During his recent talks in Washington with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Russian defense minister Anatoly Serdyukov announced that Russia would supply Syria with P-800 Yakhont cruise missiles.
The Yakhont (a type of precious stone in Russian) is the export version of the 3M55 Oniks missile, called SS-N-26 in the West. It is a supersonic anti-ship cruise missile, powered by a combination of rocket engine (accelerator) and ramjet engine for cruising.
Its range is between 120 to 300 kilometers, depending on the route chosen. It can be fired from ships, submarines, airplanes, or ground launchers. It carries a payload of 200 kilograms of explosives, and is guided to its target by a combination of inertial navigation (or perhaps satellite navigation as well – apparently GLONASS satellites) and active radar seekers.
It is not clear whether the missile has the ability to attack land targets. Such an attack is much more complicated, both because of the need to evade obstacles on land during a low flight, and because of the technological difficulty in identifying a specific land target through radar.
The missile supplied by the manufacturer is packaged with its launcher, and operation and maintenance are therefore supposed to be simple.
The missile has an Indian version as well, developed in a joint Indian-Russian project and called BrahMos (after the Brahmaputra and Moscow rivers). The missile was tested successfully in India and is intended to be used by ships of the Indian fleet.
The Yakhont’s big advantage is its speed: it is a supersonic missile, with a speed of Mach 2.0-2.5. Its typical flight path involves flying at high altitude (which allows faster speeds and longer ranges) and diving to a height of “sea skimming” before crossing the horizon to its target (some 15-25 kilometers from the target), and flying to the target at a height of 3-4 meters above the water. Because of its great speed, only 20-25 seconds elapse between the time it is discovered by the target and the time of the hit.
If the missile is supplied to Syria, it will almost certainly be the land version that serves as a coastal defense system (a substitute for the outmoded Styx and Sepal missiles that were in Syria’s possession). The poor condition of the Syrian fleet will likely prevent its ships from carrying the missile, nor does the Syrian air force have planes capable of carrying it.
If fired from a coastal launcher, the missile can reach the northern coast of Israel up to approximately the Tel Aviv line, as well as the entire area of the sea up to Cyprus. If stationed in Lebanon, it can cover all of Israel’s coasts up to the Gaza Strip coast. This has significance for the Israeli navy’s freedom of action, as well as for civilian shipping lanes in wartime.
Syria is not the only Middle Eastern customer that has been promised this system. The system was offered to Iran in 2001 and again in 2007, but the deal was never completed.
Syria has not purchased any significant weapon system from Russia since the fall of the Soviet Union; the only purchases were the Kornet-E anti-tank missiles (some of which ultimately reached Hizbollah), and the Pantsyr-S1 air defense system. In the past year, Syria was offered a number of MiG-31 planes (almost certainly to be used for intelligence missions). Other Syrian requests, such as the S-300 air defense system or the Iskander-E surface-to-surface missiles, were refused.
Russia generally uses the supply of weapons to achieve influence in the international arena, especially as it has few other ways to gain influence. In most cases, refusal to supply, changes in timing, and so on serve as political messages. If so, what is the reason for this turnaround in the Russian policy of supplying weapons to Syria?
In recent years, Syria has turned into a key regional player for Russia, whereby Russia is hoping to improve its international standing and become an influential actor in the Middle East. Syria has a similar consideration of exploiting its relations with Russia to promote its interests. The timing of the Yakhont announcement suggests that Russia is dissatisfied with what it sees as its lack of appropriate inclusion in the peace process. Russia proposed holding a conference on the peace process in Moscow and serving as a mediator, including on the Syrian channel. It also appears that Russia is worried by the American effort to revive the Syrian channel without including Russia. It is possible that its willingness to supply these missiles is a way to satisfy or encourage Syria regarding the desirable policy toward Russia. The missiles also indirectly challenge the United States (they are a possible threat to the Sixth Fleet), and thus a message is sent to the US as well. As for Israel, even though there is rather positive progress on the bilateral front, including the reported signing of a security cooperation agreement, the possibility that Russia has additional considerations connected to Israel, both in the overall regional context and the bilateral context, cannot be ruled out.
Nevertheless, the type of weaponry chosen in this context, while not innocuous, is nevertheless of a less “problematic” type. After all, advanced air defense systems, ground-to-ground missiles, advanced fighter planes, and other tools from Syria's list could also have been supplied – but were not. Therefore, one might argue that this is a “sensitive” move on the part of the Russians that does not defy the interests of other actors on the scene. And ultimately, there is a reasonable possibility, as has already been proven more than once in the past, that if these missiles are supplied, it will be only after prolonged foot dragging.
The Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) is an independent academic institute that studies key issues relating to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. Through its mixture of researchers with backgrounds in academia, the military, government, and public policy, INSS is able to contribute to the public debate and governmental deliberation of leading strategic issues and offer policy analysis and recommendations to decision makers and public leaders, policy analysts, and theoreticians, both in Israel and abroad. As part of its mission, it is committed to encourage new ways of thinking and expand the traditional contours of establishment analysis.