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The Navy and the Missile Threat Pt 1

October 12, 2009

A Standard Missile Three (SM-3) is launched from the guided missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67).

A Standard Missile Three (SM-3) is launched from the guided missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG 67).

The following was inspired by a conversation within the comments recently


There can be, it must be emphasized, no invulnerable ship, and excessive attention to passive defence takes resources away from the primary role of a warship.

DK Brown writing in The Future British Surface Fleet

Since the 1970s the US Navy has built or ordered 99 Aegis equipped anti-missile warships, the 27 CG-47 Ticonderoga class cruisers (5 decommissioned) and 62 DDG-51 Arleigh Burke class destroyers which their own websight describes as “the most powerful surface combatant ever put to sea.” They are also the most expensive now averaging $2 billion each.

During the same 40-yr time period only about 50 low end escort frigates of the Perry class have been built. Such vessels easy to build and cheap to operate are historically the most numerous and some of the fleet’s hardest working vessels, until more recent times. Only a single such craft has been commissioned in the last twenty years, the new Littoral Combat Ship USS Freedom.

Obviously then the Navy sees the guided missile as a greater threat, otherwise it wouldn’t also have devised the $10 million each SM-3 Standard to shoot down rogue ballistic missiles. This weapon, about the cost of a new M-1 tank now defends a Navy almost totally committed with countering the missile threat against its ships.

History reveals missile weapons have been a major concern throughout, and not just at sea. The Medieval French knight tried to contend with the English Longbow by the overwhelming force of its charge, and when this failed, by adding even more armor to its already heavy cavalry. Such a costly tactic only slowed the knights down so they tried dismounting and hiring Genoese crossbowmen, sort of a poor-man’s longbow, but this strategy failed as well. The French gave up for a while trying to adapt their traditional tactics to the new warfare, until another missile weapon restored the balance. The use of firearms defeated the English archers at their own game, even though the new weapons were nowhere near as efficient, or possessed of better range, and the rate of fire of the guns was sadly below that of a longbow.

What made the difference however, the new technology was perfectly suited for mass production, and their operators could learn their use in a few hours, compared to a lifetime of training needed to wield the longbow. Here was a true weapon for the masses which had no small part in the revolutions between monarchism and Republicanism that would envelop Europe and eventually the world.

Bringing us back to the Missile Age, such advanced weapons are far from efficient as traditional manned aircraft, the chosen weapons of Great Democracies like America and Britain. They are certainly far from cheap as we see with the SM-3. For a poorer nation, however, ballistic missiles, cruise missiles, surface to air missiles, down to rocket propelled grenades are much easy to purchase on the arms market, and also easier to deploy in numbers. Such nations may lack the ability to deploy significant numbers of jets, or construct huge airbases, and build air schools to train pilots, but they can easily set up a missile battery with aid from more advanced and often unfriendly nations as China and Russia.

Not everyone can become a pilot, but any youth who can master a video game can be taught to operate a missile battery, or learn to control a “reusable cruise missile” in the form of unmanned aerial vehicles. Hence the title “push button warfare”, with the guided missile as a new weapon for the masses, of great concern to the powers that be.

The new Navy might learn a lesson from the old French knights, that continuing to  increase defenses will only raise costs and hull size while delaying  the inevitable. The armored horsemen eventually shed off their armor, and played an important but secondary role for the next few centuries, or dismounted altogether to join the foot soldier in column as the arbiters of new mass firepower based on numbers. Instead of seeking to counter the abilities of the guided missile, the sailors might take advantage of its practical qualities, to build many smaller and less defensive minded warships best able to take advantage of this new threat at sea.

Tomorrow-Admiral Metcalf sees the future.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. Jed permalink
    October 13, 2009 9:05 am

    OK Mike now I understand what your getting at a little better, just don’t forget even your 52 strong force of OHP Frigates carried Standard SM2MR !

    And you might have a “small force” of exquisite ships in absolute numbers, but its probably bigger than the next 3 peer competitors put together !!

  2. October 12, 2009 9:38 pm

    Small, lethal and very fast on the surface, flexible, wideranging and lethal above the oceans up to 100,000 feet plus, AND massed, arrayed underwater assets of great variety will determine who rules the oceans in the future. The only disagreement is when the “future” begins. As an amateur I believe it has already begun. Give the carriers to the Chinese, free the Navy. They were remarkable, they remain extraordinary examples of engineering. Now they drain manpower and huge amounts of funding, distort the mission and the vision. I know all the yelling and muttering this kind of amateur talk arouses but until we give up the idea of the carrier we will not embrace the technologies that are enveloping us. We have the seamanship, the skills, and the technologies to reinvent our vast advantages. But we have to free up the assets and stop sucking at the security blankets which are stifling the next generation.

  3. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 12, 2009 9:22 pm

    Don’t get me wrong, I like Aegis since it has given the surface combatant the ability to operate independent of aircraft carriers, something unthinkable since WW 2. Still, if every one of your ships, or even the bulk of your fleet is Aegis, then you end up with a pretty small fleet of high end warships, very capable, but only able to be in one place at a given time.

    So, just like every warship needn’t be guarded by naval air these days, so shouldn’t every function of a navy be subservient 100+ mile range of a Standard missile armed vessel. I think we can build better and smarter which is the thrust of my argument tomorrow as well.

  4. Jed permalink
    October 12, 2009 8:43 pm

    Mike said:

    “The Aegis is a wonderful system, but seems to overwhelm the primary mission of a vessel which is fight, not just survive.”

    How exactly is carrying the AEGIS system on a CCG or DDG “overwhelming” the primary mission ? All these ships carry one or two 5 inch guns for NGS, they carry one or two SH60 class helo for ASW, alongside hull mounted and in some of them, towed array sonars, VL_Asroc and torpedo tubes. Most of them carry 8 x Harpoon anti-ship missiles, and many of them carry shed loads of land attack Tomahawk missiles in their VLS suites.

    SM3 is for ballistic missile defence. SM2ER and SM6 are amongst the longest ranged surface to air missiles available, with multiple seeker technology.SM2’s probably, and the ESSM’s which can be quad-packed into the VLS suites definately have an anti-ship role too. (as of course does the SH60 with Hellfires against smaller targets).

    Yes AEGIS ships are expensive, they are also the most rounded and probably the most capable war ships in the world. So how on earth do you think that equipping a vessel with the AEGIS weapons system prevents it from going on the attack ? AEGIS IS what allows the ship to attack, because it protects the ship itself and the rest of the battle group (including the carrier and its air wing) from the air threat. So to be honest Mike, I am not understanding the thrust of your post :-(

    By the way, recent experimental archeology suggests that the bodkin headed longbow arrow (the “knight killer”) could in fact only penetrate full plate armour at very close range – the longbow was successfully at Agincourt, Crecy and Poitiers because it was used like MLRS – mass artillery, ot aimed fire. And an unhorsed knight was as likely to be trampled to death or pushed into the mud to suffocate, or be finished off later by a ‘man at arms’ with a big knife !

  5. Heretic permalink
    October 12, 2009 5:12 pm

    Like the Kockums brochure for the Visby corvette says, you’ve basically got two solutions for surviving against threats … be invulnerable, or be invisible.

  6. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 12, 2009 3:31 pm

    Again there must always be balance in a ship’s defensive/offensive capabilities. The Aegis is a wonderful system, but seems to overwhelm the primary mission of a vessel which is fight, not just survive. This is why I often say take the phased array radar out of individual ships, place it in a mothership which can control several missile ships at once. Spread the capability around, you get more capability, not less. I see little risk because we have been using carriers as “motherships” of a sort for decades, and as the only offensive weapon in our arsenal, until the advent of cruise missiles on surface combatants returned their own offensive capabilities.

  7. Anonymous permalink
    October 12, 2009 1:47 pm

    I remember that line in Mr Brown’s book. Didn’t he go onto to say something to the effective of “if the point (I think he meant ship) weren’t there it wouldn’t need defending.”

    TBH this is one of the few things with which I disagree with the late Mr Brown. An armed service’s first duty is to bring about the destruction of the enemy. If the ship is sunk it cannot do this, simple as that. Further by destroying the weapons of the enemy he causing attrition.

    Lastly the moral of the crew has to be considered. Closed down a few decks down waiting for the “explosion” can’t be good for the effectiveness of the crew however professional.

    This reminds me of that story of the USN commander who visited a T42. After being all the latest and greatest sensors the commander turned to his hosts and said “Gee you guys no exactly when you are going to die.”

    Didn’t Mr Brown suggest the fitting of guns to promote crew moral?

  8. B.Smitty permalink
    October 12, 2009 11:50 am

    Hudson said, “As things stand today, the advantage goes to the side that gets off the first broadside or barrage of missiles.

    Also known as,

    “Fire effectively first”
    – Capt. Wayne P. Hughes.

  9. UndergradProgressive permalink
    October 12, 2009 11:38 am

    I would much like to see what Hudson mentioned, a scenario where FACs such as the PRC’s Type 022 attack a carrier battle group patrolling the Taiwan Straits.

  10. Joe permalink
    October 12, 2009 11:29 am

    P.S. – I hate it when I screw up tag usage.

    Mike, is there a practical way to add a “preview” mode to the posting of comments?

  11. Joe permalink
    October 12, 2009 11:28 am

    Joe K. “Hey wait a second, how would you put stealth on a cheap tin can anyway?

    Isn’t that cost inefficient?”

    I can only guess, but would offer up one that we’re about to see another posting that advocates four things…

    1. submarines (the primary stealth approach – under water)
    2. 1,000 ton corvettes (secondary stealth – small and harder to see on the sea)
    3. arsenal ships
    4. motherships

    …as the only fleet you’d ever need.

  12. Hudson permalink
    October 12, 2009 10:46 am

    I think the offense has the advantage over defense: in your analogy, the longbow over armored cavalry, or the mounted Asian recurved bow over cavalry and infantry. Richard III partly solved that problem during the Crusades by padding his infantry with heavy felt protection.

    A barrage of Russian “Sizzler” type missiles that can “communicate” with each other and “plan” the best angle of attack, etc., is frightening, to say the least. However, this is not an us vs. them analogy; England vs. France or the U.S. vs. China. It’s a problem for any blue water navy. They all have the armor and the longbow.

    As things stand today, the advantage goes to the side that gets off the first broadside or barrage of missiles. Of course, any attack launched by one blue water power against another will have far ranging implications beyond the immediate battle. Whether a fleet of FACs vs. a carrier battle group, especially considering whether a FAC can properly provide over the horizon guidance for its missiles, is a fair fight with the carrier group that might launch scores of missiles and aircraft in a preemptive strike, is an interesting topic for discussion.

  13. Joe K. permalink
    October 12, 2009 10:40 am

    Hey wait a second, how would you put stealth on a cheap tin can anyway?

    Isn’t that cost inefficient?

  14. Joe K. permalink
    October 12, 2009 10:37 am

    Can’t constantly fight conventional forces with unconventional units.

  15. Mike Burleson permalink*
    October 12, 2009 10:05 am

    Joe, there are other kinds of defenses and stealth is one. See tomorrow’s post.

  16. Joe K. permalink
    October 12, 2009 9:40 am

    So…build a ship that has absolutely NO defenses against these kinds of missiles and build more of them so the Chinese can’t sink them all?

    Sounds like StarCraft nutjob rationality.

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