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Unleash the TLAM Warships Pt 2

August 18, 2009
US, Australian. and UK warships.

US, Australian. and UK warships.

It is a little frustrating when you consider with our 86 TLAM (Tomahawk Land Attack Missile) armed surface battleships in service , the USN has next to nothing for the low-end spectrum of warfare, the kind she most often contends with, save for a few aged frigates and coastal patrol ships. For the price of a single Burke destroyer (around $2 billion) several frigates (LCS), or a squadron of High Speed Vessels, or a whole fleet of small patrol boats could be acquired for shallow water threats. Still there is no denying that in the last 20 years while the aircraft carrier union has been struggling with buying enough adequate warplanes for its over-priced decks, the surface and submarine community has deployed a potent arsenal of some 10,000 missiles based in vertical launchers (VLS), with firepower and accuracy the likes of which the world has never seen. Concerning this, here is something we wrote way back in 2003 titled “America’s Vast Missile Magazine“:

Robert Work, a retired Marine Colonel and an analyst for the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments stated in “Navy Times” last week: “The Navy has fielded a tremendous capability in a relatively short amount of time. The Navy has transformed itself into a vast mobile, missile magazine.” What Colonel Work is referring to is the widespread employment of the Vertical Launch System (VLS) on board US warships, and the remarkable capability it offers to surface as well as sub commanders, offering them an anti-surface as well as overland strike capacity unheard in naval warfare…

Vertical launch system (VLS) on USS Normandy (CG-60)

Vertical launch system (VLS) on USS Normandy (CG-60)

The first class of warships to carry VLS was the Baseline 2 “Bunker Hill” class guided missile cruisers, built in the early 1980’s. Each carried 122 missiles and included a total 22 ships. Later “Spruance” class ships were likewise converted. Interestingly, the “Spruance” VLS can fire Tomahawk as well as ASROC; it is considered a DD or general-purpose destroyer and not a guided missile destroyer. The “Arleigh Burke” guided missile destroyers continue the VLS tradition, with launchers fore and aft. Considered an “Aegis lite” with 75% its capability, a total of 90+ missiles are carried carrying a mix of Tomahawks and Standard SAMs. The “Los Angeles” class submarines, beginning with SSN 719, carried 12 Tomahawks in a Vertical launcher behind the fin. The next class, “Seawolf”, returned to the older torpedo tube version, while newer “Virginia” ships will reintroduce the VLS in American submarine design.


During the 1990’s the Navy planned a floating missile barge dubbed the “Arsenal Ship”. It would have been built on a modified Arleigh Burke hull and carry anywhere from 500 to 1000 missiles! A very promising design that was soon canceled because of budgetary reasons and doubts in the design. The idea was recently revived in a new form by remodeling 4 old Trident “boomer” submarines, being discarded because of nuclear arms reductions, and turning them into SSGN subs, able to fire 155 Tomahawk cruise missiles. The big Tridents’ vast hull allows them to carry 66 Special Forces in addition to their equipment. The first, “USS Florida” recently underwent successful tests in the Caribbean Sea.

Spruance class destroyer USS Arthur W Radford leads the Arleigh Burke class USS Mahan.

Spruance class destroyer USS Arthur W Radford leads the Arleigh Burke class USS Mahan.

Obviously the Tomahawk cruise missile, costing around $600,000, with each weapon lost after launching, can never perform sorties or close air support like the traditional manned naval bomber (though future naval UAVs likely will and already do so on land). When you consider however, the supreme effort it takes to deploy the manned airwings, multiple billion dollar carriers, and equally pricey missile escorts plus submarines, and the logistics train, in contrast to one Arleigh Burke destroyer or a Virginia class submarine which can perform many of the same functions, then the real cost difference is put into perspective.

Hopefully in the near future, the USN will build many smaller missile launching corvettes and conventional submarines, which will take further advantage of the power of modern missiles at less cost. Smaller common platforms would easily double or triple our general purpose operating forces, vital naval assets which we never have enough of in wartime. Capability and firepower would then be spread around the fleet, greatly easing our presence deficit.

Concluded Wednesday with Corbett’s justification of  the TLAM Battleships!

13 Comments leave one →
  1. Distiller permalink
    August 20, 2009 12:50 am

    Want to add something here: Double vs single ended is tightly connected with the single vs dual task doctrine. The real issue with double-ended surface combatants is that it cuts into the aviation complex volume. That is acceptable for an anti-air tasked surface combatant, but puts severe limits on the anti-submarine tasked surface combatants. If you go for a one-size-fits-all approach, you end up with either a medium ship of limited offensive mission capability (the European frigates doing destroyer jobs – Horizon, Daring, FREMM), or a huge one of 10.000ts and more (the USN way – Burke, too small even though giant).

  2. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 19, 2009 11:39 am

    Mark I am not sure I say would have the same capabilties, but still plenty of firepower while you still have the vital numbers.

  3. Mark permalink
    August 19, 2009 11:13 am

    Chuck: Thanks for the info.

    Mike: I have a dumb question, by single vs double ended do you mean having 1 vs 2 VLS banks? So a single ended cruiser or destroyer would lose roughly half their VLS load and have a shorter, cheaper hull — but otherwise have the same capabilities.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 19, 2009 4:45 am

    Distiller, makes a lot of sense. Economical, yet still powerful. But you always need some warships for persistence and presence. For now our TLAM ships will do but you need lots of smaller ships in this era of many threats, which present less a target and you aren’t putting all your eggs in one basket.

    I always wondered why we needed double-end cruisers and destroyers, when our weapons are so much more accurate and powerful. It all seems so much over-kill and waste. The Navy fears it will “run out” of missiles in a shooting war, but with precision this is no more a problem than with the old gun battleships and their salvos. The leadership still thinks in terms of salvos and sorties rather than precision strikes. A single end vessel as the Europeans build are cheaper, thus you could have more of them, and you still are sending the new weapons to sea.

  5. Distiller permalink
    August 19, 2009 3:10 am

    Remember the B747 CMCA of the Carter years? I’m not at all convinced of putting heavy, long-range land attack missiles on surface combatants. The airborne option seems much more attractive – less stress for the missiles, scalable, more flexible (operational and tactical), more sustainable, even more responsive most of the time. Don’t even needs a dedicated aircraft like that 747, as a plug’n play launch robot for the C-5 or C-17 could be built. And for a massive initial salvo the SSGNs would still be around.

  6. Chuck Hill permalink
    August 19, 2009 1:29 am


    On the typical installation their is either an 8×8 or 4×8 grid, so their would be 64 or 32, but three of the positions are taken up by the UNREP equipment that is give 61 or 21 remaining. That is how you get to 122 tubes (61+61) or 90 tubes (61+29).

  7. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 18, 2009 8:17 pm

    “don’t forget ESSM which fit more than one missile per tube–four”

    Good point Chuck! I should have wrote “at least 10,000 missiles”!

  8. Mark permalink
    August 18, 2009 7:17 pm

    For underway rearming of the VLS, I found some references on the Ticos, but I can’t find anything that says the Burkes can be rearmed at sea, can they? And I assume subs can’t be rearmed. I’m no expert, though, so I’m just going based on sources I can find with google.

    As to attack subs, my understanding was the first 30 or so Los Angeles class were built without VLS. The later variants have 12 VLS missiles. Only 62 total have been built so my guesstimate is 30-31 of the 45 active have VLS, unless the early Los Angeles subs were retrofitted with VLS.

  9. Chuck Hill permalink
    August 18, 2009 5:38 pm

    Counting the number of missile, don’t forget ESSM which fit more than one missile per tube–four if I remember correctly.

  10. Mike Burleson permalink*
    August 18, 2009 4:02 pm

    Mark, your numbers are about right, but we only have 36 attack subs? and what about the 3 Sea Wolfs? My number was a round figure, more or less.

    “aren’t the Aegis BMD missiles specific to BMD — ie they can’t be used for surface attack.” I don’t think that’s correct, but maybe other readers could verify this.

    Neither did I mean to insinuate the “vast missile magazine” were all Tomahawks.

  11. Chuck Hill permalink
    August 18, 2009 2:27 pm

    There is an underway replenishment capability for the VLS.

  12. Mark permalink
    August 18, 2009 12:20 pm

    Is it really 10,000 VLS missiles?
    I’m not sure about the Los Angeles or Virginia #s, but here’s my quick estimate.
    22 Ticos x 122 = 2684
    55 Burkes x 90 = 4950
    4 Ohios x 154 = 616
    31 (?) Los Angeles x 12 = 372
    5 Virginias x 12 (?)= 60

    So, I get 8,682. Am I wrong about the LA and Virginia #s? 12 missiles doesn’t seem like much. Also aren’t the Aegis BMD missiles specific to BMD — ie they can’t be used for surface attack. So the Ticos and Burkes have to devote some portion of their VLS missiles to the BMD task, right?

    (I have no idea if I’m treading on classified info here — I’m an IT geek, so I’m just guessing based on public info — I’d bet the exact mix of land attack and BMD missiles in an Aegis ship is a secret, but also probably a rough estimate is easily guessed by the enemy.)

    Can we make the VLS missiles be flexible enough that they can do everything — BMD, and air defense, and land attack? Probably would increase missile cost, but would increase mission flexibility for the Aegis ships a great deal.

    Or how about re-loading VLS at sea? I assume that right now we have to guess the mission at port, load up the mix of missiles we think will be needed, and hope we are correct. It’d be great if a missile resupply ship could reload the right missile closer to the battle. Of course, the missile resupply ship would be a hell of a target, so maybe that’s a bad idea.

    Do the LCS ships just not have enough space to add VLS?


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