04 May 2010

Emerging Threats Series: Concealed Cruise Missiles

This is the second installment of al Sahwa's Emerging Threats Series, which is designed to identify a future threat to our Nation's security and offer plausible solutions to counter the threat.

A Russian defense contracting company, Concern Morinformsystem-AGAT, unveiled a prototype weapon system at the 12th Defense Services Asia Conference (April 19-22, 2010). The prototype weapon system is a cruise missile system concealed in a standard 40 foot shipping container, see their promotional video here.

The Club-K missile system is reported to be able to launch the 3M-54TE, 3M-54TE1, and the 3M-14TE cruise missiles. To get an idea of what their capabilities are, you can read up on the 3m-14 specs here. The missiles come in two varieties, anti-ship and ground attack. From the video, their current model has a one man control station at the front of the container.

After watching the video, it is clear that Concern Moreinformsystem-AGAT is marketing their prototype to anyone who views the United States Military as a clear and present danger. The reported price tag for one Club-K container is $20 million, and CM-AGAT spokesmen state their system will be built to order, in an attempt to alleviate fears that a non-Nation State actor could purchase their system outright. This weapon system is undoubtedly something most nations would be interested in adding to their home defense arsenal. Iran already has a plethora of anti-ship missiles; however, this would be a great addition to Iran's strike options, considering this system would have a high chance of surviving a preemptive strike. Another nation that has a history of purchasing Russian weapon systems is Venezuela. This weapon system could complicate difficult situations as the recent Venezuela/Columbia spat. It is obvious that having a concealed cruise missile weapons system would force the US to be more cautious in future use of boots on the ground, but what about transnational terror threats?

CM-AGAT claims their methods of sale will ensure terror organizations won't be able to purchase their weapon. While it is true that al Qaeda won't buy this weapon system from CM-AGAT out right, I think we have to recognize that nations like Iran have no qualms in providing groups like Hamas and Hezbollah weapons. The primary limiting factor for a terror organization utilizing this system is most likely the satellite navigation system. A non-Nation State organization would probably need access to a Nation State's satellite infrastructure, although this is strictly a personal assumption. I think it is important to "white board" some worst case scenarios.

Iran could complicate any blockade option by using this weapon system as a hedge against our ability to target their known anti ship missile systems. While other anti-ship missiles have a longer range, this system could be loaded onto a ship trying to run through a blockade or be used along their coast line. Thankfully our Navy has a sophisticated anti-missile defense capability, but what about other nations who may take part in a future blockade?

This weapon system could wreak havoc in the Malacca Strait where 30% of the World's trade and over 50% of the World's oil pass through yearly. I think the primary threat would be a ship launched missile from nations other than Malaysia and Indonesia since it would be bad for business. Robert Kaplan, in an article written for the Foreign Policy Magazine, called the Malacca Strait, "the future Fulda Gap. A weapon system such as the Club-K, will only add instability to a flash point such as this.

Piracy has already shown its ability to hijack ships carrying weapons, seen here. Since this weapon is housed in a shipping container, it automatically makes this a prime possibility for sale to a transnational terror organization, through piracy. Again, I do not know the true feasibility of use for such a weapon, due to the navigation system, but do we want to bet a future conflict that transnational terrorism could not operate the Club-K missile system?

Finally, this weapon's portability highlights our Homeland Security's weak underbelly. Homeland Security reports that in 2006, over 32,000 containers arrived at American ports daily. They also state that 86% of all containers are subjected to their pre-screening process. It is not stated, and rightly so, what exactly their screening process entails. It is important to highlight that the most basic screening methods would identify a system such as the Club-K; however, by the Homeland Security's own admission, roughly 4,500 containers that land in America daily are not screened at all. As we have seen in our airport security, the screening process doesn't always work, and that is when 100% of the people are screened to some extent. In a given year, over 1.6 million containers enter the United States unscreened. What if just one Club-K system slips through? The manufacturer could create a remote launch option as well as pre-programed flight paths. Washington D.C is well within range of the Club-K missile system delivered to the Newport News port area. It wouldn't even need to leave the shipping yard.

I don't think we could accurately keep tabs on every Club-K system built in Russia and shipped abroad. The best deterrence for us is to continue to improve our screening process of shipping containers, both in the United States and at their point of departure. The current missile defense proposal is not designed to stop a system such as the Club-K. Improving port security is currently our best option.

1 comment:

  1. Based on fiscal cost and the military value of the missiles I think we can safely assume that a terrorist group or foreign military would be unlikely to try to sneak such a weapon into the U.S through regular shipping. If we take the 86% given by Homeland Security to be accurate, then I think we can assume that perhaps 70-some percent are given a proper check with the extra 16% to be a quick check. If I were planning an attack on the U.S I would decide that it would be too dangerous politically and in terms of security to risk sending one of those missiles, instead I would focus on an older model*. By politically I mean that investigating where the missile had been sold to it would be very embarrassing for the state that had originally bought it. Of course I might try going through Canadian border or by boat along the southern border, but those options carry additional dangers.

    Abroad however, it is a more serious concern. While a missile being used against a blockading ship would be more likely to lead to war than anything else, its use in wartime at certain areas of shipping could be dangerous.