This post includes pictures gleaned from various places on the internet. I will gladly remove any of them in response to copyright complaints.
International readers (he said, as if there were any) will notice that the scope here is largely limited to American and Russian weapons and systems. This is not to cast aspersions at anybody else’s navy. I simply lack the requisite in-depth knowledge to write about them. Plus, in my defence, I do mention Exocet.
Some of this piece is recycled from my earlier post on the future of the US Navy.
Naval Weapons and Systems Development Continued – Surface Warfare: From Sea Control to Land Attack, and Back
Perhaps the most influential works ever written on navies and their ability to prosecute foreign policy were The Influence of Sea Power upon History, 1660–1783 (1890) and its companion The Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution and Empire, 1793–1812 (1892) by Alfred Thayer Mahan. Mahan was an American, a naval officer with the Union during the Civil War, and an ardent advocate of the ability of sea power to influence events ashore. He was among the first to articulate, in any sort of theoretical way, what the English had understood in their bones for centuries: that battles may rage back and forth on land, but the nation that controls the sea can move forces at will, strike at will, and choke an enemy’s economy. Naval power, with a little cooperation from geography (it helps to be surrounded by ocean!) could also thwart the aggression of far superior land forces. What had England to throw against the Grand Army of Napoleon? Yet Lord St. Vincent, First Lord of the Admiralty, responded this way to pointed questions in the House of Lords on the possibility of a French invasion: “I do not say the French cannot come. I say merely that they cannot come by sea.”
Thus did an island nation remain unscathed while the continent of Europe was set ablaze by revolutionary France; and thus might any maritime nation rise to pre-eminence on the world scene. Mahan’s work was a profound influence on the thinking of Teddy Roosevelt, and his rivals in Germany and Japan. The great naval race of the early 20th century can in no small measure be laid at Mahan’s doorstep.
In one sense, a hundred years have changed nothing. While air power has come to eclipse ships and navies in the popular mind, Mahan’s premise will remain sound so long as even the largest aircraft can carry only miniscule quantities of men, materiel and supplies. You cannot move a mechanized army by air (even a C-5 can carry no more than two main battle tanks), any more than you can airmail millions of barrels of oil across hemispheres. If your enemy controls the sea, your economy is at risk, and your own armies, especially those deployed far from home, will be terribly vulnerable to attack and strangulation.
One thing that did change between 1900 and 2017 is the character of sea power’s influence on the land campaign. In 1900, this influence was essentially strategic and indirect. Ships armed with naval rifles of ever-increasing size might shell targets ashore, but in a confrontation between a dominant land power and a superior maritime nation, the key contribution of the latter’s navies was to grant mobility and a secure supply train to its own armies, while at the same time eroding the enemy’s long term ability to keep itself in a war. A warship, therefore, was designed to secure control of the sea, to defeat other naval vessels.
By 1945, the fusion of air and sea power gave navies mobile airfields that were crucial in sweeping enemy warships from the seas, but were just as useful in bringing tactical bombers to bear on targets ashore. It was now possible for ships to have a direct tactical influence upon battles that might occur far inland, and to directly attack strategic targets. Indeed, for most of the period following WW II, aircraft carriers have been used mainly as a means of “projecting power” on land, rather than gaining control of the sea (an arguable exception here would be the Falklands affair). In the Cold War era, much effort was also invested in the design and deployment of nuclear bombers that could launch from carrier decks and strike the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, in the “limited wars” in Korea and Viet Nam, carrier air power was continuously employed in air strikes and close air support.
Yet the preoccupation of Western naval planners in the decades following WW II remained classic naval battle to secure control of the sea. The Soviet Union, in an eerie echo of the German naval buildup prior to WW I, constructed a huge “blue water” fleet designed to deny the West the advantage of sea control. Despite the repeated use of American naval power in limited wars that involved no classic sea battles, and despite the planned use of aircraft carriers as platforms for nuclear bombers in the event of all-out war, so long as the Soviet Navy vied for naval supremacy, the bulk of our efforts had to be directed to defending our own ships and destroying those of the Soviets. Warship design, at least so far as cruisers and destroyers were concerned, remained focused on traditional missions. Given the limits of technology there was little alternative.
Then, as the United States surveyed its post-Cold War dominance of the oceans, a new strategy was adopted, one that took for granted the freedom to navigate at will over most of the open ocean, and contemplated the direct application of devastating force against an enemy’s strategic assets however far inland they may be. Having spent most of the prior century in the development of warships and weapons designed to defeat other blue water navies and seize control of the high seas, the Americans, exploiting technologies that revolutionized the hitting power of individual vessels, began looking to new warships that would wade into the brown water of an enemy’s coastal regions and wreak havoc inland. It was not just aircraft that would carry the cudgel in this doctrine of “littoral warfare”. New technology was giving small, destroyer-sized warships the ability to deliver blows to targets deep inside enemy territory.
It would all have amazed that fellow Mahan. It seemed as if a new epoch in naval strategy had dawned.
Yet, no sooner did the emphasis on littoral warfare reach its zenith than the conditions back in the blue water changed. The U.S. monopoly on global sea power was short-lived. By the second decade of the 2000s, the Chinese were constructing formidable warships to rival their American counterparts, the Russians were beginning to reassert themselves, and all the old threats returned. We find ourselves today in a position not unlike the one we occupied during the Cold War.
A Rapid Fire History of the First 50 Years – Guns and More Guns
When the 20th century began, the supreme naval weapon was of course the gun. There were, however, other important weapons just arriving on the scene, the fruits of some rather astonishing 19th century technological advances. The first submarines, for example, were under development. More important at the turn of the century was the powered torpedo, which, when carried by small vessels, could be used with great effect against unprotected capital ships. Countering the torpedo led, on the one hand, to the creation of small escort vessels with the speed to intercept the torpedo boats – these “torpedo boat destroyers” became “destroyer escorts” and eventually just “destroyers”, as their mission changed over the years. On the other hand, it spurred improvements in gunnery, particularly in range of fire, so that an enemy fleet could be fired upon without advancing to a point within range of torpedoes.
The extent to which gun technology had advanced by the beginning of the 20th century is truly amazing. The huge weapons shipped on steel warships in the early 1900s were not merely larger versions of the smooth-bore cannon seen on the ironclads of the Civil War era. They were rifles, literal rifles, gigantic versions of infantry weapons that were aimed and fired just like a sniper’s gun.
The problems confronted in making use of such weapons were enormous. Electrical motors had to be powerful enough to train and elevate the gun barrels within their large armoured turrets (which turrets might weigh well over a thousand tons). The fire of several different gun turrets had to be coordinated through electrical connections to a central control system. The recoil of the huge rifles had to be absorbed safely and repeatedly within a confined space – recoil equivalent in energy to dozens of steam locomotives hitting the turret at once. Complex magazine arrangements had to be devised to feed shells weighing upwards of a ton from protected spaces below the waterline into the breeches of the rifles. The shells themselves had to be fitted with fuses that would detonate not upon impact (at which point the blast would be wasted on the thick armour of an enemy’s hull), but in mere thousandths, and precisely mere thousandths, of a second after impact (when the shells would be inside the target, having penetrated the armour). Propulsive charges had to be developed that would create a gas expanding at sufficient velocity to push the shells down 50 foot lengths of rifled barrel at over twice the speed of sound. As range increased to 8, 10, even 15 miles, a means of optical range-finding had to be devised, and aiming a rifle over such great distances had to involve an accounting for the diverse variables of wind, barometric pressure, ship motion, target motion, and even the Earth’s rotation during the shell’s flight.
All of this science was developing rapidly when First Sea Lord “Jackie” Fisher ordered the construction of H.M.S. Dreadnought in 1905, and inaugurated a new age of surface warfare in which all prior warships, including all of those in the Royal Navy, were rendered immediately obsolete. Perhaps most surprising is that the first machines that could be called “computers” were already in the works at that point to unite optical range finders with gyroscopes and calculating devices to solve the problems of aiming guns at long ranges. In England, an inventor named Arthur Pollen came up with such a system for the Royal Navy, while in the United States, an inventor named Hannibal Ford teamed with one Elmer Sperry to come up with something conceptually similar. Curiously, Jackie Fisher never saw the merit in Pollen’s system, and the Royal Navy suffered in its absence during WW I.
Dreadnought was revolutionary in a number of ways. It was the first “all big gun” warship, with a main battery of no fewer than ten 12 inch guns (more than twice as many as its contemporaries), and turbine engines giving higher speed than other capital ships with their now outmoded reciprocating propulsion plants. Its appearance touched off a race between Germans, British, Japanese, French and Americans to construct whole fleets of “dreadnoughts”, as all such ships soon came to be known.
Between the laying-down of Dreadnought and the end of WW II, a mere 40 years, the technology of big gun warships galloped ahead; the 12 inch rifles of Dreadnought were replaced by 15, 16 and even 18.1 inch guns, which could strike at over 20 miles; a new sort of big gun vessel, the battle-cruiser, was championed by Jackie Fisher, who believed that trading armour for speed would create a hard-hitting adversary with key advantages over slower dreadnoughts; advances in propulsion and hull design soon rendered battle-cruisers obsolete by allowing heavily armoured battleships to achieve the same speeds; meanwhile the ships grew from 18,000 tons to 70,000 tons. As long ago as the battle of Jutland, in 1916, German and British battle-cruisers were tearing across choppy seas at speeds approaching 25 knots, while striking each other with gunfire at ranges of over 12 miles. By the end of WW II, the latest American battleships had heavier armour and larger guns than any prior warships, yet were faster too. Their 16 inch rifles could strike a target no bigger than a tennis court at a range of 22 miles.
Given all the technology, treasure and national prestige invested in the construction of battleships and battle-cruisers during the first half of the 20th century, it comes as something of a surprise to learn how rarely they clashed in the sort of engagements for which all of them were designed. In 1905, the Japanese defeated the Russians in the Tsushima Strait. In 1914, a fairly small running battle occurred off the Falklands, during which battle-cruisers of the Royal Navy outgunned a cruiser force under German Vice-Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee. In 1915, there was a brief and inconclusive clash between British and German units at the battle of Dogger Bank. In 1916, the Royal Navy battled with the bulk of the German High Seas Fleet in the aforementioned Jutland, an epic engagement that remains, arguably, the largest naval battle in history. In 1939, the German “pocket battleship” Graf Spee got the worst of a battle with British cruisers off South America. In 1940, the Bismarck destroyed the Hood, and was itself destroyed, finally, by gunfire from HMS Rodney and HMS King George V, though the coup de grace was administered by torpedo, and carrier-borne torpedo bombers played a crucial role in damaging the Nazi warship and bringing it to heel. Numerous skirmishes between the British and Italians in the Mediterranean climaxed in Italy’s decisive defeat at the Battle of Cape Matapan in 1941, another engagement in which aircraft also played an important part. In the latter months of 1942, there were intense gunfights between US and Japanese warships in the first through fourth battles of Savo Island, part of the campaign to take Guadalcanal (the first being perhaps the most lopsided American defeat in US naval history, save perhaps for Pearl harbour). In 1943, the German battlecruiser Scharnhorst was destroyed in a gun battle with the more powerful HMS Duke of York in the Battle of North Cape. In 1944, American battleships engaged in a classic gunnery duel with Japanese units in the Battle of Surigao Strait, part of the larger Leyte Gulf operation off the Philippines.
That’s more or less the extent of it. Surigao Strait was the last time that one battleship ever fired at another. Moreover, assistance from other warships was crucial to the outcome of battleship actions in WW II. While the Bismarck was pounded to death by the guns of Rodney and King George V, it was Swordfish torpedo bombers off the carrier Ark Royal that slowed the German warship and made the kill possible. In Surigao Strait, it was massed torpedo attack by destroyers that dealt the first heavy blows to the Japanese battle line.
Even as Japanese and American super-battleships were joining their fleets in the last years of WW II, it was obvious that the age of the battleship was over. The superb units of the Iowa class, with their 33 knot speeds, 17 inch armour and 16 inch guns, were prized mainly as high-speed carrier escorts, in which capacity their massive anti-aircraft batteries proved far more useful than the main battery. The big guns were used mainly to bombard enemy targets in advance of amphibious landings, with decidedly mixed effect against dug-in Japanese strongholds.
The Yamato and Musashi, the largest battleships ever built, mounting the largest guns ever taken to sea, never clashed with American battlewagons; they were both destroyed by carrier aircraft. If the carrier action by the British against the Italian fleet at Taranto, and then the carrier attack by the Japanese against the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbour, had not been enough to sound the death knell of the big gun warship, then surely the fate of Yamato had. Sent on a one way suicide mission to beach itself on the shoreline of Okinawa and pound at the American invasion forces with her mammoth 18.1 inch guns, Yamato was barely out of port when set upon by hundreds – literally hundreds – of American carrier aircraft. She disappeared under a hail of torpedoes and iron bombs.
It’s hard to grasp how quickly the battleships came and went. In their day, they were the supreme instruments of national policy and the highest expressions of national will and prestige, the product of arms races and the subject of the first efforts at international arms control. Yet the aircraft carrier had made them all obsolete. By the 1950s, the Royal Navy had but a single battleship in service (decommissioned in 1956) and apart from that, only the U.S. Navy maintained a token battleship force, comprising the four ships of the Iowa class; even this was a mothballed fleet for almost the entire post-war period, with brief intervals of reactivation during the Korean and Viet Nam wars, and, in a final hurrah, during the Reagan era. The much-refurbished Wisconsin and Missouri were still around to participate in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, but soon after that the Iowas were all decommissioned. In spite of the loose phrasing of journalists, who think “warship” and “battleship” are synonymous, there is not a single battleship in service anywhere in the world today.
The aircraft carrier had supplanted the battleship as the primary tool of surface warfare. Yet, in hindsight, the naval war in the Pacific provided clear signs that the future would see other, even more radical weapons. In the days following Surigao strait, the last confrontation between dreadnoughts, the first Kamikaze missions were flown. To naval planners, the Kamikazes are somewhat dryly conceived of as the first anti-ship cruise missiles, “smart” weapons with a guidance package of as yet unrivalled sophistication. In a sense, the last battleship fight thus coincided with the first modern cruise missile attack on a warship. Aircraft would hold sway for many years to come, but the Kamikazes inspired interest in both offensive and defensive missile systems.
By the time the Missouri opened fire in the first phase of Operation Desert Storm, during the last combat deployment of a battleship, this interest in missilery had borne such fruit that her 16 inch guns lay silent, while a volley of long-range cruise missiles left their launch tubes.
Into the Missile Age
For roughly 30 years after the end of WW II, the U.S. Navy relied almost exclusively on carrier aircraft to provide the offensive punch in conventional war. Battleships and gun-armed cruisers all but disappeared, and a new generation of guided missile destroyers and cruisers was built to defend the carrier battle groups. The surface warships constructed in this period existed to shoot down enemy aircraft (and eventually missiles) and hunt enemy submarines. They were all escort vessels with almost no armament capable of hitting shore targets or other warships (typically, all they had was one or two 5 inch 38 calibre guns capable of about ten miles range). We have discussed in a prior post the sophisticated and expensive missile systems deployed in the 1950s and 60s to provide air defence:
It might have struck the reader that many of the powerful warships described in that essay were almost devoid of offensive weapons of any kind.
The Long Beach, an ultra-modern nuclear powered cruiser commissioned in 1961, provides a striking example. At over 17,000 tons, she was a large warship, and she carried an imposing missile battery. Forward were two Mk.10 launchers with magazines holding 120 Terrier missile rounds. Aft was a Talos missile system, with 48 of those potent and enormous SAMs stowed below decks. Amidships was a box launcher for ASROC, a new anti-submarine weapon that used a rocket to fire a torpedo out to extreme sonar range, where it would descend by parachute on top of the target submarine. The superstructure was dominated by the search and guidance radars necessary to control the Terrier and Talos SAMS.
Yet, what if the Long Beach encountered an enemy warship? Looking over a photo of the big cruiser, one strains to see anything that could be of any use. Careful scrutiny of photographs will eventually reveal a diminutive pair of 5 inch guns amidships, just aft of the ASROC launcher. That was all there was. To the Americans, these guns, installed as an afterthought subsequent to construction, were a sort of vestigial security blanket for nervous cruiser captains. Long Beach was not designed for independent operations, but as an organic part of the carrier battle group. She would not encounter enemy warships. Hundreds of miles beyond the range of her little 5 inch guns, strikes by the carrier air wing would sweep the oceans clear of hostile surface units. Long Beach was there just to keep the carrier safe.
Cruisers, destroyers, frigates, all were specialized either for anti-air or anti-submarine warfare. The Soviets must have envied the Americans their battle groups, with all those specialized hulls operating in concert to protect the carriers. In their rush to construct a blue water navy, they didn’t have the time or expertise to respond in kind. There is nothing harder than designing ships, aircraft, and associated systems for carrier operations. It was not until the late 1980s that the first Soviet carrier loosely comparable to anything the Americans had was undergoing sea trials. In the meantime, they had to go for something quick and dirty. The fastest way to counter the carrier battle groups was to develop anti-ship missiles, and the Soviets did this with extraordinary speed and energy, developing weapons for use from aircraft, surface ships and submarines. The air-launched variety, in particular the fearsome AS-4 “Kitchen”, were particularly troubling. Equally frightening weapons were developed for launch from surface ships and subs.
The first surface-launched anti-ship missiles were deploying on Soviet warships by the late 1950s. Early on, the most widespread example was the SSN-2, given the NATO reporting name “Styx” (all Soviet naval anti-shipping missiles were given names starting with “s”). Styx was very much a Kamikaze with an inorganic pilot (active radar homing), carrying a large warhead but at relatively slow subsonic speed. In general configuration, it was more airplane than missile – like the German V-1 before it, and most long-range cruise missiles to follow – and had a useful range of about 40-50 miles. It was mounted primarily on small missile boats that didn’t stray far from shore. A useful weapon, but not the stuff of nightmares.
Of course, the Soviets were not content to leave it at that. At about the same time as the Long Beach was commissioned, the Soviet Navy deployed four new missile cruisers, referred to in NATO circles as the “Kynda” class (all classes of Soviet surface ships were given reporting names starting with a “k”). They were modern looking, rather small (about 5,500 tons), and sported a twin-armed rail launcher for surface-to-air missiles forward. Aft was a superimposed set of gun turrets for small 3 inch guns. Utterly dominating the design were two four-tubed sets of launchers for anti-shipping cruise missiles, the new SSN-3, known by its NATO reporting name “Shaddock”. Shaddock was a very large missile, and there was one reload per tube; the Soviets had crammed a great deal of weaponry into a small ship.
The new missile was supersonic, capable of about a thousand miles per hour, and it had a useful range of about 100 miles. Never content to use a little hammer when a big one will do, the Soviets armed some of them with tactical nuclear warheads. Worse, in concert with its deployment on the Kyndas, a version of Shaddock was also developed for submarine launch, though clumsily – the “Echo” and “Juliet” classes of submarine that carried Shaddock (for some reason, NATO assigned sequential reporting names to submarines based on the phonetic alphabet, rather than on a consistent letter sound) had to surface to fire them, making them vulnerable to attack.
From here, things kept getting worse. A dizzying series of supersonic anti-ship missiles, from the SSN-12 “Sandbox” to the SSN-14 “Silex”, the SSN-19 “Shipwreck” and finally, in the mid-1980s, the literally dreadful SSN-22 “Sunburn”, were developed and deployed for use on ships and submarines. They got faster and faster – the “Shipwreck” and “Sunburn” missiles travel at speeds up to over Mach 2.6, about 1,800 MPH – and their guidance systems became more accurate. Ranges became longer too, up to 300 miles or greater for the big “Sandbox” and “Shipwreck” missiles. “Sunburn”, in spite of its high-speed, was also able to sea-skim at wave top height to evade detection. Worst of all, submarines were able to fire the new missiles from underwater; the “Oscar” class submarines, as big as WW II cruisers, each had 24 launch tubes for the “Shipwreck” missile, presenting the carrier battle groups with the unpalatable prospect of dozens of these weapons blasting at them from out of a clear blue sea.
Now, we’ve seen how several anti-air systems, most notably Phoenix and Aegis, were developed by the Americans to deal with this blizzard of Soviet missiles. We were, praise God, spared the acid test of those systems in combat, but there is good reason to believe they would have worked. Nevertheless, it began to seem unwise to keep all of our offensive eggs in the sole basket of the aircraft carrier. This was particularly so in the late 1970s, as the retirement of older ships and post-Viet Nam cutbacks left the US Navy with fewer carriers than at any time since the Korean War, only 12, of which no more than four or perhaps five could be at sea at any one time. Meanwhile, the Soviet Navy kept getting bigger and bigger, with ships of the “Kashin”, “Kresta”, “Kara” and “Krivak” classes rolling off the lines in large numbers. Lord save us, there was also a class of nuclear powered cruisers under construction which, at 25,000 tons, were so large and heavily armed that they were, in effect, missile age battle-cruisers. The first of these, the Kirov, deployed in the early 1980s. The aircraft carrier that would eventually become the Kuznetsov was also known to be in the planning stages.
Western naval planners were considering some grim scenarios in the 1970s and early 1980s. The superpower nuclear stalemate might convince the Soviets that a conventional attack on NATO forces in Western Europe was worth the gamble. Despite our public policy of first use of nuclear weapons if necessary, they might expect us to prefer surrender over global destruction, and God knew, we actually might. If we were going to avoid that kind of Hobson’s choice, our conventional forces were going to have to hold out, somehow, on the central front. To hold out, those conventional forces were going to have to be re-supplied and reinforced from North America. This would mean convoys, and convoy escort missions. Aircraft carriers, with a myriad of wartime missions to perform, might be spread too thin to assist in the convoy escort mission. They might even, please God no, be sunk. Individual destroyers and frigates might have to go it alone, and might have to confront Soviet surface units.
All those specialized American battle group escorts were going to have to acquire a means of independent offence.
It was – one hates to admit – actually the French who first confronted this problem among Western naval powers. While the French had then, as now, a small carrier force, they understood early on that their surface warships were going to have to have some way of responding to all those Soviet vessels with their anti-ship cruise missiles. Their solution, one might argue, was as characteristically French as missiles such as “Shipwreck” were characteristically Soviet; whereas the Soviets brandished a great bloody battle-axe, the French opted for a rapier. In the early 1970s, French frigates and destroyers began deploying with a compact and devilishly effective anti-ship missile called Exocet.
Exocet was light, and it had a small warhead, by Soviet standards, of less than 500 lbs. It was also subsonic. Initially, it had a rather short-range of about 25 miles (though this was steadily improved). However, its small size made it awfully difficult to see on radar, and it compounded the enemy’s problems by sea-skimming at very low level, just above the waves. Equipped with a radar altimeter and homing radar for target lock-on, it was far more difficult to track and engage than any Soviet missile prior to the much later “Sunburn”. It proved this in the Falklands conflict, when H.M.S. Sheffield, a modern guided missile destroyer (though unfortunately lacking the Phalanx anti-missile system then being mounted on U.S. warships, and subsequently carried by Sheffield’s sister ships) was set on fire by Argentine Exocet missiles launched from French-supplied Etendard strike aircraft.
Just as an aside, the loss of Sheffield prompted a very great deal of nonsense in the Western media about the supposed shock this delivered to Western naval planners. Having confronted the prospect of massed Soviet missile attack for almost 20 years, there was nothing surprising at all about losing a ship to missile fire. The British themselves had Exocet missiles on their ships, and knew all about their capabilities. Meanwhile, by this time, we were all well along the road to developing effective countermeasures to anti-shipping missiles. Indeed, sailing with the Falklands task force were two destroyers of the Broadsword class, mounting superb Seawolf missiles that were easily capable of defeating Exocet. It was just a sad matter of timing that it became necessary to send an expeditionary force to the Falklands before the money had been found to introduce missile defence systems throughout the fleet.
As Exocet became widely deployed by European navies, the Americans perfected their own missile, a similar but superior weapon they named “Harpoon”. Harpoon had originally been conceived as a weapon to be launched from long-range anti-submarine patrol aircraft, in the era when Soviet subs had to surface to fire their missiles. Harpoon would give these aircraft a potent means of engaging the surfaced subs. However, the full potential of the weapon was soon realized. It was, like Exocet, subsonic, but only just, flying at about Mach .08. It had a small fuel-efficient turbojet, rather than a rocket motor, and thus had a fairly long range of, initially, 50 – 60 miles. It had a fairly large 500 lb. warhead, more than ample to cripple most Soviet warships (the Soviets favoured much larger warheads mainly because they were trying to sink aircraft carriers, immeasurably tougher targets than destroyers or cruisers. A single Exocet was sufficient to destroy the Sheffield even though its warhead didn’t go off).
Like Exocet, it was a sea-skimmer, with its own altimeter and a radar to lock on to the target. It was capable of performing evasive maneuvers on the run-in to the target, rather than flying straight in, making it that much harder to intercept. It was also small, and light, and could be fired from canisters that were compact enough to fit within submarine torpedo tubes. It proved a simple matter to mount as many as eight of these missiles in quadruple canisters in whatever cramped deck space was available on existing cruisers and destroyers. It was also compatible with the magazine handling arrangements of existing surface-to-air missile launchers. In a pinch, it could even be fired from an ASROC launcher.
Harpoon thus became the standard American anti-ship missile. In short order, just about every large surface combatant in the fleet was equipped to launch at least four, and usually eight, of these potent weapons. Over time, they received better engines, better warheads, better electronics, and became capable of longer ranges, up to about 100 miles.
Even longer reach, comparable to that of the big Soviet weapons, was provided by another new missile, the Tomahawk. This was a cruise missile in the V-1 tradition, a small, pilotless airplane that was slow, at about 550 MPH, but extremely slippery. The anti-ship version was a derivative of the land attack missile (much more on this soon), and it carried a sophisticated set of guidance electronics allowing it to navigate over long distances at extremely low level, acquire a target, and attack. It also boasted a very large 1,000 lb. warhead, big enough to cripple almost any Soviet warship. Its range was about 250 –300 miles, and while its slow speed was a detriment, it was quite likely that a salvo of half a dozen or so would result in one or two hits. Tomahawk, too, could be fired from submarine torpedo tubes, and while it was larger than Harpoon, it was possible to carry them in canisters on deck. It also fit within the launch cells of the new vertical launch systems that became available in the 1980s.
Armed with Harpoon and Tomahawk anti-ship missiles, the cruisers and destroyers of the U.S. Navy changed quickly from purely defensive escorts to relatively potent offensive warships. By the late 1980s the Americans were ready to respond in kind to massed Soviet missile attack.
Then something strange happened. The Soviet Union collapsed, and the Cold War ended.
The Shift to Littoral Warfare and Land Attack
To this day, the once-proud Soviet Navy is a mere husk of its former self. The majority of the imposing warships that so vexed our strategists lie rotting at their moorings, unable to take to sea. The few that are capable of operational deployment set sail infrequently, and often with vital systems in disrepair. Their crews are ill-trained and often unpaid. Attempts are now being made by the Putin regime to revive Russian naval might, but immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, there almost ceased to be a credible Russian navy.
As the 21st century began, the oceans of the world were, in essence, American lakes. The Romans called the Mediterranean Mare Nostrum, “our sea”. Americans in 2000 could pretty much have said the same about the whole of the world ocean. It was known that some day, we would all have to become acquainted with a strange and distasteful word combination: “Chinese Pacific Fleet”. Yet that seemed a distant prospect, and meanwhile, with some regional competition from growing powers such as India, the U.S. Navy went where it wanted and did what it liked. American warships were vulnerable mainly when tied up to the pier, when any nut in a speedboat could ram the side on a suicide mission.
Securely in command of the oceans, the United States nevertheless faced a dangerous world that in many ways made the Cold War seem like the good old days. Flare-ups of longstanding ethnic hatreds required constant intervention in places like Bosnia and Kosovo. Hostile “rogue states” like Iraq, Iran and North Korea posed constant problems. International state-sponsored terrorism necessitated warfare in God-forsaken hellholes like Afghanistan. The Navy played (and continues to play) a huge role in this diverse set of conflicts. Carrier aircraft fill the gap when local airbases are unavailable (as was the case in the war in Afghanistan). Just as important – and this marked a true revolution in naval warfare – small American warships were able to launch devastating strikes against targets that would once have required massive air attack to destroy. If there are no carriers about, what amounted to an air strike could still be launched from the deck of a destroyer. This capability resided in the land attack version of the Tomahawk cruise missile, a weapon that was designed during the Cold War to alter the nuclear balance.
In the 1970s, a series of strategic arms control treaties with the Soviets limited the amount of intercontinental ballistic missile launchers that either side could possess, as well as the number of submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Tomahawk was developed as a rather sneaky way to evade the treaties while adhering to their letter, by creating a small non-ballistic missile that could be launched from a wide variety of platforms. In an era when dubious strategies of nuclear war fighting and selective nuclear “counterforce” were in vogue, American strategists liked the idea of a nuclear missile that could be carried on almost any submarine or warship. Spreading a plethora of missiles around the fleet would force the Soviets to think twice about attempting a “limited” nuclear first strike.
The fear of such a first strike drove much of the strategic thinking in the Reagan era. The twisted, fearful idea was that the Soviets, fielding missiles of ever-improving accuracy, might one day be bold or panicked enough to attempt a first strike on American military targets (especially US ground-based missiles). Such a strike would be designed to disable the most accurate American missiles, the Minuteman ICBMs, without destroying American cities, and therefore, so the theory went, destroying the heart of the American nuclear arsenal, thereby, so the theory went, leaving us with the choice of doing nothing, or using submarine-launched ballistic missiles in response, which missiles were only accurate enough to target whole cities, not discrete military targets. The Americans, in the wake of the first strike, would be faced with a horrible choice – capitulate or “climb the escalation ladder”.
It was all madness, of course. The horrible logical traps of deterrence theory obliged both sides to develop weapons and strategies that were meant to respond not to realistic scenarios, but to implausible worst case assessments of what the enemy might think was possible. Thus, if it was merely conceivable that the Soviets might, one day, imagine they could get away with a first strike, we had to have a weapon that would convince them that no such thing was possible. Tomahawk was ideal for this purpose. No matter how crazy the Soviets became, they could never imagine they would destroy all the seagoing Tomahawk launchers in a first strike. Moreover, Tomahawk could be made accurate enough to respond to any insane first strike with a counterstrike on pinpoint nuclear targets. With Tomahawk, we wouldn’t be forced to choose between escalation and capitulation. Thus, even if the Soviets were crazy enough to actually believe a “counterforece” first strike was workable in theory, we would have a weapon that would convince them it was unworkable in practice.
Ah, deterrence theory. It doesn’t matter what you think. It doesn’t matter what the other guy thinks. What matters is what you think the other guy might one day think, forcing you to respond even if you’re sure the other guy would be dead wrong if he thought what you fear he might think (and it doesn’t matter if you know the other guy really would be nuts, what matters is building up capabilities that will deter the other guy even if he is nuts). The other guy, watching you deploy weapons based on what you think he might someday think, wonders what the heck it is that you think, and worries about what you fear he might think, and so it goes, until one day you both wake up in a world with over 50,000 nuclear warheads. It was out of this absolute nuttiness that Tomahawk was born.
It wasn’t the first time the Navy contemplated cruise missiles as a way to spread warheads around the fleet. In the late 1950s a rather fantastic weapon called Regulus II was under development, a very large, swept-wing supersonic missile that looked a lot like an F-105, and was just about as big. The missile was therefore too bulky and impractical, and the development of the Polaris system for submarine-launched ballistic missiles made Regulus redundant.
By the 1970s, as interest in cruise missiles revived, it became possible to manufacture fairly powerful little jet engines small enough to be lifted by hand, and very small computers that could guide a missile with extreme accuracy. Nuclear warheads of devastating power were also becoming available in surprisingly small packages. A compact, practical weapon was now feasible. It would not be supersonic like Regulus, but it would more than make up for this by being stealthy, presenting a small target and flying low to evade radar. As developed, Tomahawk could fit within a standard 21 inch submarine torpedo tube, yet carry a nuclear warhead and navigate autonomously over 1,000 miles to land within 100 feet of the aiming point.
We can all be thankful that Glasnost, and then the Soviet collapse, ended the Cold War and made the nuclear version of Tomahawk redundant. In the meantime, while Dr. Strangelove and his merry men gamed out their nuclear war fighting scenarios in the Pentagon basement, sober naval planners took a good look at Tomahawk technology and realized they had something amazing on their hands. A small pilotless airplane, easily carried in quantity by existing ships and submarines, that could navigate autonomously, fly nap of the earth to evade defences, and deliver a large warhead hundreds of miles inland to within a radius of 100 feet?
In that case, who needs aircraft carriers?
Tomahawk was not, of course, quite ready to supplant carrier-based aircraft across the whole spectrum of possible combat missions. However, Tomahawks did bestow a measure of carrier-like capabilities to any ship that carried them, and in the late 1980s, the Navy dumped the nuclear versions (none exist any longer) and loaded conventional land-attack Tomahawks on to as many ships as possible. Those with the new vertical launch systems could carry large numbers of the missiles (a Spruance class destroyer could, for example, carry as many as 61) and other ships could carry smaller amounts in box launchers mounted on deck. The operational battleships of the Iowa class each carried 32 Tomahawks, while cruisers such as those of the Virginia class were limited to a still useful eight. Submarines, too, were equipped to fire them, and numerous units of the Los Angeles class were modified to carry 12 missiles in new vertical launch tubes occupying dead space in the forward ballast tanks.
When the 1991 Persian Gulf War began, there were hundreds of Tomahawks available in theatre. The Navy launched about 270, and about 85% of those hit their targets. In subsequent strikes in Bosnia, Kosovo, Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, the hit percentage of more advanced versions of the cruise missile has been even better.
The technology of cruise missiles merits a closer look. The key problem with any such weapon is, of course, guidance. The Germans, with their V-1, had almost no guidance system at all, just gyroscopes to ensure level flight in more or less the right direction, and a mechanism to cut the fuel flow at more or less the right moment, forcing the missile to drop – a method so haphazard that it was possible to miss something the size of greater London. Assuming one is unwilling to emulate the Imperial Japanese and put a human brain on board, anything better than the V-1 approach requires some sort of mechanism that can properly navigate the missile to its target over long ranges, and of course the smaller the target, the better the mechanism has to be.
For the anti-ship version of Tomahawk, the answer was relatively simple given available technology – autonomous navigation to the general area of the enemy warship, then acquisition of target using radar. Any good, solid radar return was bound to be a ship, and hopefully something you wanted to hit (actually, that “hopefully” sentiment was a problem; the first anti-ship version of Tomahawk was considered dangerously indiscriminate in its targeting, and was retired – though a better version may soon replace it).
Conventional radar, though, is not terribly useful in trying to pick out discreet targets on land. Ground clutter would simply wash out most radar recievers. Even if that could be solved, there are too many artificial metallic things lying around that look like juicy targets to a radar receiver – you might home in on a milk factory or a lot full of tractors, or a junkyard, or any other damned thing if you shot a missile into the general vicinity of, say, an airfield. A clever enemy might even scatter radar reflecting decoys around vital targets.
This was a problem that bedevilled all early cruise missile efforts. When Regulus II was under development, it was first thought that a command autopilot was the only solution, that is, a radio link through which operators on the ground would fly the missile. This, however, was too vulnerable to jamming. Next, the designers switched to inertial navigation, a system of gyroscopes that sensed the missile’s movement and from this worked out current position and plotted a course. The trouble was, inertial navigation permitted only rough accuracy, fine for a nuclear weapon designed to incinerate whole cities, but lousy if the goal was to find the military airfield and ignore the nearby hospital. Another system used on-board telescopes to look at the sky and take star fixes. This, too, was only roughly accurate, though better, and could only be employed by a missile which, like Regulus, flew at high altitudes above the clouds. A useful missile with a conventional warhead, particularly one that would evade detection by flying at low level, had to have something much better for accurate terminal guidance.
A good answer was proposed at the very end of the Regulus program, as early as 1958. What if conventional radar was replaced by a reoriented kit that didn’t just look for a big, shiny reflection to home on, but was able to build up a picture of the contours of the terrain itself? The geography of every target area is unique. If digital contour maps of an area could be fed into the memory banks of a system that employed radar ground mapping, then the missile could aim itself for precise coordinates on the map, and not be distracted by radar reflections off of nearby jeeps, TV antennae, retirement homes, and school busses.
This method of Terrain Contour Matching, or “TERCOM”, became the basis of Tomahawk. The system did require a huge storehouse of highly accurate contour maps to work, and anticipating every possible area where a map might be needed was difficult – there was, for example, a mad scramble in the work-up to Desert Storm to assemble suitable map sets for the Iraqi theatre. This was a pain, but TERCOM worked. Using its stored digital maps, a Tomahawk could wend its way up the sides of mountains and down valleys, follow rivers and highways, steer evasive patterns cross-country, and land with an accuracy of a bit less than 100 feet. In tests, TERCOM often navigated missiles to direct hits – a lot depended on the quality of the stored maps.
In 1991, Tomahawks hit Iraqi airfields and bunkers, knocked out key command and control facilities, and bombarded industrial sites and storage depots. A sub-variant loaded with hundreds of small “bomblet” munitions (essentially grenades), rather than one big warhead, was used as a sort of miniature bomber to scatter loads of explosives over soft targets such as parked aircraft. There are even reports that a few specially-modified Tomahawks navigated their way merrily along the lengths of Iraqi hydro-electric lines, dropping bundles of carbon filaments that landed on the wires and shorted out large sections of the national power grid.
The success during Desert Storm made the Navy hungry for more. The need to carry a big 1,000 lb. warhead, instead of a much lighter nuclear package, limited the reach of Tomahawk to about 750 miles; the Navy wanted more range. TERCOM was accurate, but it still had a potential miss distance of 100 feet, giving well-hardened targets a good chance of survival; the Navy wanted more accuracy. Hitting pre-planned map coordinates was fine for attacking runways and bunkers, but it would be even better if a Tomahawk could respond to a fluid battle situation and provide something closer to the equivalent of tactical air support, dropping on coordinates fed to it as changing circumstances developed; the Navy wanted more flexibility. The answer to all these unreasonable demands was supplied in a new variant called “Tactical Tomahawk”.
A substantial increase in range has been achieved with improved, more fuel-efficient turbofans, and Tactical Tomahawk should have a range of about 1,500 miles.
As to guidance, the TERCOM system is retained for navigation to the target area, but this is now augmented by two systems of far greater accuracy for terminal guidance: first, GPS, that is, the ability to home on grid coordinates fed to it by the highly accurate satellite Global Positioning System, and second, what amounts to a set of eyes, by virtue of Digital Scene Matching Area Correlation (“DSMAC” – you know you’re dealing with a real weapon when it has at least two tongue-twisting acronyms associated with its guidance system). DSMAC relies not on stored maps, but actual digital photographs of the target area, gathered by reconnaissance satellites, aircraft, or remotely piloted drones. An “imaging infrared seeker” in the nose uses infrared energy radiating from the target area to build up a picture of photographic quality, day or night, then compares that picture with the stored digital image. When it sees what it likes, the missile then steers straight for the target.
Between TERCOM, DSMAC and GPS, you could probably send a Tomahawk on a 1,000 mile sojourn to nail a particular flagpole.
More remarkable still is the new data-link that provides targeting flexibility and gives this new version of Tomahawk its “Tactical” designation. In the Gulf War, a Tomahawk had to be launched with a pre-packaged “mission plan”; it had to know where it was going at the moment of launch, and once launched, that was where it was going to go, and that was that. This made Tomahawk highly useful for hitting fixed targets, but if, say, an aircraft noticed a passing formation of tanks below, there was no way to launch a cruise missile at it. By the time a Tomahawk could be programmed to go to the grid coordinates and then make the trip, the tanks would no longer be there.
With new secure digital data-links, more or less impervious to jamming (we hope?), a Tomahawk can now be programmed while still in flight. Normally, the instructions would come from the launching ship, but in theory, a missile could launch without a mission plan, and navigate to an area near the combat zone where it simply loiters, flying lazy figure-eights until somebody needs it to hit something. While I’m not aware of the extent to which this capability has been exploited, there would appear to be no technical bar preventing troops on the ground, using laptop computers, from directing the loitering Tomahawk to assault specific coordinates at a moment’s notice, so that if, say, you are surprised by an opposing tank division rolling over the hill, or if you stumble upon an enemy encampment that nobody knew was there, you can relay the coordinates to the Tomahawk and in it will come. Dozens of cruise missiles might be stacked up like little airliners over O’Hare, waiting to be called upon. For troops on the ground, this would give the cruise missile a role in providing tactical close air support – the soldier would be calling in an air strike, just like it was done in Korea and Viet Nam, only now what responds is not a Corsair or Thunderchief, but a small automated Kamikaze that plunges on to the target, perhaps scattering little bomblets along the way.
It’s also plausible that Tactical Tomahawk could at some point be coordinated with the reconnaissance efforts of pilotless aircraft, like the Reaper drones that have for years been the scourge of targeted individuals all over the world (as well as far too many innocent bystanders, sadly). One can imagine the drones conducting stealthy sweeps of the countryside, relaying images and grid coordinates to the ships offshore, which then feed the data to the cruise missiles.
We’ll know we’ve entered a new dark age when somebody decides to eliminate the middleman and have the Reapers talk directly to the Tomahawks. Maybe they’ll also figure out a way to use aerial tanker versions of the available drones to refuel the Tactical Tomahawks in flight, so that the missiles can loiter in the combat zone for even more extended periods. I’m just letting my imagination run wild here, but at this point nothing would surprise me.
Return of the Gun?
Thus at the turn of the new century, the US Navy, apparently supreme on the open ocean, now had weapons that would give every combat vessel in the fleet the ability to participate in the land war. “Littoral Warfare” became the new operational dogma. Individual ships, their magazines full of cruise missiles, would come close to enemy shorelines (“littoral” is the nautical term for shallow coastal water) and launch strikes against distant land targets, participating directly in the battles ashore. Carrier aircraft still had a prominent role, but now firepower was spread widely throughout the fleet. The Navy would be a far more potent element of a successful land war than anyone could have imagined in the heyday of the battleship.
Yet, there was something about battleships that the Navy still missed. For a ship wading into shallow water in support of land forces, dozens of cruise missiles were certainly going to be useful. Still, now that everybody was thinking about direct support of ground forces, the Navy wanted to be able to pour accurate shellfire inland. The miserable little 5 inch popguns mounted on all surface warships since the 1960s, with their 13 mile range, were just not up to the job in the new world of Littoral warfare. Old Navy men pined for the days when something like the Missouri could fling a devastating broadside of 2,000 lb. shells at targets 22 miles away. Wouldn’t it be great if something similar could be devised using new technology? The Navy hadn’t paid much attention to guns for decades. With 21st century know-how, wouldn’t great range increases be possible? Indeed, wouldn’t it be possible to guide the shells, rather than rely on Newtonian ballistics for accuracy?
A century after Jackie Fisher commissioned Dreadnought, as the requirements for a brand-new land attack destroyer were finalized, the US Navy seemed to have gone full circle. Guns were apparently back in style. But how to improve the Navy’s fire support capabilities?
Certainly, when one considers the punishment that could be meted out by something like an Iowa class battleship, the power of the guns now available to US naval commanders looks downright pitiful. The Mk. 45 5” 54 calibre guns which for decades were the principal guns mounted on most of the Navy’s surface warships are mature and useful weapons, accurate and reliable, with a high rate of fire – but with a range of about 13 miles they provide only modest reach. This shortcoming has been at least partially corrected. For several years now, new units of the Arleigh Burke class of destroyers have been delivered with the improved Mk.45 62 calibre gun, the longer barrel of which, according to some sources, can fling five-inch rounds over 20 nautical miles – almost as far as the 16 inch guns of the Iowas, albeit with far, far less hitting power.
That’s fine if true, but given the present technological possibilities, a 50% range increase for small unguided projectiles might best be described as “meh”. So much more is now possible, and for more than a decade, the Navy has seemed poised on the threshold of a quantum leap in the reach, accuracy and hitting power of naval gunfire. This constant state of “nearly there” has been frustrating, since from a purely technological standpoint there seems to be no reason why ships shouldn’t already be firing finned, rocket-assisted, GPS-guided projectiles with ranges of up to more than sixty miles. Efforts to develop such extended range guided munitions were pursued by the Navy for years, haltingly, but that project was allowed to lapse. Instead, functionally similar technology was perfected for the Army – standard land-based 155 mm. artillery pieces now fire guided shells named “Excalibur”, which achieve extended reach by virtue of aerodynamic surfaces that pop out during flight, turning the shell from mere projectile into a sort of glider. Hundreds of rounds have been used in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past few years, with spectacular success.
The wing-assisted Excalibur rounds are so accurate, that at ranges out to over 20 miles they can be used to provide what would once have been prohibited “danger close” fire support, impacting as little as 250 feet away from friendly forces. The shells are uncannily precise; using fin guidance they manoeuvre to arrive on target in vertical dives, rather than sloping ballistic arcs, with over 90% falling within 10-12 feet of target. This, mind you, under field conditions in live combat. In effect, the standard 155 mm howitzer becomes an F-16 loitering permanently on station, dropping GPS-guided bombs promptly upon demand.
This would therefore seem to be just the ticket, and sensing the obvious, Raytheon has hyped the development of a smaller 5 inch version that could be fired from any Mk.45 gun, perhaps tripling its range. Were this to go anywhere, every destroyer and cruiser in the fleet might be able to drop guided shells precisely on target at ranges from 40-60 miles. Raytheon is also touting a version with a millimetric wave radar seeking head, for use against moving naval targets (swarming boats are the usual threat meant to be addressed by this sort of advanced gunnery). It all sounds very promising, but so far, none of this has amounted to much, and Raytheon has moved on to promoting a larger six inch round that could be used by the new gun systems of the Zumwalt class destroyers, thus far without generating much enthusiasm among the Admirals. And thereby hangs a tale.
New Ships to Fight in the Littoral – Not
It was while Littoral Combat was the prevailing dogma that the Navy began pursuing its next generation of destroyer. Initially referred to as “DD-21” (“21 for “21st Century”) it was to be the first post-war combatant to be specifically designed for land attack and fire support, rather than open ocean sea control missions. The lead ship was named after Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, an innovative and well-respected Chief of Naval Operations in the 1970s, and the design was unlike anything seen in the missile age, incorporating stealthy design features to the same degree as the next generation of Air Force fighters. This meant that the entire topside was to be be almost featureless, everything being flush-mounted or hidden behind doors – no railings, no masts, no aerials sticking up, no funnels, nothing familiar. Search radars, guidance radars, electronic warfare antennae, weapons, everything had to be flush with the deck and superstructure. The artists’ conceptions looked strangely reminiscent of the old Union ironclads of the Civil War.
It was planned that DD-21 would carry a new 6 inch gun, perhaps with barrels that were not housed above deck in turrets, but slanted below deck with the muzzles flush (the acronym here was “VGAS” for “Vertical Gun for Advanced Ships”). What emerged was a gun in a stealthy turret referred to as the Advanced Gun System. The new 6 inch gun, using a rough equivalent to Excalibur’s technology, was supposed to have a very long range, and it would have had far greater hitting power than any 5 inch piece. With two guns, each equipped with about 750 rounds, DD-21 would be able to throw a hail of guided shells, as many as 30 per minute, reaching out to 60, 70, maybe even a hundred miles. This would provide a comfort zone the like of which no army has ever enjoyed – such a weapon would have been a Godsend to beleaguered infantry in Korea and Viet Nam.
The Zumwalt class was thus to epitomize a new era in naval warfare, and from one perspective realize, more thoroughly than anything that preceded them, the vision of grand theorists like Mahan, who championed sea power as the true gold standard of international might. Warships might actually be a decisive tactical factor in land battles.
Then, for a number of reasons, the bottom fell out of the project. As production began on the lead ship, designated DDG-1000, it became obvious that all the new and advanced technology was going to cost a truly painful amount. In a process familiar to anyone who paid attention to the programs that developed the B-2 bomber, the Seawolf attack submarine, the F-22 Raptor, and other such “gold plated” weapons systems, the production run for the new destroyer – at approximately 15,000 tons, more of a heavy cruiser, actually – was repeatedly cut. Initially, the plan was to buy over 30 of the vessels. Then it was seven. Finally, the navy settled on three. Meanwhile, certain particularly expensive systems, including new active array air search radars, were deleted. Flush-mounted antennae for some systems were discarded in favour of “bolt on” radomes that cluttered the deckhouse, and compromised stealth. As is always the case in any sort of manufacturing, unit cost rose as the production run was curtailed.
This reduced the lead ship, USS Zumwalt, and its two sisters to little more than highly expensive technology demonstrators, at a unit cost of about four billion dollars each, rising to almost seven billion if the research and development costs of the program were pro-rated over the three hulls.
This was bad enough, but relative fiasco devolved into outright farce – for there’s a sad and all too typical story behind Raytheon’s latest initiative, described above, to sell a version of Excalibur to the Navy. The Zumwalts desperately need some sort of ammunition they can use. The extremely sophisticated rounds meant to fired by the two Mk. 51 155 mm Advanced Gun Systems – which look thoroughly deadly and futuristic in their stealthy turrets – were conceptually similar to Excalibur: the guided Long Range Land Attack Projectile, the reach of which has been demonstrated in tests to extend to between 60 and 70 miles. Sadly, it turns out that owing to the drastic cut in the production run for the ships, and consequent loss of economies of scale, a single LRLAP costs about $800,000 US, a punishing price tag that even the US Navy can’t afford. Let that sink in. A solitary round is stated to cost US $800,000, and if it’s officially that much, you can bet it’d be a million when delivered. This leaves the Navy in a bit of a pickle. The guns’ peculiar design doesn’t permit them to fire any old 155 mm round, and in any case ordinary ammunition has far less range than needed for the mission – hence Raytheon’s interest in proposing a variant of the Excalibur. This appears to be a logical alternative, but Raytheon’s lobbying efforts have so far come to nought, and the Navy has announced that there are no current plans to do anything at all to arm the guns of the new destroyers, apparently having opted to take a “wait and see” approach.
Another logical and very compelling possibility is provided by the new “Vulcano” ammunition developed by BAE Systems and Leonardo as a joint enterprise, with the goal of vastly extending the range of conventional naval (and land based) artillery. The new rounds are conceptually similar to Excalibur, described in BAE press releases as “capitalizing on new and emerging technology based on a fin-stabilized airframe with canard control for extended range and terminal guidance, with mechanical interfaces that are the same as standard ammunition”. They come in both 5 inch and six inch calibre, and can be either ballistic rounds or guided projectiles (using GPS as a default, but according to BAE, easily augmented by infrared and/or laser seeking systems, for use hitting land targets designated by infantry ashore), both with extended range, and both compatible with most existing guns. The prospects for improving the gunfire potential of US Navy platforms is illustrated in this table produced by BAE:
Note the presence of two gun systems of particular interest: the standard 5 inch Mk. 45, and the six inch Mk. 51 Advanced Gun Systems installed on the Zumwalts. Vulcano, it seems, could satisfy almost all of the US Navy’s requirements for advanced, long range, guided gunfire support.
Yet there’s no sign, thus far, that anybody wants to leap at the opportunities now available. Until the Admirals see something they like at a price they can stomach (one can almost see the Raytheon and BAE reps. jostling and shouting “Hey! Over here!”), the Zumwalts in particular, purpose-designed at fantastic expense to provide fire support to forces ashore, will be scrambling for a mission to fulfil using only their 80 VLS missile tubes. At present, there’s talk of employing them as stealthy hunter-killers that destroy enemy surface units, perhaps by loading them up with the LRASM – but this could be nothing more than a PR exercise, as the Admirals struggle to justify the existence of their hugely expensive white elephants.
There could yet be an answer. Even Excalibur would look like nothing special should a class of weapons once seen only in science fiction – electro-magnetic rail guns – begin to show up on the decks of US warships. Until recently, this didn’t seem like a long-term, pie in the sky ambition. By all accounts the technology was ever so close to being perfected, and it was being reported that a prototype was on the cusp of sea trials, predicted to begin before the end of 2019.
It never happened.
This was a very great disappointment to many of us out here in the peanut gallery, since the promise of such weapons seems enormous. Working rail guns would be able to fire guided shells at unprecedented velocity out to unheard of ranges, as fast as Mach 7 and as far as 100+ miles. Given the right guidance systems they might even be accurate enough to serve in the AAW role, even downing incoming ballistic missiles, at a cost lower than something like an SM-3 by a factor of as much as 120 (an SM-3 costs about 11 million dollars, while a rail gun projectile costs about 90 thousand). If the accuracy of guidance packages for rail gun rounds lived up to projections, an Aegis defender could have hundreds, instead of a couple of dozen, anti-missile rounds at its disposal. Moreover, rail guns would hold pretty much any target, however large and robust, at grave risk; indeed, so much kinetic force is exerted by the impact of a hypersonic rail gun round that the munitions weren’t even designed to incorporate warheads. No need. Targets ashore could be pummelled, and there’s no reason there couldn’t be a version with a terminal seeker, for firing at enemy warships. Another potential game changer, if it could be made to work.
Yet, the Navy’s enthusiasm for electromagnetic artillery waned in recent years. This seemed in part because the development of rail guns also had an impact upon conventional “powder” guns, with the realization that the sleek hyper-velocity rounds designed for the electric system could just as easily be propelled up gun tubes by the expanding gasses of gunpowder. This has been reported to allow conventional guns to throw shells around at the same speed as rail guns, see for example:
Not likely – the speed of the 5 inch HVP is reported to be Mach 3, still a little faster than most conventional naval shells (though there are 5″ rounds in service today that are already reported to reach that muzzle velocity), and this purportedly translates into increased range and hitting power. This might have seemed a cheaper, easier, faster way to go.
More important, and unfortunate, was that testing revealed a number of problems related to rate of fire, barrel longevity, and electrical requirements, issues that may be inherent in the laws of physics and thus not readily overcome with current technology. This is an interesting article that details some of the problems:
There it sat for a while, with the rail gun apparently on life support, while the HVP provided a still promising second best alternative. Then, in a move that disappointed many, the 2021 budget requests indicated that both the rail gun and the HVP seem to have been abandoned:
This seems a great pity, given the potential for vastly increasing ship firepower inherent in these programs, particularly the HVP, which aimed to deliver guided projectiles to the gun magazines of cruisers and destroyers, without requiring any major changes or upgrades to the vessels or their guns, that could have provided a much more numerous and vastly cheaper alternative to missiles in many combat scenarios. The possibilities were amply demonstrated in 2020, when the U.S. Army and Air Force conducted a joint experiment in which a BQM-167 target drone, standing in for a subsonic cruise missile, was downed by guided shells fired from a155mm self-propelled howitzer:
Five inch HVP rounds were successfully tested during the same exercise.
Think of it: downing cruise missiles with bog-standard 155 mm self-propelled artillery! This followed on the heels of another test in which USS Dewey, a Burke class destroyer, completed a barrage of 20 HVP rounds at sea during the RIMPAC exercises in the Summer of 2018.
Sitting out here on the sidelines, the promise of these developments seemed terribly exciting, but the Navy has lots of competing priorities, and the Admirals were, apparently, insufficiently impressed. For now, there will be no long range guided artillery for US warships. The long-awaited revolution in naval gunnery seems always to remain, maddeningly, just over the horizon.
Just thinking about the Zumwalt fiasco can make a sensible person’s blood boil. The entire design was built around the new advanced guns, and they wouldn’t have anything to fire. Perhaps in the future, the new rail guns could be mounted instead, or some new variant of the Army’s 155mm Excalibur round could be used, though each option would require redesign and vast expense. If rail guns are the preferred alternative, the entire program to develop the Advanced Gun System was a waste of money (one is sometimes tempted to ask: so long as you’re setting fire to 20 odd billion semolians, how’s about chucking a couple of million my way?)
Oh well. At least the ships sure looked like they meant business.
Something more cheering: once again, the latest naval surface-to-air missile variant, a member of the venerable “Standard” family dubbed SM-6, has an applicable targeting mode. Because it contains a GPS, it can be fired at fixed targets ashore, and while this would be a rather expensive way to attack the average bunker, there are certainly high value targets that would merit the use of such missiles. The latest generation of Russian SAM systems, like the S-400, comes to mind. Putin has deployed this system in Syria as a way to intimidate Western forces; a destroyer 200 miles out to sea could take it out with a fusillade of rounds travelling faster than high velocity rifle bullets, each with more than twice the reach, and packing about twice the punch, of missiles like HARM that were designed from the outset to hit enemy radars.
So perhaps it will be missiles, not guns, that finally give the Navy some semblance of the long-range fire capability it has craved for so long now. Mind you, nobody is going to be pounding shore targets with multi-million dollar SM-6 rounds, and the fundamental gap in the Navy’s fire support capabilities remains, at least for the time being.
More Woes in the Littoral
The Navy’s other great littoral combat initiative was also in trouble. This was the Littoral Combat Ship, an entirely new class of vessels meant to be optimized for brown water operations of the sort that were supposed to be the Navy’s primary mission in the 21st century. They were designed to be blisteringly fast for warships, capable of between 40 and 50 knots, and the ambitious goal was to equip them with modular mission packages, that could be swapped out quickly in port for different missions. There would be modules for anti-surface warfare, anti-submarine warfare, mine hunting, and so on. Private industry was enlisted to produce two new designs, and each was selected for serial production, the goal being the deployment of 50 warships.
An LCS of the Independence class, which features a trimaran hull.
An LCS of the Freedom class.
The ships certainly looked good; they were sleek and novel, with an ultra-modern sheen to them, and they were as fast as advertised, which made for some impressive promotional videos. The problem, sadly, was that they seemed to lack any sort of offensive armament, and also mounted precious little in the way of defensive weaponry. As initially configured, they amounted, as I noted in a prior essay, to little more than glass-jawed aluminium speedboats that seemed an awfully expensive way to put a helicopter and a 57mm gun to sea. At 600 million a pop, they weren’t cheap, either, and the planned mission modules, which might have added teeth, turned out to be technical nightmares. Worse, the damned ships were mechanically frail, and several high profile breakdowns made the whole program seem like yet another senseless Pentagon money pit, down which cash could be thrown from buckets of increasing capacity, in pursuit of a weapon system that wasn’t worth buying.
Only recently has the Navy awoken to the folly of this program, and incredibly, the first units, just a few years old, are already being retired, while one of the variants is plagued with crippling mechanical problems inherent in the design of the propulsion system. That the first units of the two classes, having never really attained operational status, are being discarded so soon – after being acquired at the cost of 600 million dollars each! – is nothing short of shameful, a scandalous waste of resources, time, and shipyard capacity.
Meanwhile, the whole emphasis on littoral combat was starting to look like a doctrinal dead end. By the second decade of the century, powerful rivals were re-emerging in the blue waters of all those former American lakes. The Russians had some impressive new designs, and were announcing plans to refit some of their more impressive Cold War holdovers, such as the Kirov class battle-cruisers, and the aircraft carrier Kuznetsov. Radical new designs for cruisers, destroyers and aircraft carriers were also put on public display in model form, amid official plans to rebuild Russian naval might. Taken at face value, it was quite unsettling. Nobody wanted NATO warships to be confronted with monsters like these:
It all looked terrifying, until you realized that the Russian economy is actually smaller than Canada’s these days – at about 1.3 trillion, Russian GDP is on a par with Australia’s, and about 7% of America’s. Thus these grandiose projects were almost certainly never going to see the light of day. Still, Russia has been producing some impressive new submarine and frigate designs lately, albeit in small numbers. As a regional power – in regions like the Mediterranean and the Baltic, crucial to NATO – the Russian threat is growing and can’t be discounted.
A much bigger challenge was emanating from China. Here was a superpower on the make, with a huge economy soon to be the world’s largest, and an urge to throw its weight around on the world stage, including at sea – especially in the South China Sea. China actually seems serious in its claims that it owns the South China Sea, through which over 5 trillion dollars worth of global economic output is funnelled on ships each year.
To support their claim, the Chinese have more than specious historical arguments. They’re building and fortifying artificial islands to serve as air and naval bases, constructing them atop coral reefs in chains of little islands like the Spratleys:
This is a complete flouting of international law, and if China really means to annex this crucial part of the Pacific, it’s an intolerable assault on the fundamental tenet of freedom of navigation, a central pillar of Western foreign policy for centuries.
China’s determination to develop the naval assets needed to support their ambitions in the region is manifest. In recent years the Chinese have advanced their ship design capabilities by leaps and bounds, and now deploy 19 vessels that are described as “Aegis-like”, including 12 of the advanced Type 54D, a smaller rival to the US Navy’s Arleigh Burkes:
More threatening still is the new Type 55, a cruiser-sized ship boasting 112 vertical launch tubes according to the latest photographic evidence, an armament in the same league as the US Ticonderogas (which have 122). The first of these, the Nanchang, went to sea in 2020, and she and her sisters, of which at least seven more are now at various stages of construction and commissioning, may serve, like the Ticonderogas, as the air defence coordinators for carrier battle groups. This is a good representation of the final design:
This is the lead ship under construction, followed by an image of the lead ship on patrol, operational.
This is a thoroughly modern design, almost shockingly so, given what the People’s Liberation Army Navy was sending to sea only a few years back. It looks like something that they’d build at the Bath Iron Works, exactly the sort of vessel that should have emerged from the abortive CG(X) project. Shaped for a degree of stealth, and festooned with phased array radars and formidable VLS arrays (the cells of which seem quite a bit larger than their equivalents in the US Mk.41 system), the Type 55 would appear to be superior in some ways to anything now under construction in the West, save perhaps the larger and more radical Zumwalts, if those could be properly outfitted (which would only matter if more than three of them were built). The Flight III Burkes with their new AMDR sets may hold an edge in overall quality and capability of the electronics, but we have no way of knowing at this point, and by most other metrics the Type 55 is clearly a notch above the American destroyers; though classified as a destroyer by the Chinese, at 12,000+ tons it’s undeniably a cruiser. In general terms it resembles the South Korean Sejong class, essentially enlarged Burkes with greater armament, the like of which one wishes the USN was now acquiring.
Meanwhile, the PLAN already has two carriers at sea, the Liaoning, a modernized unit of the Russian Kuznetsov class bought from the Ukraine, and the Shandong, a similar vessel built from scratch, and no doubt incorporating numerous lessons learned from the years of operating the first vessel:
Both are large, but by US standards, comparatively modest vessels in the 65,000 ton class, carrying perhaps 40 aircraft. However, having completed their first home-built carrier, the Chinese are now moving rapidly to construct a new class, the Type 003, reputed to be in the same size class as American supercarriers, and sporting electromagnetic catapults, like those that are making so much trouble on the USS Ford, rather than the ski-jump systems of Liaoning and Shandong, which impose limitations on aircraft launch weights and therefore fuel and payloads. This is an initial impression of what the new carrier will look like:
Here she is under construction:
Here’s a side-by-side comparison with CVN-78 (Ford at top):
Only three catapults vs. four on the Ford, and only two elevators instead of three, but still, terrifying to contemplate.
Almost as bad, depending upon how seriously one interprets the meagre intelligence and uninformed internet chatter, the Chinese may now be further down the road towards a working rail gun than the US, based on images that have come to light picturing a ship outfitted with a very large and boxy turret mounted at the bows:
How awful, if this is for real, to have arrived at the point at which it’s no longer inconceivable that the PLAN would take a prototype of such a weapon to sea before the Americans. It’s predicted in some quarters that Chinese warships will be mounting operational versions of rail guns as early as 2025 – though, as with all such extrapolations, we’ll believe it when we see it. Some commentary derides this as little more than a PR exercise, asserting that China could no more have overcome the issues imposed by the relevant physics than the Americans have, and that rail guns, as it stands, are not practical weapons. It would be nice to think so, but one wonders.
The Chinese threat is in any case formidable, especially since China, unlike the United States (and despite recent joint exercises with the Russians in the Baltic) doesn’t need or aspire to a navy with responsibilities that span the entire globe. Local superiority over the Seventh Fleet in the South China Sea, and a solid presence in a few more distant areas of concern (perhaps the Persian Gulf or off the Horn of Africa), is the primary goal, and is starting to look eminently attainable.
Watching them build their illegal islands, while sailing their new carrier battle groups all over the South China Sea, all the while menacing Taiwan with increasing persistence, it’s almost like they’re snapping their fingers under our noses while taunting “what are you going to do about it?“
So, it turned out that the US Navy’s unchallenged dominance of the seas was a blip, not the new normal. So much for the prevailing dogma of littoral combat.
Full Circle: Back to Sea Control and Traditional Anti-Surface Warfare
Well – what are we going to do about it, anyway?
First, the fetish for littoral combat and brown water operations had to be thrown out the window. The number of Littoral Combat Ships will be cut from 50 to 30, and new multi-purpose frigates will make up the balance. Rather than attempt to buy more Zumwalt class gunboats, the US Navy restarted production of the Arleigh Burkes, ships with robust multi-purpose capabilities based on the Aegis combat system and soon, the new Advanced Missile Defence Radar, an active array design that will vastly improve the ships’ defensive capabilities. The new super-carriers of the Ford class are coming on-line, albeit amid punishing and unforgivable teething troubles and unconscionable expense (14 billion for the lead ship). There’s talk of a multi-year program to expand the fleet to over 350 ships, vs. the Obama era plan for 308; the money and ship building capacity for this may be hard to find, but it’s an indication of the current mood in Washington.
Meanwhile, it became urgent to brush off the old weapons and systems optimized for traditional naval combat and sea control missions, and start developing new hardware. The land attack and power projection capabilities developed over the past couple of decades will remain crucial to US foreign policy – nobody is proposing to scrap the Tomahawk, and the recent action in Syria shows how central the ability to impose a little “TLAM therapy” remains to US power projection. It was, however, time to stop wading around in brown coastal waters, and start thinking about sinking enemy ships and submarines. Hard as it is to believe, there hadn’t been much done or thought about on that score for many years.
Here, you can read about the many ways in which the Americans are planning to advance their anti-aircraft, anti-missile, anti-surface, and anti-submarine systems and weaponry over the next few years:
All sorts of new radars, sonars, missiles, drones, naval aircraft, and warships to carry them all, are now in the works. Weapons once seen only in science fiction, such as lasers and rail guns, are closer to deployment than would have seemed possible only ten years ago. If current plans reach fruition, and whether the fleet expands to 355, or only 305 ships, the U.S. Navy of the future will be mighty.
So there, Russia.
Hey China – how do you like them apples?
Actually, this is no time for boasts or complacency. Mighty the fleet may be, but its potential adversaries are doing a great deal to be just as muscular and threatening in return, and the responsibilities of the US Navy are vast and far-flung.
This could be a difficult century. Freedom of the seas is at stake, and among many unsettling developments, the arc of events in the South China Sea, not much in the news lately, is extremely troubling. If the Chinese really mean to assert sovereignty over the whole area, in effect annexing a huge and vital swath of the Pacific, we simply can’t stand for it. It is not to be borne. I don’t know how we deal with it, and I’m frightened of all the available options, but bottom line: we cannot, must not, stand for it.
Maybe China will back down, in a way that we ensure saves face.
Maybe at some point in the next few decades we’ll witness the greatest sea battle since Leyte Gulf.
One thing is certain: history didn’t end with the end of the Cold War. The remorseless logic of geopolitics is still governing the chess moves on the world’s oceans. Sea power remains crucial to any great power wishing to advance its interests on the global stage. Nothing, then, is new. We saw it at Salamis. We saw it at Trafalgar. We saw it at Midway, the Coral Sea, and Leyte. Who dares imagine any more that we won’t ever see it again?
Naval War in the 21st Century – Ugh
The power, sophistication and sheer expense of modern naval weapon systems is simply breathtaking. It’s easy to become mesmerized by all the flashing lights and flat panel displays, even as one suppresses the discomfiting feeling that the next major naval battle will involve everybody sinking all of each other’s assets in the first five minutes.
Sure, but just look at the gizmos!
I’m as prone to get giddy over the latest weapons as any half-crazed fan-boy. Gotta admit it. Still, taking a step back, it’s hard to warm up to all this technology, the guided weapons, the virtually autonomous robots that amount to little more than passionless, murderous birds of prey hovering over the oceans and battlefields. Imagine being an enemy soldier in a trench somewhere, surveilled by Reaper drones and withering under a barrage of guided Excalibur artillery. Imagine being on an enemy cruiser as your radar shows ghosts that might be stealthy anti-ship missiles, but you can’t be sure because they can’t really be locked and tracked. TERCOM, DSMAC and Excalibur, rail guns, stealthy cruise missiles, sub-hunting drones, on and on, it all adds up to something thoroughly disquieting.
Admittedly, there’s no rationality to this instinctive uneasiness – is it really worse to be killed by an artificially intelligent missile than by a 12 inch shell fired from a dreadnought? Is it really so bad that the new weapons will hit what they’re aimed at more often? Should we really get all dewy-eyed and nostalgic about the old days, when capital ships sent each other to the bottom at the cost of thousands of lives?
Yet who can deny the visceral, compelling romance of a great, beautiful vessel like a battleship, or battle cruiser? There was simply something about such vessels that seemed to express the gravity of the mission for which they were designed, and to look at one, even today, is to experience a sort of emotional satisfaction.
Take the 860-foot-long H.M.S. Hood, pride of the Royal Navy as WW II began, with its clipper bow, sweeping sheerline, and extended quarterdeck, its 15 inch rifles, its bold, aggressive superstructure, all fused together into something somehow indescribably elegant, symmetrical, beautiful and proud.
Think of that last perfect moment before disaster, when Hood sprinted at her maximum 33 knot speed towards Bismarck, her guns firing one-ton shells toward the distant horizon, the Bismarck’s own shells landing all around, throwing up columns of seawater hundreds of feet tall. A sound like flying freight trains would have filled the skies as the shells sailed over at more than twice the speed of sound. Below decks, hundreds of men would have been sweating in unison, opening and closing flash-proof doors in the magazines, ramming silk bags of powder into the breaches of the guns, standing back as the massive rifles recoiled within their turrets. High above them on the open bridge, the officers, picked men, oblivious now to the cold, the wet, and the danger, would have been staring through binoculars at the distant foe as their great engine of war surged forward over the grey ocean. At that instant, they would have been standing at the very summit of their professional ambition. The sinister killing machine of the Nazi tyrants was in their sights.
Somehow, that is a moment we can understand. It stirs the blood. It was noble. Courage, individual skill and stamina still mattered.
Take a look at a picture of Hood. She’s beautiful, isn’t she? Back then, you actually clapped eyes on the foe, you sweated and strained and struggled against fear and fatigue. Maybe that’s just as amoral as sitting in an air-conditioned combat information center and placing a cursor over a symbol on the screen. Maybe today’s technologies are actually to be preferred. When Hood went down, only three out of a ship’s company of over 1,400 bobbed back to the surface. Short of an aircraft carrier going under – unlikely – no loss of a single unit would likely produce even a tenth of those casualties these days. What’s there to miss about the old days?
The Mighty, doomed H.M.S. Hood
I’ll buy that. I guess. Still, it’s hard not to feel that somewhere along the line, we misplaced our souls.