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Warships in the Cruise Missile Age

October 9, 2008

Another “Golden Oldie” article via Opinion Editorials, this time from 2006. Here I point to the need to build warships for new revolutionary weapons, in this case cruise missiles, rather than trying to put “new wine in old bottles”:

Warships in the Cruise Missile Age

The modern cruise missile has become the dominant weapon at sea, in the way that precision “smart bombs” have transformed warfare in the air and on land. Its impact can be seen in the design of new warships: astonishingly sophisticated and expensive Aegis vessels, plus silent and deadly stealth ships nearly invisible to radar.

Cruise missiles are like ballistic missiles, equipped with a warhead, guidance systems, and rocket motors, but fly more like airplanes with tiny wings. Typical speeds vary from high subsonic to supersonic, with ranges averaging from 30 to 2000 miles. They can be launched from surface ships, submarines, aircraft, or from land. Some popular versions are America’s Harpoon and Tomahawk; France’s Exocet; China’s Silkworm; and Russia’s Sunburn.

First use of these unique weapons was in 1967, when two Russian made Styx missiles, fired by Egyptian gunboats, sank the elderly Israeli destroyer EILAT. In an even more dramatic display of the new warfare, a modern British anti-aircraft destroyer was sunk by a single Exocet fired by Argentine aircraft, in the Falklands War of 1982. In 1987, America felt the sting of the Exocet when two Iraqi-fired missiles slammed into and nearly sank the USS STARK in the Persian Gulf, during the Tanker War.

We get a glimpse of what impact the cruise missile will have on future ship design by studying the past. When the iron ram was fitted to the galley in ancient times, it became an oar-propelled weapon of mass destruction. The placing of massive land guns on sailing warships around the 16th Century gave us the mighty ship-of-the-line, which eventually morphed into the modern battleship. Robert Whitehead built the self-propelled torpedo in 1866 which, when fitted to fast boats and submarines, threatened the battleship’s supremacy at sea. Finally, airplanes launched from aircraft carriers and equipped with torpedoes and bombs, ended that supremacy altogether.

Though battleships and carriers are still with us, in dwindling numbers, today’s capital ship is the American Aegis missile cruiser, also found on destroyers and frigates in other navies. Aegis was designed to track and destroy cruise missiles that threaten the battle fleet. Beginning in the 1980’s, cruisers began carrying the new weapons themselves, allowing them to conduct missions in Surface Action Groups away from the protective air umbrella of the carriers. The modern attack submarine, which is invulnerable to missile attack while submerged, will likely soon take the cruiser’s place of primacy at sea.

Fast stealth craft, direct descendants of the old torpedo boat, have also been constructed by smaller navies such as Sweden and Norway. America is currently building a new type called the littoral combat ship USS FREEDOM, a fast multi-mission vessel. At 3000 tons, this ship is probably too large and vulnerable to missile armed subs and attack craft in shallow waters, much like the destroyer EILAT at the dawn of the cruise missile age. A smaller ship, like the Titan X Craft of about 1500 tons would be large enough for ocean voyages the US Navy requires, plus effective to use as a missile boat destroyer.

So, with stealth boats and submarines we see the cruise missile driving the change at sea, with only the last surviving from traditional warships. Newer versions of the weapon, which can perform the role of aircraft and return to the parent ship, or perform surveillance like a UAV are already on the drawing boards. Rather than remain an add on to the older cruisers, destroyers, and subs, the cruise missile has become the arm of decision which must be taken into account in new warship designs.

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