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.