking civilian buildings after a barrage of 13 Tomahawks was fired into Bosnia in September 1995, and later, in 1999, when some 219 Tomahawks were fired at targets in Serbia. Similar issues with malfunctioning Tomahawks plagued US cruise missile attacks against Sudan, Libya, Afghanistan and Yemen over the years. And, more recently, ISIS has recovered the remains of two Tomahawk missiles launched on 22-23 September 2014 that failed to reach their targets (out of 47 launched.)

Operational failures, however tragic the consequences, are a reality of modern warfare, where increasingly sophisticated weapons systems like the Tomahawk are employed on a regular basis. While both Russia and Iran deny there were any operational failures among the 26 "Kalibr" cruise missiles fired at targets in Syria on October 7, it would not be surprising if there had been, and in any case such failures, in and of themselves, would not constitute headline-grabbing news. What drives the news-worthiness of the reporting is the political spin being put on the alleged missile failures by the Pentagon - that the Russian missiles don't work as advertised, and that Iranian territory was somehow violated as a result of these failures. The military value of precision-guided long-range cruise missiles has been amply demonstrated by the United States, and since 1991 American military forces have enjoyed a virtual monopoly on their use (Great Britain also fields the BGM-109 as a submarine-launched weapon, and has employed its Tomahawks on a limited number of occasions in joint military strikes together with the United States navy.) The fact that Russia has now joined the ranks of nations with an operational capability to strike with precision high-value targets at a range of nearly 1,000 miles is a clear propaganda victory for the Russians, one the Pentagon appears very keen on blunting through the release of its unsubstantiated claims of Russian missile failures.

The real story, according to the spin being placed on the story by the Pentagon (and willingly echoed by an all-too compliant American media) is the alleged violation of Iranian territory that occurred when these missiles hit earth. The goal in emphasizing this aspect of the story ("Russian missiles headed for Syria landed in Iran" announced CNN on its website) is clear - to generate some sort of political fallout within Iran over a violation of its territorial sovereignty. The United States knows all-to-well the potential backlash that can occur when a cruise missile goes astray - in late March, 2003, the United States was compelled to reposition ships in the Mediterranean and Red Seas when seven Tomahawk missiles intended for Iraq wound up on Turkish and Saudi Arabian soil, prompting both those governments to close their air space to American cruise missiles. Three other stray Tomahawks ended up hitting targets in Iran, prompting the Iranian government to file official complaints with the British and Swiss embassies (the Swiss represent American interests in Iran, given the lack of diplomatic relations between the two.) Perhaps the Pentagon was hoping to anger anti-Russian elements among the Iranian body politic, generating the same sort of diplomatic brouhaha it experienced in 2003.

If so, then whomever in the Pentagon who made the decision to leak the information about the alleged Russian missile failures has little or no appreciation of either history or current affairs. In 1991, the United States deliberately routed hundreds of its Tomahawk missiles over Iranian territory to take advantage of readily identifiable terrain features required by the guidance system of the BGM-109 to navigate toward its intended target inside Iran. This was done without any permission being sought by the United States, or given by Iran, prior to the missiles being launched, and understandably angered the Iranian government when it detected the missiles flying over its territory. This blatant disregard on the part of the United States for the territorial integrity of Iran in 1991 influenced the Iranian reaction in 2003, when it supported the American attack on Iran but protested the violation of its territory by the errant Tomahawk missiles.

Unlike the United States in 1991 and 2003, Russia not only sought the permission of Iran (and Iraq, for that matter, since the 26 "Kalibr" missiles launched in the Caspian Sea were required to pass over Iraqi territory as well prior to hitting their targets inside Syria), but fully integrated the Iranian, Iraqi and Syrian militaries into the planning and implementation of the missile strikes. This coordination was announced by all four parties when they set up a joint planning and intelligence sharing apparatus in Baghdad last month, so any intent on the part of the Pentagon to somehow "expose" the Russian-Iranian military cooperation in Syria by announcing that Russian missiles fell into Iranian territory was misspent effort.

The crude nature of the Pentagon's blatant anti-Russian propaganda campaign following the Russian cruise missile attack inside Syria only underscores the difficult position the Russian missile attacks have placed the United States, both regionally and globally. The Russians have invited the United States to coordinate its military operations in Iraq and Syria with the new joint Russian-Iraqi-Iranian-Syrian headquarters in Baghdad; the Americans adamantly refuse to do so. As a result, the American embassy in Iraq receives a gruff warning from a Russian officer about the closure of Syrian airspace hours before Russian operations begin, compelling the United States Air Force to suspend operations in an effort to de-conflict military assets (in short, to prevent a situation where Russian and American aircraft might come into contact with one another.)

While American aircraft operate with the permission of the Iraqi government over Iraq, they have no such permission from the Syrian government for the operations conducted in the airspace of that nation, in effect placing the United States outside international law in that regard. The Russians, on the other hand, operate in Syria at the invitation of the Syrian government, and as such its operations have a legal standing that take precedent over anything the United States (and the entire American-led anti-ISIS coalition) seeks to accomplish in Syria. The Russians, in effect, control the entirety of Syria's airspace, and are able to dictate the pace and scope of the American and coalition air strikes in Syria simply by doing business as it best sees fit - including launching cruise missiles from the Caspian Sea. The United States has no legal ground upon which to stand when it comes to protesting the Russian actions.

But the real harm comes from the loss of American prestige suffered as a result of Russia's stunning display of the kind of military prowess previously thought to be the sole purview of the United States military (and, to a lesser extent, its proxy, Great Britain), and the loss of face that comes with the accompanying regional and global realization that when it comes to the great game being played out today in regard to Syria, Russia holds nearly all the cards. The Russian missile strike was part of a major coordinated offensive launched by the Syrian Army, with Russian and Iranian military advice and assistance, against anti-regime forces that are supported by the United States and its allies. This new flexing of Syrian military muscle occurred simultaneously with the announcement by Secretary of Defense Ash Carter of the suspension of the failed effort by the Pentagon to train and equip a viable anti-regime military force.

The message emerging from these dueling announcements is clear - while America scrambles to piece together the semblance of a coherent Syrian policy while Russia, together with its Iranian and Syrian allies, effectively executes one. This is the backstory that underpins the non-story of alleged Russian missile failures - Russia is succeeding while America fails. Given the track record of American policy in the Middle East over the past decade (Iraq, Libya, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Syria), perhaps this is a good thing. One thing is for certain - the kind of empty propaganda ploys represented by the leaked "news" about Russian cruise missile malfunctions may resonate in American living rooms, but fall on deaf ears where they matter most, on the ground inside Syria, and in the homes of the Iraqi and Iranian citizens who support their respective nations efforts to shore up the embattled regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and stop the spread of ISIS.