A shot from the dark.
As formidable munitions become easier to conceal and use, the West is intensifying efforts to find out who has them
BY FAR the world’s fastest torpedo, Russia’s rocket-powered VA-111 Shkval (Squall) can slice through the sea for more than 11km at a speed above 370 kilometres per hour. It packs a 210kg warhead and cannot be dodged or stopped by the West’s big warships. Christopher Harmer, a commander in the US Navy until 2011, says vessels must therefore remain beyond the Shkval’s “pretty nasty range”, or strike the enemy above or below water quickly enough to prevent a launch.
No wonder, he says, that the West tries to keep tabs on each model which leaves its manufacturer, Dastan Engineering, a Russian-owned enterprise in Kyrgyzstan. That is hard: unlike big strategic missiles, the Shkval, 8.2 metres (27 feet) long, fits in an ordinary lorry. The resources used to monitor these facilities cannot be revealed, says a former Western naval chief. But, he adds, given the Shkval’s power, “Why wouldn’t you choose everything you had?”
The tracking of Shkval exports is but one part of a broad and increasing effort by the West to track a class of “showstopper” weapons that are both rare and easy to hide. Russia and other countries have stepped up the lucrative export of advanced weapons, especially missiles, designed with an eye to constraining rival Western forces, says Tor Bukkvoll, head of the Russia programme at Norway’s Defence Research Establishment, a defence-ministry body. Such “area denial” munitions allow an attack to be launched without the giveaway of first having to amass troops or hardware.
These weapons can be user-friendly enough even for non-state groups. On July 14th 2006 Hizbullah militants in Lebanon hit an Israeli corvette more than 15km offshore with an Iranian-made C-802 anti-ship missile, killing four sailors and severely damaging the warship. If Israel had known that Hizbullah possessed this weapon, the corvette’s automated countermeasure systems would not have been switched to standby and the attack would have failed, says Alex Tal, a former head of Israel’s navy.
The subsonic C-802 is not even particularly formidable. It is an old variant of a Chinese missile. Newer anti-ship or land-attack missiles fly faster and farther, and dodge interceptors. Their solid fuel means that they can be launched discreetly on short notice, Mr Tal says. Older types such as China’s widely exported Silkworm missiles require lengthy mixing and loading of volatile liquid propellants, a process which can be spotted from planes or satellites. With the newer models, the satellites have to keep watch on lorries leaving factories, which is costly and uncertain.
Among the most feared exports are Russia’s supersonic Klub (3M-54) and Yakhont guided missiles. Faster than their Western counterparts, they can be launched from land batteries, aircraft, ships and submarines, carry large warheads, and reach targets 300km away. The Klub (called the Sizzler by NATO) accelerates to three times the speed of sound in the stretch before striking. Countries publicly known to have the Klub or Yakhont include Algeria, China, India, Syria and Vietnam.
America has “a pretty good idea” of other secret exports, because it tracks ships worldwide, says Lawrence Korb, an assistant secretary of defence under Ronald Reagan who is now at the Centre for American Progress, a think-tank. But countries without such capabilities (or close ties to America) can be left in the dark. Even top-notch spy services are uncertain about some of the most burning questions. Has Syria’s Assad regime passed along some of its Yakhont missiles to Hizbullah for use against Israel? Is Iran’s boast of possessing the Shkval a bluff? Do North Korean subs have it? (Some reports suggest that a Shkval was used to sink a South Korean ship in 2010.) Mr Harmer, now at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington, DC, says that keeping track of every such device manufactured is impossible.
Watching, darklyUncertainty over arsenals is growing as a result of increasing “clandestinisation” of munitions manufacture and transport, says Jim Thomas, a senior Pentagon official until 2007. Now at the Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, another Washington think-tank, Mr Thomas says missiles are now emerging from “dual-use” factories that also ship non-military goods, and from factories made to appear as producers of solely civilian ones. This makes it harder for “squints” (intelligence officers who study satellite and drone imagery) to identify munitions of interest.
Manufacturers are marketing and designing munitions with concealment in mind. A Moscow firm called Concern Morinformsystem-Agat has offered a system of four Klub missiles and an erector, with a control compartment for two operators, all concealed inside a standard shipping container. The “Club-K Container Missile System”, can be transported and fired from a merchant ship, freight train, or lorry. An expert at a European missile-maker says, “before you could see a Klub missile from space; now you can’t—you need spies.”
Israel already relies heavily on human sources to detect arms shipments to its enemies, says Shlomo Brom, a former intelligence officer and retired head of strategic planning at Israel’s General Staff. This is partly because Israel does not have enough satellites to monitor all the far-flung facilities where the most worrisome munitions are made. And arms shipments to Israel’s adversaries, he says, are increasingly disguised as civilian products.
The “vast majority” of munitions leaving Russian ports for Syria now travel on merchant ships that call at commercial ports rather than Russia’s naval base at the Syrian city of Tartus, says Farley Mesko, chief operating officer at C4ADS, an American investigative group. In September it published a report on concealed arms shipments called “The Odessa Network”. Missiles are separated from their bulky launchers and transporters, and travel in containers that could just as well be carrying televisions, he says. Ten Shkvals could fit in just one container.
The spies’ efforts are bearing fruit. In January, May and July Israeli air strikes destroyed Russian- and Iranian-made missiles at locations in Syria. In October Sudan’s government accused Israel of bombing a weapons factory in Khartoum. Military-intelligence officials elsewhere are encouraged. They are pushing for more spies to conduct more missions.
Japan wants greater efforts to go into locating missiles in China and North Korea, says Narushige Michishita, a former specialist on the two countries’ arsenals at Japan’s defence ministry. His country’s intelligence on North Korea’s launching pads and procedures is excellent, he says, thanks largely to a 1998 decision to splurge on optical and radar satellites. But more human intelligence is now needed—North Korea has increased its fleet of “transporter-erector-launcher” lorries for Ro-Dong medium-range ballistic missiles from nine to about 50. Mr Michishita, now at Tokyo’s National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies, says these can lurk inconspicuously while Ro-Dong missiles are taking on their liquid fuel—and then pull out and fire.
At least these weapons are broadly known. The next threat is arms developed in secret, so adversaries will not even know what to look for, says Mr Thomas, the former Pentagon official. Such devices may feature targeting systems which use location co-ordinates freely available from Google Earth. This would give even small and poor attackers the chance to deliver formidable weapons accurately.
Amid the growing demand for good intelligence, smaller countries see a role in helping allies. They may not be targeted by the weapons systems in question, says Todor Tagarev, a former Bulgarian defence minister, but passing nuggets along to bigger allies cultivates goodwill.
Outside the spy world, business is booming too. Big countries may be worried about the threat. But they see an upside too. It is their defence industries which are also the best source of countermeasures to the new weapons. Briefing an ally about threats can also be an implicit sales pitch. Seen this way, says the expert at a European missile-maker, insights from military intelligence are also part of defence-industry marketing.