Surface Forces: Improvised Russian Missile Corvettes

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July 28, 2023: The primary weapon of the Russian navy in the Ukraine War has been the Kalibr cruise missile. This meant Kalibr-equipped Russian warships in the Black Sea were a priority. That led to using additional Kalibr-armed ships based in the Black Sea ports on the Crimean Peninsula.. The two classes of small ships available were Karakurts and Bykovs

At the end of 2018 the Russian Navy achieved a rare feat, it put into service the first of two classes of new warships and did it on time. The first of 22 Karakurt (Project 22800) Corvettes entered service in the Baltic Sea. Nine more are in various states of construction in three shipyards. This is a new type of coastal corvette that is more capable on the open seas. Some of them are being built in the Crimean shipyards Russia acquired in 2014 when they basically took Crimea from Ukraine. The was followed by the similar Bykov-class patrol ships. Russia has been building a lot more small corvettes since the 1990s for a number of reasons. First, the Russian shipyards have proved more effective in building these small (under 1,000 tons) ships. Then there is the great need for heavily armed corvettes to serve as a low-cost patrol vessel that can handle just about anything it runs into during coastal patrols and can even be useful in wartime. Finally, there is a growing export market for this type of ship.

The Karakurts are 800 ton ships that are 65 meters (213 feet) long and have a top speed of 56 kilometers an hour. They are armed with one 76mm cannon, eight launch tubes holding 1.2 ton 3K14 Kalibr anti-ship missiles (range 300 kilometers) or P800 anti-ship missiles (range 600 kilometers), two 14.5mm machine-guns, two AK-630 multibarrel 30mm autocannon for close range defense against missiles and aircraft and 32 57E6 anti-aircraft missiles (range 20 kilometers). There is also a launching pad for large helicopter UAVs. The crew of 30 can stay at sea for 15 days at a time before needing to refuel and resupply. Each Karakurt cost approximately $30 million.

The Bykovs are 1,300-ton ships with armament and performance similar to those of the Karakurts. Only six Bykovs were ordered. Five are in service and that sixth one will do so by the end of 2023.

Russia recently announced improvements in its primary submarine-launched missile, the 3M54/14, also known as the SS-N-27, Sizzler or Klub/Kalibr. This was mainly for the benefit of current and potential export customers and was based on experience during the Syrian campaign. Many Russian and some Indian, Vietnamese, Algerian and Chinese subs are already equipped with Kalibr. Even before the Syrian campaign the Kalibr (Klub is the less capable export version) had growing pains that the Russians appear to have remedied.

For example, India was an early adopter but encountered reliability problems in 2010 when there were repeated failures of the Klub during six test firings. The missiles were fired off the Russian coast using an Indian Kilo class submarine, INS Sindhuvijay. That boat went to Russia in 2006 for upgrades. India refused to pay for the upgrades, or take back the sub until Russia fixed the problems with the missiles, which Russia eventually did.

The Kalibr 3M14 land-attack cruise missile version had been around since the 1990s but had a lot of problems. These were addressed and the 3M14 officially entered service in 2012. This version has turned out to be the most popular and most frequently used. Russia has used it extensively in Syria. The 3M14 was launched from submarines, surface ship and aircraft against targets in Syria. Among the improvements made to the 3M14 based on the Syrian experience was to make it easier to change the target parameters before launch. The latest versions of American Tomahawk also allows targets to be changed while the missile is on the way. Russia is working on that upgrade.

One thing to keep in mind that there are basically two distinct versions of the Kalibr. Most versions are the shorter-range 3M54 anti-ship version with a supersonic final approach speed feature. All of those used in Syria were the 3M14 land attack cruise missile which is basically a Russian version of the American Tomahawk. About a hundred of these were used in Syria, many of them fired at extreme range (over 1,000 kilometers) and a lot of tweaks and fixes were applied to the 3M14 and, where applicable, applied to the 3M54. The anti-ship version does not have any combat experience but the many tests have shown that 3M54 reliability has improved because of the frequent combat use of the 3M14. Each new variant has to undergo several test firings at actual targets after a system modification and this is where the Russians have noted improved reliability and performance with both versions.

Since the first version of 3M54 appeared in 1994 about a dozen anti-ship and land-attack variants have been developed. All are basically designed to be launched from a torpedo tube but the ship/land based and air-launched versions vary in their configuration. As a result 3M54/14 weight varies from 1.3 tons to 2.3 tons. The basic submarine version is launched from a 533mm (21 inch) torpedo tube on a Kilo class or nuclear sub. The 3M54 warheads vary from 400-500 kg (880-1,100 pounds). The anti-ship version has a range of 220-600 kilometers but speeds up to 3,000 kilometers an hour during its last minute or so of flight. The export versions have a shorter range.

The land-attack version does away with the high-speed final approach feature and has a 400 kg (880 pound) warhead. Current versions of the 3M14 have a max range of 2,500 kilometers (with a smaller warhead) and a new version, with a range of 4,500 kilometers, is in development. These longer-range 3M14s are believed to be mainly for use with nuclear warheads.

What makes the 3M54 anti-ship version particularly dangerous is its final approach, which begins when the missile is about 15 kilometers from its target. Up to that point, the missile travels at an altitude of about 30 meters (hundred feet). This makes the missile more difficult to detect. The high-speed approach of the anti-ship version means that it covers that last fifteen kilometers in less than twenty seconds. This makes it difficult for current anti-missile weapons to take it down.

The 3M54 is similar to earlier, Cold War era Russian anti-ship missiles, like the 3M80 ("Sunburn"), which has a larger warhead (300 kg/660 pounds) and shorter range (120 kilometers). Even older is the P700 ("Shipwreck"), with a 550 kilometers range and 750 kg (1,650 pound) warhead. P700 entered service in the 1980s and the improved P-800 in 2002. The first Russian version of the Tomahawk (3M14) was still in development at the end of the Cold War and was finally put into service by 2001 as a land-attack missiles. It took another decade to perfect the anti-ship (3M54) version, as the Indians noted in 2006.

The success of the Kalibr came at the right time because the Russian navy has lots of problems that Kalibr can either solve or make less troublesome. This was clear in 2017 when the Russian defense budget was cut substantially and for the foreseeable future. There were already contingency plans for current procurement programs. For the navy that means fewer new submarines and instead more major refurbishment of boats worth keeping in service. The Russian submarine admirals were hoping they would get the money to build more competitive nuclear boats and put the Americans on the defensive some of the time. But now that goal has to be deferred. The refurbed boats will have better sensors but little can be done to improve noise control (how quiet the sub is underwater). They will not be able to go to sea as much as the American boats but that will mean Russia will have a nuclear submarine force nearly half the size of the American one and, with China building more nuclear boats, the West will still feel threatened at sea. Russia is also depending more on existing Kilo diesel-electric boats and new diesel-electric models with AIP (Air-Independent Propulsion) systems that allow a diesel-electric sub to stay underwater, silently, for several weeks at a time.

 

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