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Warships in the Cruise Missile Age

April 11, 2009

The following is a “set up” for an article we are preparing for next week. This was published at Opinion Editorials in 2006:

Warships in the Cruise Missile Age

Mike Burleson

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 descendent’s 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.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 13, 2009 8:29 am

    Thats a good point Heretic. Though I don’t recall what good camouflage did for blue water ships in the world wars (its was common practice back then), it stands to reason that in a littoral, green water, brown water environment where there are numerous land areas nearby, it is a highly effective measure.

    I would still add the small surface combatant, corvette size or smaller, to the list of being naturally stealthy.

  2. Heretic permalink
    April 12, 2009 11:22 pm

    I wouldn’t go so far as to say that the ultimate in invisible is a submersible. Remember, camouflage works “just as well” as reduced cross sections on sensor returns. As Mike pointed out in another article here on the blog recently, stealth is not just a tech built into your vessel, but also something that YOU DO, operationally. Being able to “blend in” with the background, whether that’s the terrain itself or just the population inhabiting an area, can also render “effective” invisibility to vessels at sea. Note the problem of (correctly!) identifying who the legitimiate, non-criminal Somali fishermen are … and who the pirates hiding among them are.

    Right now, it’s “easier” to hide a submarine (in deeper waters) than it is to hide a ship on the surface. The problem with selecting the submarine as a be-all/end-all platform, just because it’s stealthy, is that the submarine has some pretty severe drawbacks for all kinds of missions that simply aren’t a problem or issue for a surface ship. You can build a submarine to be “fast” on the surface, or when submerged, but not both … and even then, you’ll never be able to keep up with fast attack craft going 40+ knots with a sub (short of sinking it), while you might with a surface ship. Subs are also relatively “thin-skinned” in armor terms, so you really don’t want to be getting shot at, even by small arms, since you never really “know” if you’ve taken critical damage that’ll change your crush depth until it’s too late. Space, weight and volume are at an absolute premium inside a submarine, and because of the small size of the access hatches to the outside world, it’s not easy to swap out the stuff they’ve got inside them. This puts some pretty severe restrictions on crew complement.

    So yeah, submarines are “hard to find” … but then you also have to figure that they’re best for missions where they are NEVER found, and realize that there are a whole lot of jobs at sea which require you to be SEEN in order for you to be effective.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 12, 2009 7:33 pm

    I agree! Who needs giant stealth battleships when you have the naturally stealthy attack submarine. A few stealth corvettes for the littorals will be OK.

  4. Mrs. Davis permalink
    April 12, 2009 5:33 pm

    And the ultimate in invisible is submersible.

  5. Distiller permalink
    April 12, 2009 1:45 pm

    Historic parallel to the torpedo. The torpedo was once thought to be the end of large ships, and was never really defused. The fight against it concentrated against the launch platform. And still does. Once it’s in the water and running … A problem of sensors unable to produce good enough data for countermeasures.
    AShM defense also focused on the launch platform till now. AShMs are basically still crude, the countermeasures against them also, but they are picking up. In the end it again seems a sensor and data problem. Time is critically low, the target sneaky, but the aerial environment less problematic than water. The effectors have to make good. Rapid salvo fired small missiles, fast and agile like HiBEX-UPSTAGE for mid-range defense, maybe small enough to be fired from auto-cannons.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 12, 2009 12:07 pm

    It has to be point defense, Heretic. Don’t expect every missile attack to be launched from sub-sonic Bear bombers where you have ample time to heat up your Aegis radar. they will be quick and unexpected, which has been the norm of such strikes almost without exception, with only seconds to react.

  7. Heretic permalink
    April 12, 2009 11:44 am

    Exactly … and it’s hard(er) to be “invisible” when you’re great big honking huge and way too expensive to risk. Hence the hillarious motivational poster of the gigantic DDG-1000 assaulting a coast within visual range of the shoreline “while under cover of daylight” … bringing the cognitive dissonance of current (or, just recently past) Navy thinking into sharp relief.

  8. Mrs. Davis permalink
    April 12, 2009 7:11 am

    That alternative makes invisible look pretty good for the forseeable future.

  9. Heretic permalink
    April 12, 2009 2:00 am

    You’ve basically got 3 options … which are not necessarily exclusive of one another.


    Invincible means (essentially) that you can take the hit and recover from it. Invisible means you can’t be found to be attacked. Defensible means that you can deploy countermeasures to defeat the incoming attack before it can damage you.

    The technology that’s (probably) going to “defeat” the cruise missile threat is directed energy … ie. electric lasers. Mount an optical turret atop the mast/island with a 360 degree view to the horizon, and if you can disrupt/destroy an incoming cruise missile in 1-2 seconds then you’ve probably (probably…) put enough of a dent into the cruise missile’s viability as a fire-and-forget weapon to change the calculus once again. There will, of course, be scenarios where use of directed energy point defense will fail (such as heavy fog perhaps), so it’s not a “cure all” defensive system in all environmental conditions.

  10. Mrs. Davis permalink
    April 11, 2009 8:38 pm

    Builds character. Toes are blue. I’ll b3epraying hard tonight.

  11. Mike Burleson permalink
    April 11, 2009 6:53 pm

    Into the spam can with that! Knew this would happen when I stopped moderating the comments. Probably leave it like it is, though, as sometimes I get busy and can’t check the blog as much as I like. Try to catch the weird stuff ASAP, so bear with me.

  12. B.Smitty permalink
    April 11, 2009 5:55 pm


    It sounds like you have an admirer! ;)

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