A new cruise-missile system being marketed by a Russian firm is attracting attention as a weapon that, according to its own promotional video, could transform ordinary civilian freight vehicles into long-range missile launchers.
The weapon, known as the Club-K Container Missile System, has been promoted on the Internet and at international arms fairs by the Moscow-based defense firm Concern Morinformsystem-Agat.
The state-controlled firm's marketing campaign describes a concealed and highly mobile satellite-guided missile system that could be hidden inside an ordinary cargo container -- making it indistinguishable from other freight containers on trains, trucks, or cargo ships.
The development of such a missile system has raised fears in the West that Russian missiles might become a weapon for terrorists if they fall into the hands of groups like Al-Qaeda. But the manufacturer is downplaying those concerns as hysterical propaganda.
Robert Hewson, editor of the arms-industry journal "Jane's Air-Launched Weapons," tells RFE/RL that the Club-K would use satellite-guided missiles built by Russia's Novator firm. He also notes that the Club-K system appears to be only in the conceptual stage of development.
"Right now, as far as we can see, all that exists regarding the Club-K system as a containerized weapon is as marketing material. The basic components for this -- the missiles, which is the most important bit -- exist as hardware," Hewson says.
"But what I think you are seeing now is a new concept that the manufacturer has obviously seen a need for and has put out there to show people that they are capable of building this. Now what they need is for someone to come and pay for development and actually buy it."
Hewson says the Russian firm's marketing campaign appears to be aimed at countries like Iran and Venezuela, which have expressed concerns about the presence of U.S. military bases or troops deployed in neighboring countries.
The Club-K project also suggests that Russia's struggling post-Soviet defense firms are trying to adapt to evolving markets by anticipating how a country like Iran might fight a future conflict.
"The system is clearly being positioned towards possible customers who may feel they are under threat from actions from neighboring countries -- a fairly sophisticated customer who can afford the bill, because they will have to pay a significant amount of money to have development completed," Hewson says. "Somebody who feels the need to keep this as a concealed capability -- countries like Iran and Venezuela and also any other nation that has an interest in dominating the sea and land space around it." Company Defends Campaign
Officials at Concern Morinformsystem-Agat have declined to answer questions directly about the Club-K or its marketing campaign. But the firm issued a press statement on April 28 dismissing reports that the system could be used as a terrorist weapon.
The statement says the Club-K is designed primarily for installation on ships called up for military service in the case of threats by a hostile enemy.
What makes the Club-K system different is that it's not immediately recognizable as a weapon system.
Although an animated promotional video
shows Club-K missiles being fired from an ordinary cargo ship, train, and transport truck, a spokeswoman for the firm says in a video statement posted on the firm's website
that "professionals understand perfectly well it is impossible to use such [a] system from any container ship or truck."
The spokeswoman also argues that the weapon system could serve as a lower-cost deterrent for smaller countries against would-be aggressors.
She says that the development of the missile system "was based on the fact that not every country can afford such expensive toys as frigates, corvettes, destroyers, and other ships that are equipped with such military weapons. But nobody has the right to deprive these countries of the opportunity to have the power of sovereignty. Moreover, the potential aggressor should keep in mind that he can suffer unacceptable damage."
Concern Morinformsystem-Agat also says Russia has strict weapons-export controls that eliminate the possibility of the unauthorized transfer of Club-K missiles to terrorist organizations or regimes. In that sense, the firm argues, the Club-K system is a weapon for "effective countermeasures against state terrorism." Concealed Weapon
Many countries have shown interest in Russia's existing Club missiles -- which already can be deployed on land, sea, and air. For example, Club-S missiles are fired from submarines while Club-N missiles are launched from naval surface vessels and Club-A missiles are launched from aircraft.
What makes the Club-K system different is that it's not immediately recognizable as a weapon system. The design features four ground- or sea-launched cruise missiles fitted inside the standard freight containers used across the world to carry commercial cargo.
An animated promotional video that was posted briefly on the YouTube video-sharing site before it was removed shows how Club-K missiles in an ordinary shipping container could be hidden among other cargo containers on trains, cargo ships, or trucks.
The video shows the roof of the cargo container can be slid back and four missiles tilted upright when they are ready to be fired from trucks, trains, or cargo ships -- allowing the missiles to be prepared and launched before their deployment could be detected. Western Concerns
The Club-K system features two different types of missiles. One is a fairly conventional cruise missile -- a land-attack or antiship missile -- with a range of a few hundred kilometers and a warhead containing several hundred kilograms of conventional explosives.
A second missile type in the Club-K series is a dedicated antiship missile with a two-stage component. After launch, the second stage separates and becomes an extremely high-speed, supersonic missile that hits a target with high kinetic energy.
It is a weapon type that is produced only in Russia and that has raised concerns in Western navies because there aren't many proven defenses against it. And despite today's denial from Club-K's manufacturers, worries remain that a well-funded terrorist organization could obtain the missile system.
Hewson doubts such a purchase -- which would cost an estimated $20 million for four of the missiles and launchers -- could be made directly. He also agrees that Russia's strict "end user" policies would make it difficult for terrorists to obtain Club-K cruise missiles on the international market.
"Russia would only sell it to another state and not to any sort of nonstate actor or terrorist group," Hewson says. "Remember, this probably doesn't exist as a piece of hardware yet. It needs a paying customer to complete it. So that makes it extremely unlikely that anyone is going to roll up with an Al-Qaeda checkbook and buy one of these things."
Still, such arguments may not be enough to quell concerns that a rogue state might obtain the Club-K system and illegally pass the missiles along to terrorist groups.