A Tale of Deception and Two Containers

Club K Missile System

As any reader of Think Defence will know, I am constantly on the look out for container related stories, but hadn’t seen anything interesting enough to write about for a while. Then, like buses, two came along at once.

The Club-K

The Club-K anti ship missile system has been in and out of the news for over a year and was accompanied by a slick marketing video to shake the panic tree.

Putting anti ship missiles inside ISO containers does not suddenly solve the other problems of target acquisition and avoidance of offensive and self defence systems from the opposing side but, it puts an interesting slant on negating the overwhelming ISTAR advantages of Western forces and when viewed in likely scenarios where rules of engagement mean target identification is paramount, is potentially very effective at denying access to shipping, or increasing the effort and risk needed to assure that access.

At the recent Technology in Machine-Building 2012 exhibition,  Morinformsistema-Agat, showed another version of the Club-K using a smaller missile, the Kh-35UE cruise missile (NATO SS-N-25 Switchblade) which is equipped with a more advanced seeker, in a 20 foot ISO container.

Club K Missile System - Kh-35UE cruise missile
Club K Missile System – Kh-35UE cruise missiles

The system revealed last year at the MAKS Moscow air show showed four supersonic 3M54TE missiles in a 40′ ISO container.

Club K Missile System - 3M54TE missiles
Club K Missile System – 3M54TE missiles

RIA Novosti reported that although the system is not in service with the Russian armed forces a company representative said;

However, we are in active talks with foreign clients from the Asia-Pacific region

Some might see this as a gimmick and focus on the ability to put these on a ship but I think that misses the point, failing to appreciate how this packaging, for that is all it is, could provide a headache for any forces attacking a nation thus equipped.

One of the huge advantages Western forces enjoy over contemporary enemies is that of ISTAR. Libya was a stark illustration of this, any conventional forces were rapidly located, identified, classified and where necessary, destroyed by a combination of means.

Once found, a missile launcher/erector looks exactly like what it actually is, there is no ambiguity about working out what something like this is…

Shore Based Anti Ship Missile
Shore Based Anti Ship Missile

or this

SSN25 BASTION Missile System Brochure Page 1 BASTION Missile System Brochure Page 2

Our systems are programmed to recognise the distinctive shapes and signatures.

Put them inside the ubiquitous ISO container however, and things get complicated.

In a crowded, complex, congested and contested area of operations how would we first identify one of these?

Typical container and truck
Typical container and truck

In an area like this…

Containers in a city
Containers in a city

Identify it for what it actually is and then attack it.

The art of simple physical equipment deception has pretty much been abandoned by Western forces since WWII

Inflatable Sherman Decoy
Inflatable Sherman Decoy
Inflatable Spitfire Decoy
Inflatable Spitfire Decoy

But those facing us certainly haven’t.

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Every single one of these images is an inflatable decoy and it is not just the visual signature they concentrate on, thermal and even radar emitters are used to make forces with advanced ISTAR systems think they are the real thing. If we concentrate our high technology multi spectral sensors on these I am pretty sure we could tell the difference but they are cheap, easy to mass produce, deploy and move.

Let’s not forget, in Bosnia and Kosovo we spent million of pounds expending air delivered precision munitions on microwave ovens and wood burning stoves.

If there was any doubt and just to be on the safe side we might give genersously provide each one with a Brimstone, Paveway, Storm Shadow or Tomahawk but think about the economics. Libya exposed just how low our stocks of precision munitions are and if a wily enemy has a couple of hundred of these decoys for every half dozen real ones it does not take a genious to figure out that we may well run out and they might get lucky.

Putting missiles in containers is the latest line in low tech military deception and although not a wonder weapon I think it is smarter than many people give it credit for.

Didn’t I say there were two stories, oh yes…

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35 Responses

  1. @ TD – another interesting post. Decoys and deception have been an interest of mine for awhile now.

    Walking around Swansea I’m continually surprised at the number of ISO containers. They are a part of the city scape. You could easy emplace C+C, SSM’s, SAM’s, even artillery and mortars around a city without even the locals knowing about it. The existing containers act as your decoys. And being ship, truck, and rail mobile you can move them around, either to confuse targeting or to where you think they will be needed.

  2. My pants are at risk….tell me why this wouldnt work.
    One of our new carriers sails out of Portsmouth into a barrage of missiles from a container ship in the Channel. Targetting is by someone at Southsea with a mobile phone (or satellite phone if necessary)sending the missile containers a grid square and the missiles are pre-programmed to look for specific targets.
    Would the CIWS systems be up and running? Bit risky having them armed in the channel, and would the necessary RoE be quick enough?
    Do we know what a ship passing through the channel might have on board? The crew of the ship might not even know, throw some bribes around if necessary implying it is just stolen cars or whatever.

  3. My bet is on N.Korea with a possibility of Vietnam being the interested parties East.

    ChrisM, it’s not as bad as you think.

    1) The missile is containerised, but the electronics you need to fire it isn’t something that can be easily hidden. See the 1st and 3rd picture background and you’ll easily spot the FCU (Fire Control Unit).

    2) Ships surprisingly move at a fair clip, blind firing a missile at an MGR/GPS co-ords and expecting a hit is a matter of luck and guesswork. Not to say it can’t happen, but they have to be lucky. This system is more towards static ground emplacement and surprise attacks from a ground based control station.

    That being said, it still is a very good idea of an area denial system. A “minefield of missiles” in other words. The fear itself will keep the enemy away.

    Pity it’s not a Western system. It has a lot of potential. Though if it is a stand alone system, it might be possible to get it as a isolated non-intergrated unit?… And which department would it be under? Starting a “Strategic Missile Service” may not necessarily mean baby ICBMs might be fired, but I can almost guarentee the NEIGHBOURS will go ballistic. :) Our “People’s Defence Force” a.k.a “Please Don’t Fight” has historically been infantry and mech. infantry, not sure if maintaining these is within their capabilities. But damn, it would be nice to have these as port defences.

    Decoys in the West have been neglected, it’s mostly due to the fact that it is less useful to the attacker as compared to the defender, and guess which role the West has been playing recently?

    On a more perverse note, we need inflatable missiles. :) It won’t destroy the target, but it’s one hell of a humourous message to send to a decoy unit.

  4. @Observer
    Any proper anti-ship missile (like SS-N-25 “Harpoonski”) has terminal homing – you use coordinates to get it in roughly the right area, then you let the homing head take over.

    Personally I see this kind of thing more aimed at non-state actors rather than nation states – the sort of thing Iran would give to Hezbollah rather than using themselves, like chemical weapons it’s in the interest of nation states to stigmatise the use of these things (and presumably it would be covered by the treaties on arming civvy ships?)

  5. You would be surpised how to thr trained eye them containers would stand out. First of all they are in a 9′-6″ high box, you can tell by the BIC code. And the Black and Yellow chevron’s. 9′-6″ boxes are around 30% of the market of 40feet boxes. Also as you need access to the fire control at the end, this again narrows it down to where they can be placed on a ship, train, yard ect. They are just a few way’s that someone would be able to spot them.


  6. Great article. Isn’t that an inflatable F-15 between the Mig-25 and Su-27 decoys in the photolist? I bet it was made by Raven Aerostar, an American company.

    Linking inflatables and shipping containers (the wonder of google!) one finds the Blue Devil 2 non-rigid surveillance platform that the USAF has just cancelled to save future costs.

  7. Hmmm – I mentioned possible land uses for the “mission packages” of module containers on my auxilliary cruiser post; perhaps I should do a follow up post?

  8. @El Cid

    The terminal homing is what makes me say “possible”, not “snowball chance in hell”. I agree once the seeker locks on, it’s pretty much follows a conventional attack from there, the problem is that ships really travel at a good speed, I was actually surprised at the distance they could cover when I 1st saw such vessels at sea. This means your estimates of future location has a much bigger area to cover.

    On the other hand, new AESA radars don’t seem to need to conform to the traditional FCU shape, so I won’t be surprised if someone would containerise it for use with container missiles as well.

  9. On the Portsmouth scenario the harbour has a speed limit North of OSB and the channel out is very narrow so with a quick phone call from gun wharf and a little bit of SPD it would not be difficult to put a missile in the correct place. You would however get caught. Other ships would report who fired it and then the intel services would work out who did it. it would be a classic article 5 case so I would move out my palace if I was the flag owner.
    Much simpler to drop a couple of command controlled mines off a pleasure cruise in the channel stand on round tower and detonate them.
    These things come across as unusable by the people who would benefit and unrequired by those who could utilise.

  10. “These things come across as unusable by the people who would benefit and unrequired by those who could utilise.”

    Not totally APATs.

    I do see some use for them as area denial weaapons for a civilian port with high container trafic during times of war, though actually deploying them during daily port operations would be a hinderance.

    The ports here handle ~55k containers daily. Shuffling in 15-20 more pseudo-containers would be a piece of cake, and an effective way of denying the port to hostile ship invasion. No one wants to bring a Landing Ship in to what could be point blank anti-ship missile fire. And even if you swept the area first… could you be sure you got all of them? :) That was why I compared them with minefields, the uncertainty is a very good way to keep people out.

  11. If it’s within sight of land, even warships will have their AIS switched on. Which means they can be tracked in realtime over the web, with a precision that is good enough for the seeker on a Harpoon to take over. You have to pay to get full realtime AIS (but note what Google plan to do with satellites costing a few $m : http://youtu.be/Dk3IIOimGwE ), this is slightly less realtime but gives you the general idea for the Solent :

    I can see how Argentina might fancy going for a carrier, but to be honest, if you wanted to target any RN vessel as it came out of port, I’d ignore the ships in Portsmouth and go for the boats upwind of Glasgow. But the ISR gets a whole lot easier if you forget moving targets and go for static ones. A serious enemy might prefer to go for Coningsby and Leuchars, but if you were the sort of person who doesn’t live in a palace and just want to cause terror then there’s all sorts of tempting targets – particularly when you consider the various big lumps of static radioactivity either in or upwind of major population centres. Let alone the effect of just lobbing a missile into Canary Wharf or Wembley or Kings Cross or Heathrow or the Palace of Westminster.

  12. @APATS
    The launch ship would be a n other container ship, and the owners and country of registry would deny knowing what was in the container.
    Or you get Hezbollah to claim it. Are we going to light up Tehran on the basis they probably supplied it? That would be a dangerous precedent for one of the largest arms suppliers in the world to set!
    I was also thinking in terms of Iranian retaliation if they got attacked – changes the dynamic if they can hit us in our own home waters….

  13. Good point El Sid, I have Shiptracker on my iPhone which can show me where all the ships in the Solent are.

    If you arent going for ships I can think of a good land target.
    How much damage could you do to Brize Norton and our airlift with four of those missiles?
    Would be very awkward for us. It could be seen as a valid Taliban/AQ target as part of the Afghan effort, it is a military target, and the West started the drone attacks so cant make any non-theatre complaints. We would struggle to get international support to retaliate against the supplier of the missiles if AQ claimed the attack.

  14. To hit the airlift out of Brize, you don’t need Powerpoint containerised ASMs that could only be bought from one or two limited sources and carried by identifiable cargo ships….

  15. How could you put as much effect on Brize as four cruise missiles?
    Doesnt matter where you bought them from. What are we going to do about that?
    The cargo ship would be entirely deniable, they just say they thought it was some machine parts.

  16. Would not the main benefit just simply be that they are easily transportable. Ship, train, lorry you can move you defence systems around faster than by dedicate military transporters (by using civilian infrastructure).

    If you have a army based around ISO containers for modules, camps, defence, machine shops with the vehicles to handle them then you have saved a fortune on a military vehicles.

  17. A great system for those who need it, i.e. defensive warfare. Still, as Observer rightly pointed out you have to have either visual line-of-sight to the target or third party targeting to make this work. Simply popping them off at random means they are unlikely to find the right target; a missile radar seeker is not capable of distinguishing between warship and merchant ship. Few regimes will wish to waste missiles against non-involved merchant traffic, not for the casualties nor the risk of aggravating the flag state/owner state. Even Hezbollah needed that with their attack in 2006. You don’t need some fancy military radar either – civilian I-band or E/F band is just as capable.

    El Cid, on warships and AIS, no. Not even we are that stupid. That said you could use it to determine the background picture and align it against your radar picture, identifying the ships without AIS and shooting them (unless you happen to have anything less than 300grt around which aren’t required to carry it – see here http://www.imo.org/ourwork/safety/navigation/pages/ais.aspx). A fairly basic picture compilation process. Wonder if anyone has invented an AIS jammer yet (and yes I mean jammer not deceiver)?

    An asymmetric attack against the UK using state of the art supersonic antiship missiles or land attack missiles would achieve precisely f***-all. ‘Hurrah comrade, we have neutralised the English pig-dogs! What? America has ships too? Uh oh…’. International ramifications? UK likely response, kinetic or otherwise? Likelihood that the Security services will be caught napping? Come on chaps – possible, yes, probable, maybe not, but likely? Apply a little common sense please!!

  18. @ Gewyne

    It is more than that, the fact that this particular tree is being hidden in a forest means that it is really hard to find the right container and bomb it, unless you bomb every single container you find, and I can confidently say whoever your enemy is, he almost certainly has more containers than you have bombs. And even if you did bomb every missile crate you can find, there will always be the question: “Did we get all of them?” Most cautious commanders won’t risk billion dollar ships on “maybe”s, so even the hint that you might have missed one is enough to keep ships away.

    SI is also right in the difficulty in smuggling these. From what I see, basic immigration control involves x-ray scanners and simple weighing of the containers. If the container is something in disguise, the weight is a big hint (mostly empty), and x-rays is a dead giveaway. How thermal sees the thing I’ve no idea.

  19. @ChrisM
    My point is that these missile boxes a)don’t exist yet (although they would not be that difficult to create) and b) would be hard to get hold of, they need a fairly sophisticated logistics chain.

    Compare that with weapons that are widely available and have been used historically to make attacks in the real world. Think of the Harrier that was destroyed on the ground at Kandahar in October 2005. Think of the various VC-10/Tristar-sized airliners that have been attacked by MANPADS in Africa – the Angola 737 in 1983, the Congo 727 in 1998, the Mombasa 757 in 2002. That last example shows that the red team don’t have it all their own way, it appears DASS worked in that case – but better weapons than the SA-7 are now available.

    I’m just saying that you can attack the airlift with existing weapons that are much easier to get hold of.

    Err – I think you’ll find we are “that stupid” – warships will generally squawk AIS around ports and chokepoints, and then switch it off once they reach the high seas. It’s not giving much away when you can be seen by anyone on land with some binoculars, and it’s just antisocial not to. Just this morning I’ve been watching an AIS blob called HMS DRAGON cruise up Southampton Water towards Marchwood (she’s just off Southampton Town Quay now for anyone with binoculars), and another called HMS CATTISTOCK patrolling in Stokes Bay. Maybe that is all part of some cunning scheme of deception, but I suspect it isn’t.

    As an aside, it’s interesting to see one of the “Trinidad” OPVs, Amazonas, tied up in Portsmouth having just been handed over to the Brazilians, and one of the Khareefs is there as well.

    In fact these days, AIS is getting pretty common as part of the electronics fit in smaller vessels – Class B costs peanuts to do.

    As for neutralising the English pig-dogs, these days that isn’t always the aim. Just like 11/9 achieved a lot more than just killing some bankers – popular though that might be if it was to be repeated now. It would be about the costs imposed on all container traffic and the terror effect on anyone living in coastal regions. But like I say, if I had access to that kind of weapon, moving ships wouldn’t be my first choice of target.

  20. My first thought for a customer was Vietnam, possibly targeting China given their recent confrontations in the South China Sea.

  21. We need to re-embrace visual deception, particularly in these cash-strapped times.
    Aerostar don’t yet have an inflateable F35B listed amongst their products, but pump-up Lightnings could potentially fill a few empty deck spots on the Queen Elizabeths as they sail in and out of Portsmouth; though for something less likely to blow overboard, 50 grand should deliver a reasonably well detailed GRP F35B on a steel frame.
    An 20ft ISO container could also make a decent scout/utility vehicle – hydraulic suspension to push down the wheels when no one is looking, 40mm turret popping out the top to engage the enemy when they least expect it. And I envisage a battalion shuffling along inside and disguised by their own personal portaloo.

  22. Chuck & El, RE
    “Quite the little arms race….”

    Did you notice this one, on another thread:

    State Active Military Reserve Military Paramilitary Total

    Vietnam 455,000 5,000,000 40,000 5,495,000
    India 1,325,000 2,142,821 1,300,586 4,768,407
    China 2,285,000 800,000 1,500,000 4,585,000

    In the latest land clash Vietnam gave China a good beating, got paid back at sea (lacking capacity at the time; how far is it again that these islands lie, off the coast of Vietnam) … round 3?
    – the problem is that India has aligned closely with Vietnam in the intervening time (or, may be the other way round)
    – anyway, with a very low GDP per capita, Vietnam is lining up for the Indian-produced version of PAK-FA! I bet that one will be flying before the Chinese equivalent (as they can’t produce the engines, without Russia or someone else extending the helping hand)

  23. SI and APATS, how do you think maritme operations in and around Libya would have been impacted if Gadaffi had a couple of dozen of these (or something similar)

  24. @ACC
    Vietnam’s GDP is not that low – they’re not exactly rich but per capita they’re about the same as India.

    You can’t really equate full-time troops with reserves.

    India has aligned closely with Vietnam in the intervening time

    As Palmerston said, countries don’t have allies, they have interests – and this is a pretty clear example of the enemy of my enemy being my friend. Vietnam’s an interesting country – in some ways it’s more Communist than China, but there’s not much fraternity lost between them.

  25. truly so ” more Communist than China, but there’s not much fraternity lost between them”
    – can’t remember which side was more “Commy” at Ussuri in 1969

    That “You can’t really equate full-time troops with reserves” is true
    – but Vietnam having a bigger mobilisable strength than China is still quite an accomplishment (if they have enough kit)
    ” kick a superpower… or two”

  26. I had always assumed clandestine auxiliary cruisers as commerce raiders were a thing of the past but looks like combining the very long range these have with satellite recon and UAS for targeting, it is very possible to hit a target well over the horizon from an arbitrary direction and not give yourself away.

  27. @ACC

    Vietnam vs China, I’d say that was a Chinese … semi-victory. The Chinese were there to harass and raid Vietnam to curb their westward expansion, not an invasion/occupation, so it was simply about doing damage and seeing how far the PLA could push, then retreat.

    Vietnam claimed victory on the fact that China retreated, but in all honesty, they were never there to stay in the first place. So I’d call it a Chinese victory, small as it may be. They did the damage, they stopped Vietnam from pushing further beyond Cambodia and they extracted without too much losses.

  28. TD if the Libyans had these systems in place then there’s a good chance we would have neutralised them early. The surveillance coverage we had was second to none because ELLAMY was fundamentally unopposed and we were able to look wherever we liked. As I said the Libyans would have had to target the ships somehow, but admittedly that can be done with a fishing boat, a satphone and a GPS set, plus a civvy surveillance radar anywhere on the coast.

    The Libyans could have engineered a considerable deception plan by placing containers all up and down the coast, but surveillance would easily identify personnel standing suspiciously around a container and there are other factors besides. These systems need to be maintained and tested regularly – system operators checks or SOCs. These can stand out from a mile off if you know what you’re looking for. OPINTEL is also a huge factor, and I’m sure there’s someone in GCHQ who would have a phone tapped and an email account open reading emails and looking for the right indicators.

    However, against an army well drilled in the operation of these weapons, with good offshore targeting and well disciplined, motivated personnel trained in targeting and picture compilation (a big if for any country these days), these weapons could be a huge threat. Klub is a nasty missile anyway, one of the more challenging weapons to defeat though probably well within the capability of a Type 45. In this case however, with airborne AEW coverage and plenty of strike aircraft available, we would detect a launch fairly early and be able to counter it, though we would probably be many tens of miles off the coast. The Libyans would have to be absolutely certain of their targeting as well – these missiles, for all their nastiness, are not as capable as a human in recognising the difference between warships and merchies and need careful programming prior to launch. Sinking random neutral ships would be extremely negative press, to say the least, and be difficult for any regime to justify.

    Just to go back a bit, El Sid, mate yes of course off Portsmouth we transmit AIS. But that is entirely optional for us and is as much about publicity as anything else, although it helps stop damned stupid yachties from getting run over in the mistaken belief that everyone else gets out of their way. I know damned well when I’d have AIS transmitting or not and happen to be a qualified Bridge and Warfare Officer. Warships are exempt from requiring to comply with the regulations on AIS. Go back and re-read my bit on liklihood vs practicality vs possibility. Last time I checked the Solent wasn’t a war zone.

  29. @SI
    Last time I checked the Solent wasn’t a war zone.

    Manhattan wasn’t a war zone on 10/Sept/2001. People with a raft of qualifications thought Aden wasn’t a war zone on 11/Oct/2000. Didn’t stop people dying on the Cole.

    But the Solent has been defined as an asymmetric war zone in this thread, by ChrisM’s original question :
    tell me why this wouldnt work.
    One of our new carriers sails out of Portsmouth into a barrage of missiles from a container ship in the Channel.

    Observer pointed out some ISR problems in response, and I mentioned one unconventional source of ISR that would work in this particular scenario. I thought I’d made it clear that I didn’t regard AIS as some kind of universal solution to ISR against shipping. Of course it wouldn’t work in the middle of the Atlantic or in a declared warzone, but we’re in a world where the only successful attacks on NATO warships in the last 25 years have happened either in port or a few miles from land, without a declaration of war – the Cole and the Stark.

    AIS-over-the-web is just an interesting supplement to the age-old technology of “bloke with binoculars”. But it’s a tiny little soupcon of what’s coming – I’m more interested in where that kind of thing goes in future. It seems to be following the same kind of pattern as satellite imagery and GPS – what used to be the highest of (para)military technology has now become embedded into civilian life. Already we have Google about to use satellites to monitor AIS across the globe.

    Sure AIS is limited and can be switched off – but it’s not going to stand still. Integration of AIS with radar and EO sensors is already happening under the C-SIGMA project. It’s not implausible to imagine Google either plugging into that or developing their own equivalent – and then warships won’t be able to hide in blue water or by switching off their AIS. Sure, any track from low-orbit SAR satellites might be a few hours out of date – but the data fusion means you’ll know exactly what that vessel is and even slightly out-of-date position information is useful for planning an attack once they get near land.

    Coupled with cheap sensors to gather it, the ability to distribute and fuse data on this kind of scale is paradigm-shifting. Paradigm-shifting in the same way as aircraft carriers or stealth fighters were, even if it’s a lot less sexy. But under new paradigms lives are always lost before the “battleship admirals” realise that the world has changed.

    I sincerely hope that this time it’s different, but I’m not optimistic.

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