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Prokhor Tebin

PhD in Political Science, RIAC expert

Surface ships, primarily cruisers and destroyers, are the “work horses” of the U.S. Navy and in many ways the foundation of its combat stability. But it would not be an exaggeration to say that they receive less attention from the media, the expert community, the military establishment and the United States Congress than their more successful colleagues, maritime pilots and submariners.

Trends in the Development of the U.S. Naval Surface Forces

Surface ships, primarily cruisers and destroyers, are the “work horses” of the U.S. Navy and in many ways the foundation of its combat stability. But it would not be an exaggeration to say that they receive less attention from the media, the expert community, the military establishment and the United States Congress than their more successful colleagues, maritime pilots and submariners.

In Loose Formation

Since the 1990s the U.S. Navy, having lost a naval opponent of comparable power in the Soviet Navy, has taken its supremacy for granted. The balance between two tasks – ruling the sea and projecting power – shifted dramatically in favour of the latter. The leaders of the naval surface forces sought to protect themselves from spending cuts, which became the stark reality after the end of the Cold War. To this end, the U.S. Navy had to adapt itself to the challenges of the new times.

One of the key tasks of the naval surface forces remained the protection of aircraft carriers, the Navy’s main attack force, from aerial threats. Ensuring theatre missile defence was an additional task [1]. The military and political leadership considered missile defence of the territory and the surface forces of the United States and its allies to be a priority of the Armed Forces. This aspect of missile defence was heavily politicized from the outset and it became the main bone of contention in the struggle for budget money. At the same time, the need for missile defence of the Navy itself was perceived by the Navy command as a separate task and was not called into question.

One of the key tasks of the naval surface forces remained the protection of aircraft carriers, the Navy’s main attack force, from aerial threats.

In addition to air and missile defence, the “here and now” priorities now included combating irregular threats (terrorism, drug trafficking, etc.) and strikes on land targets. The latter boiled down to Tomahawk cruise missile strikes on the territories of weaker opponents, which were carried out with impunity.

In this context, the key functions of the surface navy in ensuring its superiority at sea – combating enemy surface ships and submarines – took a back seat. The United States’ potential in this area began to grow weaker. It is indicative that, since the late 1990s, Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, and new surface vessels in general, ceased to carry anti-ship missiles (ASMs). Controlling enemy surface ships was now the task of submarines and maritime aviation. Another example is the programme of building Littoral Combat Ships (LSCs), which were to be the Navy’s main light surface ships. They were stripped not only of anti-ship missiles, but also of hydro-acoustic stations (HAS), which greatly diminished the anti-submarine defence capacity.

U.S. Navy photo
USS Independence (LCS-2)

By the end of the 2000s, against the background of the strengthening of the Chinese Navy and early signs of deterioration of relations with Russia, voices were increasingly heard calling for a return to the traditional task of opposing enemy navies of more or less comparable strength and technological standard. Given the current level of expenditure, this would require increasing the role of anti-submarine assets and intensifying the struggle against enemy surface vessels, preserving the role of air defence and diminishing that of the fight against irregular threats and missiles. For a long time these were voices in the wilderness. Changes did not begin to be made until the mid-2010s, when it became obvious that the threat of a showdown between great powers had been dropped from the agenda prematurely.

The turning point occurred in late 2014, when, after a prolonged discussion the Pentagon and the U.S. Navy finally decided to limit the building of LCSs in their original form to 32 vessels. The remaining 20 ships were to be built to an up-gunned concept (In Russian) that included the installation of over-the-horizon anti-ship missiles (the exact model to be used will be chosen later). In early 2015, the “sharp-toothed” LCS was classified as a frigate. However, the LSC never got an HAS.

In addition to air and missile defence, the “here and now” priorities now included combating irregular threats (terrorism, drug trafficking, etc.) and strikes on land targets.

In January 2015, the United States Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine, a key publication of the U.S. naval community, carried a programmatic article entitled “Distributed Lethality”. The authors, three high-ranking officers – Commander of Naval Surface Vice Admiral Forces Thomas Rowden, head of the Naval Surface Force Atlantic Rear Admiral Peter Gumataotao and U.S. Navy Director, Surface Warfare Rear Admiral Peter Fanta – pointed to the old problems and suggested ways of tackling them, solutions that had repeatedly been proposed by various experts. The main thrust of the article was to increase the number of vessels armed with anti-ship missiles and the use of loose combat formations.

U.S. Navy photo
Arleigh Burke-class destroyers

The admirals explained that a new concept was needed as an answer to the degradation of the offensive capabilities of surface forces because “potential enemies” were developing anti-access systems (A2/AD). Beefing up the offensive potential was to provide an asymmetric response to this challenge and put the U.S. Navy in the lead again.

The article proposes increasing the number of vessels with anti-ship missiles and submarine-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs) and include not only cruisers, destroyers and LCSs, but also landing craft and some auxiliary ships. The idea is not new, but it sounds fairly revolutionary coming from the mouths of the naval leadership. The second part of the concept is the use of dispersed combat formations as a shield for the main forces that are capable of operating, if necessary, without the support of carrier and ground-based aviation. These small groups are to distract the enemy, force it to distribute offensive assets among a large number of widely spaced targets and pay more attention to protecting its own forces.

By the end of the 2000s, against the background of the strengthening of the Chinese Navy and early signs of deterioration of relations with Russia, voices were increasingly heard calling for a return to the traditional task of opposing enemy navies of more or less comparable strength and technological standard.

The article gives a rough idea of what such a group would look like: it comprises LSCs with an anti-submarine module; an Arleigh Burke series III destroyer with a cutting-edge Air and Missile Defence Radar (AMDR) – AN/SPY-6 (in Russian); a Zumwalt-class destroyer; carrier-based helicopters; and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for reconnaissance, targeting and anti-submarine defence.

The authors stress that their ideas are based on weapons systems the Navy already has, or is in the process of procuring. At the same time, if the concept is to be fully implemented, the capacity of the navy needs to be increased in six areas:

  • intensifying work to create carrier-based long- and medium-range anti-ship missiles that can be installed on practically any ship without having to perform major upgrades;
  • creating a cheap surface-to-land medium-range weapon system that could fill the niche between artillery (up to 110 kilometres) and expensive Tomahawk SLCMs (more than 1500 kilometres);
  • developing a ship torpedo with a range of 90 kilometres and more to counter submarines armed with cruise missiles;
  • putting electromagnetic railguns into operation to strike coastal targets and protect against cruise and ballistic missiles;
  • developing helicopter and aeroplane UAVs for reconnaissance, targeting and information relay;
  • introducing systems to support command and control of a group separate from the main forces, independently of the satellite group and in the face of enemy counteraction, as well as new radio-electronic and information warfare systems.

The Main Calibre

LRASM is the first stage of the Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) programme aimed at creating a new generation of anti-ship missiles.

Designing, commissioning and spreading the new anti-ship missile is arguably the main condition for increasing the offensive power of American surface ships. As of today, the only anti-ship missile with a longish range is the obsolete Harpoon subsonic RGM-84 anti-ship missile with a range of 120 kilometres, which is not adapted to the MK41 Vertical Launching System. Only the first 28 destroyers and 22 Ticonderoga-class cruisers are equipped with Harpoon missiles, 11 of which are to be mothballed and put under repair. In terms of range, speed and destructive power, the missile is inferior to the ships of the Russian, Chinese and some other navies. For comparison: Russian Yakhont supersonic anti-ship missiles have a range of 300 kilometres (in Russian). Besides, the potential of Harpoons are severely restricted because they are not compatible with vertical launchers.

Harpoon is to be replaced by the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), a stealthy subsonic long-range anti-ship cruise missile, which has been in development since 2009 on the basis of air-to-surface AGM-158 JASSM-ER missile with a range of about 900 kilometres produced by Lockheed Martin and procured by the Air Force. LRASM is the first stage of the Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) programme aimed at creating a new generation of anti-ship missiles.

www.zona-militar.com
An artist's concept of a Lockheed Martin LRASM
fired from a U.S. Navy VLS tube

In the 2017–2019 fiscal years, 110 LRASM missiles are to be purchased for the Navy. Lockheed Martin has confirmed the compatibility of the missile with ship vertical launchers after holding, at its own cost, push-through trials of the LRASM from an MK41 land-based vertical launcher at the Desert Ship test site in New Mexico on September 4, 2013. Despite the urgent need for surface forces, LRASM, at least initially, will be built as an air-based weapon. Starting in 2018, it will be carried by F/A-18E/F Super Hornet fighter-bombers.

There are several possible explanations for the Navy’s reluctance to commission a ship version of LRASM. First, judging from statements by top naval officers in the open press, air-based anti-ship missiles are the priority of the U.S. Navy, considering the key role of maritime aviation in combating surface targets (the second priority is the version for surface vessels and the third, for submarines). Second, full integration of LRASM (which, as we have already noted, was developed from an air-based missile) with ships involves certain technological difficulties, in particular, the need to adapt the missile to the Aegis automated control system or the Tomahawk SLCM control system. Third, the Navy wants to introduce a range of technologies that were developed earlier for the supersonic LRASM version on new anti-ship missiles – above all, advanced technologies for penetrating the final section of the air defence. Thus, LRASM is a transitional conservative option aimed at providing the Navy with a comparatively low-cost long-range anti-ship missile within a brief space of time.

Now anti-missile defence has become one of the key reasons for the heavy load on surface ships and their crews.

The second stage of the OASuW programme will see the building of a more sophisticated air-, ship- and probably submarine-launched anti-ship missiles. The options are being considered as we speak. The decision to build this or that version will probably be taken after the 2016 fiscal year. The second phase will most likely involve Lockheed Martin (with updated LRASM or some other missile), Boeing (Harpoon and its improved SLAM-ER version) and Raytheon (with a new anti-ship version of Tomahawk SLCM or JSOW-ER). The Norwegian NSM produced by Kongsberg will probably be adopted as the mass medium-range anti-ship missile.

www.zona-militar.com
Tomahawk missile tests

We should also mention the Tomahawk missile, which is intended to strike at stationary targets. It used to be an anti-ship missile, but in the 1990s it was discarded because of problems with target detection and identification. At present, Raytheon – the company that builds Tomahawks – is aggressively promoting it as a new long-range anti-ship missile. Although LRASM is given priority in procurement and Navy-financed R&D, Tomahawk is increasingly mentioned as a promising anti-ship missile by Navy representatives and the expert community. During tests in January 2015, a Tomahawk missile hit a moving maritime target. Tomahawk is usually mentioned as an interim solution in expectation of a ship LRASM or another new-generation anti-ship missile, but occasionally there are proposals to make the Tomahawk a replacement for a ship LRASM.

BMD: Key Function or Burden?

In the 1990s and 2000s, surface forces, reoriented to meet the tasks of theatre missile defence, managed to avoid cuts to some extent. But now anti-missile defence has become one of the key reasons for the heavy load on surface ships and their crews. Ships have to be on combat duty for more than nine months a year, instead of the standard seven. This leads to excessive use of resources and the postponement of scheduled repairs and maintenance, undermining the morale of the crews.

www.defence24.pl
Land-based Aegis Ashore complex, Romania

The Navy estimates its need for missile defence ships for the protection of maritime and expeditionary forces at 40 units. We also have to take into account the needs of regional commands for such ships, which is expected to grow from 44 in 2012–2014 to 77 in 2016. As of today, the total number of missile defence ships in the Navy is 29. This is set to rise by 47 by 2020. And surface ships have many other functions to perform.

The naval command would be glad to shed this burden. In June 2015, Peter Fanta said he would like to see at least some of the load of regional missile defence to be shifted from ships to land-based Aegis Ashore complexes (similar to those the United States is deploying in Romania and Poland), and leave missile defence ships to protect the navy and expeditionary forces. According to media reports, Aegis Ashore provides the same presence as four ships with an Aegis system, while costing less than one such ship.

Missile defence has already caused friction between the Navy and the United States Congress. For the Navy, it is important to maintain 11 combat ready cruisers capable of performing the function of command ships for providing air defence to carrier strike groups. To achieve that goal and save money the Navy wants to modernize half of the Ticonderoga cruisers, which would result in four missile defence-capable ships losing that capability. Congress is trying to prevent this. So far, it is hard to say how the argument will play out, but the fact that it has arisen is telling.

The U.S. Navy is aware that the confrontation of great powers in the world’s oceans and the traditional objectives of the Navy have not become history. In the 1990s and 2000s there was a widespread feeling that Russia and China, whose maritime programmes are based on “navy against navy” objectives, are overly conservative and are unable, unlike the United States, to adapt to the new conditions. In the end, it turned out that the Americans were too hasty in declaring the beginning of a new era in naval history. They now have to make mid-course corrections.

1. The reference is to protection against ballistic missiles. The U.S. Navy considers defence against cruise missiles to be part of air defence.

 

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