Recently, Russia released new video of the KH-35U “switchblade” anti-ship cruise missile in action, a weapon that can be fired from surface ships or aircraft and flies extremely quickly towards target ships, which are then destroyed in a massive explosion.
The video shows a Su-34 being prepared for takeoff, then jumps to ships being struck by a missile before cutting again to a Su-34 landing. The KH-35U carries an over-1,000-pound warhead and is reportedly capable of destroying vessels of up to 5,000 tons.
The Russians test fired eight missiles during the exercise, according to the Russian Defence Ministry, and all eight hit their targets.
The missile video is impressive and fun to watch, but it’s left many U.S. observers worrying. Russia claims the weapon is impossible to stop and that it renders all current ship defenses powerless.
Both the Su-57 and the T-14 were impressive programs on paper that slowly wilted in the bright light of day. Now, there are few orders for either platform, even from within Russia, as the capabilities ended up being low and the costs high.
(Alex Beltyukov and Vitaly V. Kuzmin, CC BY-SA)
But these are Russian defense claims about a Russian weapon, so it’s prudent to take them with a grain of salt. After all, the T-14 Armata and PAK FA (which became the Su-57) programs haven’t lived up to the hype.
But the KH-35U is a fielded weapon. The first KH-35 came out in the 1980s, and the U variant has been in the field for years. It flies close to the water, can be fired from aircraft ranging from helicopters to jets, and can be carried by surface ships. If Russia’s claims are accurate, it can eliminate destroyers and littoral combat ships with just one shot. Carriers would likely be crippled or destroyed with a shot, but certainly couldn’t withstand sustained bombardment.
A ship is destroyed by a KH-35U anti-ship cruise missile during a Russian test.
So, should America be shaking in its boots? Well, the target ship in the Russian video is a stationary, civilian vessel, and hitting that with a missile is a far cry from getting a cruise missile into the hull of an American carrier sailing at a decent clip with its Phalanx close-in weapon systems firing off rounds.
That, and the missile has a range of approximately 185 miles. Meanwhile, the Super Hornets that protect carriers have a range of 500 miles, and the Navy is already looking to increase that range with the addition of conformal fuel tanks, fuel tanks semi-permanently added to the aircraft that would increase range by 300 miles.
Meanwhile, the F-35C will have a range about 10 percent greater before aerial refueling. So, aircraft carriers will have plenty of breathing room as long as they keep the radars and patrols up.
But some task forces have little-to-no jet support, and a Su-34 or a similar aircraft could get within range and release the missile. And what’s worse is that the Russians may have already sold the missile to at least one other country. North Korea’s Kumsong-3 anti-ship cruise missile bears a striking resemblance to the KH-35U, meaning that a rogue state may be able to strike American ships from 500 miles away.
Though, again, we should avoid getting too far into speculation without our grains of salt. After all, the Russian military has a history of stripping down the export versions of their weapons, just like the U.S. And, ownership of a missile doesn’t mean you have the expertise and tactical excellence to properly employ it.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Navy is still working on a Tomahawk variant that could be used in an anti-ship configuration. It has an expected range of over 1,000 miles, same as the land-attack variant with years of successful service. That would allow the U.S. Navy to strike Russian ships carrying the KH-35U from 835 miles outside of the Russian engagement envelope.
So, enjoy the Russian propaganda, but sleep well tonight. The KH-35U demonstration is an impressive fireworks display, but it doesn’t represent a Russian technology edge against anyone but fishermen.