Opinion | National Security

Russia's latest 'wonder weapon' is more propaganda than power

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the view of The Hill

The Russian Navy reportedly has installed non-lethal weaponry aboard the frigates Admiral Gorshkov and Admiral Kasatonov. According to official news agency RIA Novosti, the device, dubbed "Filin," radiates a beam similar to a strobe light during nighttime operations. It is designed to disrupt eyesight among hostile ship crews, impairing their battle effectiveness to Russian advantage. Bonus effects witnessed during Filin testing included hallucinations, nausea and dizziness. Pity the poor test subjects.

That Moscow would field such a weapon is plausible. Indeed, the U.S. armed forces have experimented with non-lethal arms of various genres for many years. There's little cause to doubt the Russian military has followed suit - or that it has scored some successes.

Still, these reports are no cause for panic. Since the Russian device bedazzles eyesight, its targets presumably include bridge crews, lookouts, or weapon crews - in other words, mariners who rely on visual sightings to perform their shipboard duties. The less dependent a hostile ship on what U.S. Navy jokesters call the Mark I Eyeball, the less impactful strobe weapons meant to disorient vision.

In other words, Filin's potency would depend on the type of foe the Russian Navy was confronting. Non-lethal weaponry could confound small craft prowling near-shore waters in, say, the Black Sea or Gulf of Aden - two expanses frequented by Russian ships. For example, speedboats tend to be rudimentary combatants, but they are ubiquitous in offshore waters. No navy can neglect to guard against them despite their winsome size.

If speedboats can pack a wallop, their crews typically aim their weapons the old-fashioned way: point and shoot. They rely on the Mark I Eyeball. Disrupt that crude fire-control system - fire control being the process of detecting and tracking an enemy craft, computing a firing solution and feeding it to the weapons, and letting fly - and an oceangoing navy such as Russia's could frustrate a low-tech antagonist.

Filin would boast fewer prospects against a high-tech opponent such as a NATO navy. It would offer some nuisance value for Russian skippers. After all, lone wolves have used lasers to harass airline pilots - the aerial counterpart to the bridge team aboard ship - in the years since 9/11. Last year the U.S. government accused China's navy of beaming lasers at U.S. military aircraft flying near Djibouti, the Horn of Africa seaport where China and America both operate military bases. Two aviators suffered injuries.

So there's ample precedent for deploying harassment weapons. Camouflage paint schemes applied to ship hulls during the world wars amounted to a passive effort to deceive enemy eyeballs. Light-emitting weaponry is merely an active, far more aggressive version of time-honored deceptive practices.

Bear in mind, though, that modern warships rely less and less on the naked eye to navigate and fight. They handle the fire-control problem chiefly through sensors and computers. For example, the Aegis combat system installed aboard U.S. Navy guided-missile cruisers and destroyers uses "phased-array" radar to detect and track surface and air targets at long range. Computers develop a fire-control solution, pass it to the weapon launcher, and - if so ordered - loft a missile toward the foe. If all goes well, the enemy never comes within visual range.

Filin would accomplish little against sensor- and computer-guided armaments such as these. No Mark I Eyeball to confuse or blind. But there's a bigger question behind the saga of Admiral Gorshkov and Admiral Kasatonov and their gee-whiz weapons: Why advertise that you've fielded any sort of weapon? Aren't military folk secretive by nature, and forever trying to disguise their capabilities to keep prospective adversaries guessing?

It depends. There are good reasons to disclose your capabilities selectively. Strategic competition in times of uneasy peace is about molding perceptions of relative strength and weakness. When no guns or missiles are firing - when there's no battle to determine who wins and who loses - contestants such as the Russian Navy and U.S. Navy strive to convince important audiences back home and abroad that they would win, should war come. The one who comes off as more formidable in the minds of these audiences triumphs in the war of perceptions.

In the process, successful competitors amass a kind of virtual deterrent or coercive power. The Soviet and Russian navies always have been fond of displaying wonder weapons supposedly capable of crippling or sinking U.S. aircraft carriers. This is an Iranian and Chinese pastime to boot. Why? To sow doubt in American commanders' minds, prompting them to keep the fleet far offshore. The farther offshore the better if you're a coastal state staring at U.S. intervention from the sea.

Nor are Western navies a stranger to this practice. A few years back, for example, the U.S. Navy ballyhooed its effort to repurpose its long-range Tomahawk cruise missiles for anti-ship duty. Hostile militaries, in particular China's, have poured vast effort and resources into developing missiles that outrange the U.S. Navy's inventory. Holding a range advantage guarantees you the first shot in anger, and thus amplifies your chances of prevailing in battle. Testing the Tomahawk against a moving target at sea put potential U.S. adversaries on notice that the range advantage had been flipped to American advantage.

Now, modifying hardware and software takes time and resources. It will be some time before upgraded Tomahawks (or other munitions in the works) make their way into fleet missile silos. Even so, strategists in Moscow, Tehran and Beijing must now fret that an American ship might be able to cut loose with missiles long before their vessels can return fire. Any ship packing Tomahawks could be carrying the ship-killing variant - in which case, disaster could result. Doubt is the U.S. Navy's friend - just as it befriends any armed service able to project an image of prowess.

Likewise, Russian leaders now can hint that ships of war equipped with Filin boast the wherewithal to incapacitate enemy ships. And they can tout the new superweapon even if there's, er, less than meets the eye to this new addition to the Russian Navy armory.

Be skeptical.

James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College, coauthor of "Red Star over the Pacific" (second edition newly released), and author of "A Brief Guide to Maritime Strategy" (forthcoming this November). The views voiced here are his alone.

Outbrain