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Navy Tests Advanced Sub-Missile Launcher

April 18, 2010

An artist's concept of the Water Piercing Missile Operational Concept. The technology could provide submarines at periscope depth with a "stand and fight" defensive missile capability against surface threats.

Can it be that the world’s top destroyer of ships and original stealth vessel has just gotten more lethal? The US Navy has tested a new water-piercing missile launcher in land-locked Indiana that could change the types of missiles almost any submarine can carry. Story from Navy News:

A missile launcher that is being considered for the next generation of strategic submarines, and could be used on existing submarines, is being tested at the Glendora Lake Facility 50 miles from Crane Division, Naval Surface Warfare Center (NSWC Crane), Ind…

In the past, missiles would launch from submarines and make their way to the surface through the water. A missile in the WPML missile launcher works differently –it uses its own exhaust to create an atmosphere for the missile to enter, almost like its own tunnel to the surface.

The implications of  such a launcher is, you won’t have to build specialized missiles for firing from undersea:

If WPML continues to work, the Navy won’t have to make missiles specifically designed for submarines, but use existing missiles designed for aircraft or helicopters. Yagla added that anti-aircraft warfare missiles like Sidewinders “would allow the submarines to spend more time in shallow water supporting special operations missions ashore.”

Another missile that can be used is the Army’s future combat system non-line of sight missile.

If they can get the latter to work properly, but still this is very exiting and could grant a whole new flexibility to the modern sub, very economically. I realize this will anger the carrier advocates out there, but a $14 billion supercarrier just can’t match this type of adaptability, at least not without “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. In other words, so much is spent on the hull itself, there is very little funds left for the important thing about carriers, which is their aircraft. Here you see the still mostly affordable submarine (even more if it is a conventional type) now being able to utilize an amazing and diverse family of weapons. That to me is the future of warfare, not giant and shrinking number of platforms.

“They are small surface-to-surface missiles that can be fired at distant targets such as tanks, armored personnel carriers and buildings,” said Yagla.

As with the Sidewinder, this missile would assist Navy special operation forces to obtain fire support from submarines.


17 Comments leave one →
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  2. B.Smitty permalink
    April 19, 2010 12:43 pm

    Mike said, “Again, other platforms do this at far less cost, and without diverting essential funds from the fleet as a whole.

    What other platforms?

    The way I see it, currently, there are the following candidates:

    1. Land-based tacair. If there are friendly, politically-acceptable bases in range, then this is the best option. But as we’ve seen, in the “wars we’re fighting today”, this is not often the case. Also, the cost (both political and monetary) of maintaining land bases in foreign territory all over the world is extremely high.

    2.Land-based bombers Friendly, politically-acceptable basing in range is easier to come by for long-ranged bombers, but this still is an issue. Flying from Diego Garcia to Afghanistan cuts the sortie rate for a bomber to once every other day or so. Plus Diego is not a huge base and we don’t have that many bombers (and the ones we have were expensive to build). And as with 1., the cost of basing around the world is high.

    3. TLAMs Not recoverable, and don’t contribute to the ISR picture, so not an option.

    So carrier-air seems to have the right mix of a relocatable airfield, aircraft with “useful” range, sustained sortie rates, munitions flexibility, and ISR capable air vehicles. They are, after all, the Navy’s primary contribution to the “wars we are fighting today”.

    For speculative, future possibilities we can add the following:

    4. Smaller CATOBAR carriers We’ve had these in the past, and it is certainly an option, but increasing the number of CVBGs increases the cost in escorts needed, and smaller carriers carry less of everything. For example, IIRC, a Midway class carrier had around half a million gallons of aviation fuel. A Nimitz class has around three million gallons of aviation fuel. So a Midway has to come off station far more often to refuel. Plus, size doesn’t determine price as much as the systems installed.

    5. Small STOVL carriers These carriers lack the force multipliers (e.g. AEW, EW, tanking) of the larger CATOBAR carriers, and their primary aircraft are less capable. Plus, they have even smaller tankage than the carriers in option 4, and they require even more escorts than option 4.

    6. Land-based UCAVs A large, Global Hawk-ranged strike UCAV could be an effective supplement to other systems, but it still suffers from the lack of suitable land basing and low sortie rates.

    I’m sure there are variations that I missed, but I think I hit the highlights.

    (Note: I don’t consider flying armed Fire Scouts or even Hummingbirds off the back of corvettes to be a realistic alternative.)

  3. Heretic permalink
    April 19, 2010 12:42 pm

    SSK + AIP + MLRS from Periscope Depth = NGFS from Littoral Spaces within LOS of shore

    The real trick though is going to be having a Flo/Flo rearming tender held in reserve over the horizon capable of reloading the MLRS tubes so you can shuttle a MLRS sub back and forth to near shore to cover a beach assault without having to send it all the way back to the barn to get reloads.

  4. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 19, 2010 9:45 am

    Smitty wrote ” fly 700 nm to provide ISR and CAS to a convoy on the ground,”

    Again, other platforms do this at far less cost, and without diverting essential funds from the fleet as a whole. Concerning vulnerability, if your few launch platforms are either sunk or unavailable because it has fuel link or something, you have lost this capability anyway.

    If you disperse capabilty you are sure to have it when needed.

  5. Distiller permalink
    April 19, 2010 3:52 am

    @ Marcase: Prop powered ASW aircraft can be heared quite a distance under water. That’s one of the reasons the Viking had turbofans and why the Nimrod is such a good hunter.

  6. B.Smitty permalink
    April 18, 2010 5:12 pm

    Mike said, “I never deny the capabilities of a giant carrier, just the idea that new technology is duplicating the mission, at far less cost and vulnerability.

    The day I see a missile launch from a sub, fly 700 nm to provide ISR and CAS to a convoy on the ground, and return back to be used again tomorrow, I’ll believe it.

  7. Marcase permalink
    April 18, 2010 4:09 pm

    TD – a subs nemesis are ASW helicopters and MPAs. A sub can hear ships, and if he’s lucky a helo, but a Nimrod, Orion or Atlantic is difficult to hear, except when they’re splashing sonobouys around him. Having that sub-SAM available would make a good deterrent.

    Then again, *any* submarine missile launch is a dead giveaway.

  8. April 18, 2010 3:50 pm

    Not convinced on anti air, isn’t this negating a subs greatest advantage, its stealth. If you are in a stand up fight that needs you to launch a SAM then you have already lost because whatever it hits is going to have friends.

    An alternative to Tomahawk in the land attack mission might be useful and no doubt they will adapt it to fire an expendable UAV for inland ISR

  9. Mike Burleson permalink*
    April 18, 2010 3:03 pm

    Matt said “A carrier airwing can do and frequent does a lot more than that.”

    I never deny the capabilities of a giant carrier, just the idea that new technology is duplicating the mission, at far less cost and vulnerability.

  10. Marcase permalink
    April 18, 2010 2:35 pm

    Jed – I hear you. It’s just that having to rely on other off-board sensors just complicates and stretches the sensor-to-shooter chain, while the sub should *be* the sensor/shooter as much as possible.

    The Sidewinder mentioned is a nice touch; the AIM-9X all-aspect, off-boresight missile is a great sub-SAM. So would a AARGM/HARM to deal with enemy shore or shipboard radars.

  11. Matt permalink
    April 18, 2010 12:45 pm

    I realize this will anger the carrier advocates out there, but a $14 billion supercarrier just can’t match this type of adaptability, at least not without “robbing Peter to pay Paul”


    Mike. Again I’ll point out that you’re limiting your analysis to one part of the kill-chain — delivering ordnance. A carrier airwing can do and frequenty does a lot more than that.

  12. Jed permalink
    April 18, 2010 12:29 pm

    Marcase – its back to bandwidth again, the sub is just the stealthy missile carrier, other assets do the ISTAR role, but this means having secure satcom bandwidth available to pass targeting data to the sub.

  13. Jed permalink
    April 18, 2010 12:28 pm

    Yep, Lockheed Martin P44 fired from subs – interesting possibilities there !

  14. Marcase permalink
    April 18, 2010 12:28 pm

    You still have to deal with RSTA; finding and identifying (fast) targets. And at periscope depth, your LOS ability to look further inland is restricted by the smallest of hills or trees, even with the subs surface scanning radar.

    Still, a great concept.


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