On Oct. 7, four warships of the Russian navy's Caspian Sea flotilla fired 26 SS-N-30A land-attack cruise missiles at rebel forces in western Syria, a thousand miles away.

The raid shocked foreign observers — not the least because the ships involved were so … tiny. "One of the biggest surprises for Russia-watchers was the small size of the ships that launched the missiles — 1,000-ton ships," said Eric Wertheim, author of Combat Fleets of the World. "That's really small."

According to the Russian Ministry of Defense, the attacking ships were Dagestan, Grad Sviyazhsk, Veliky Ustyug, and Uglich. The latter three are Buyan-class missile boats, 203 feet long and displacing 950 tons of water. Dagestan is a 335-foot, 1,900-ton Gepard-class frigate. All four ships entered service in just the last few years.

For perspective, bear in mind that the smallest U.S. Navy surface warship to possess an equivalent weapon, the Tomahawk cruise missile, is an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer that's 500 feet long and displaces 9,000 tons. And America's Littoral Combat Ship frigates, which displace 3,000 tons, carry only small, short-range missiles.

According to Wertheim, Russian naval design philosophy has always emphasized firepower. But it's worth noting that the four ships that launched the cruise missiles are all in the landlocked Caspian Sea. They don't deploy anywhere, so they don't need fuel and living spaces for long voyages.

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