Friday, 24 May 2013

May 2013 Notes: Using Ballistic Missiles to Kill Ships

Reason for writing:

Pretty much every generation since 1900 has had a new thing come along which has caused commentators to declare the surface warship was dead and should no longer be built; although since 1945 a variation has appeared where by some merely say it’s the end of the aircraft carrier…in reality the situation is definitely not so black and white.

Key Words/Phrases:
·         VLS: Vertical Launch System
·         UCAV: Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, in this work is mainly used to refer to the   X-47 - The currently under development, but conducting carrier deck operations and flying, Unmanned Combat Air Vehicle, the X-47 is the future of stealth strike & reconnaissance; hence there is no coincidence that it looks like a mini B-2 bomber.
·         ABM: Anti-Ballistic Missile
·         EMP: Electro Magnetic Pulse
·         MaRVs: manoeuvrable re-entry vehicle, it’s a warhead which can manoeuvre upon re-entering the Earth’s atmosphere.
·         General Exchange – it’s not an officer, in this work the phrase is used to cover a scenario where by the ballistic missiles are fired by both sides at each other’s strategic targets…the very scenario which causes such fear and which helped to keep the Cold War coldish.
·         Humit: Human Intelligence – spies or maybe special operations personnel camping near the enemy ports to monitor and report their movements in detail.
·         Signit: Signals Intelligence – what is gleaned from reading enemy communications.
·         Intit: Internet Intelligence – what is got from reading facebook, blogs, twitter updates… this might be just from some random person walking along writing a status “just saw a big grey ship going out to sea…huh, it was Bitchin” tells everyone that a ship is moving, this sort of thing is very difficult to stop, and can be very useful. Sometimes also called SoMeit meaning Social Media Intelligence…but Intit sounds better.

Key Points:

·         Limitations of weapon: Ballistic missiles are not infallible; they are in fact rather large rockets, possibly considering their purpose is to go bang, more accurately rather large fireworks…that’s not to say they can’t be best of option available for something’s though[1], but for the Anti-Ship role there are issues:

o   Warhead: Nuclear, conventional or other? If it’s nuclear then a nation which uses it is almost certainly starting down the path to a general exchange, but if it’s conventional then the accuracy required to even hit the largest vessels afloat at such ranges would be virtually impossible to attain at current levels of technology. The other is EMP, which is actually possibly the most sensible as if fired it would in theory (something which has to be underlined) be less likely to result in a general exchange, it might well damage or even overload & destroy communications/electronic equipment and would certainly knock out any aircraft any task group had in the air… the problem is that to be effective against the ‘shielded’ systems of ship that such a weapon would have just as big an impact on any friendly forces in the area, so instead of it being a game changer it would be more of a game reseter with victory going to whichever side recovers quickest with the advantage of course being to the side which knew it was going to happen. All in all though, even an EMP weapon could result in the setting off a general exchange…a hefty price to pay for the tactical advantage that could possibly be bestowed by temporarily damaging the enemy task force.

o   Liquid or solid fuel? this is important, solid is more difficult to make requiring a greater degree of industrial and scientific force, but liquid fuel is often more dangerous to handle and places limitations on the missiles as its often very corrosive meaning they cannot be left fuelled, so have to be fuelled immediately prior to launch, delaying it. 

o   How manoeuvrable is it in flight? Can it be given mid-course guidance or will a splatter gun effect have to be employed? Now whilst reports have varied, but it is claimed that the MaRVs have some capability to be given course corrections in the case of the DF-21C (CSS-5 Mod-3)[2] if it’s true it’s brilliant, but at speeds of Mach 10 a minor error could be colossal and its hard to see how terminal guidance radar would work with the amount of heat generated by the air-resistance during re-entry. The solution if such a capability is real[3], is most likely that these MaRVs go slower so as the reduce heat; in which case they lose the crucial advantage of ballistic missiles which is their sheer speed and the difficulty that presents in dealing with them[4], or alternatively the terminal guidance is based on telemetry received from another system by a link transmitting/receiving from the ‘cold side’ of the MaRV – although such a system would seem to be purely a theoretical construct at present time.

o   Range, the DF-21 is not an inter-continental ballistic missile system, it’s a theatre ballistic missile system, which means there is limited strike radius – in the case of this system its claimed to be roughly 3,000km or 1,900mi

The range of the DF-21

·         Limitations of locating target: it’s not just the weapon system though which will be causing issues.

o   Ships move – it’s obvious right, but in 45mins an 18knot Royal Navy amphibious task group will have moved 15miles from where they were when the missile was launched, it’s not like the land targets or large exposed troop concentrations that are the traditional targets of ballistic weapons…these targets are not unshielded and could move out of the way. A carrier battle group moving at 32knots could have moved nearly 28 miles; in any direction, this makes accurate targeting analysis and mid-flight course correction a necessity, because even a nuclear bomb at its most powerful doesn’t have a big blast radius.

o   The ocean is big, really, really big; the Soviet government found this out when they threw RORSATs, TU-142 Bears[5], IL-38 May’s, a huge submarine fleet and more than likely a hefty Humit & Signit effort at it… and still the USN and other NATO forces eluded them more often than not. The Chinese are investing in lots of satellites, UAVs and more than likely other systems as well – added to Humit and Signit, there is now Intit. All these things could well be deployed, but so can false leads, jamming, smoke pots and probably has other options as well…

o   They don’t make it easy, even when ships are being tracked they can speed up/slow down, zig zag, in fact throw in every option they want to, including choosing the time & place of when they move into the missiles strike radius

·         Problems of command & control[6]

o   Information comes in, this weapon system is not going to be a local command one (there are simply just too many strategic factors for even a theatre commander to be given the keys), and all the time it takes to make the decision as to launch the data is going to be degrading in accuracy, meaning at a certain point it becomes it becomes pointless to launch.

o   Furthermore the system is going to depend upon a vast array of data, and a very robust network to bring all that data from such disparate sources together…these are both things which can be attacked.

·         Diplomatic/strategic problems

o   Launching a Ballistic Missile is launching a Ballistic Missile; it’s not a road which can be easily travelled in reverse. Even in the post-Cold War era of d├ętente, the Russians were not accepting of a planned American conventional ballistic weapon for quick strikes[7] - during a war fighting scenario, any launch runs the risk that the US president (who under such circumstances would be under already enormous strain) might not be a strong person, and might have hawkish advisors advising them to immediately launch their weapons in reply… quite possibly leading to the scenario of failing to destroy an American carrier battle group (or for that matter destroying it) results in the destruction of pretty much the whole country…not exactly the scenario either Sun Tzu or Alfred Thayer Mahan would advise.

o   Furthermore there is the fact that launching such a weapon may get a response from an unintended target, for example consider the scenario, China launches a spread of DF-21s against a USN force in the Indian Ocean that has been detected, a) the missile’s flight path will lead to protests being filed by even friendly Burma, Bangladesh will also file a diplomatic protest, India because of recent flares up exacerbating long term disputes over territory (and operating at heightened state due to the conflict going on around it) sees the missiles and thinks they are an attack on it so immediately launches a reply in kind – again leading to a general exchange.

·         Evolution of target; the trouble is American carrier

o   Long range stealthy UCAV, the X-47B[8] is the one which is turning all the heads at the moment, it looks like a mean mini B-2 Spirit bomber, but this aircraft is far more than that. It has an un-refuelled range of 2,100nm or roughly 3,889km; but its capable of doing air-to-air refuelling, this means that even if they were dispatched on a one way trip these aircraft would allow the USN’s aircraft carriers to start hitting the targets whilst they are well outside the range of the DF-21 or in fact any of the other systems. Refuelling would enable them to loiter, waiting for the vehicles to move from their hardened bunkers and head for their launch positions so they can take them while they are exposed[9]. So whilst the missiles might be relatively cheap in comparison to a battle group, the launch vehicles and more importantly the personnel would not be so cheap & easy to replace…destroying enough of them would undermine if not put out of commission the whole system – the often most effective method of stopping an attack is not hitting the weapons, but the source, the ability to shoot down the weapon is important because things go wrong and surprises happen…but attack at source is  truly the best form of defence.
o   Laser defences[10], ‘missiles are cheaper than ships’ is a constant refrain when talking about the future of warfare, usually followed quickly by prediction of massed (thanks to an integrated network of systems) saturation attacks decimating fleets… well lasers are even cheaper than missiles, and whilst at the moment they are limited to blinding missile sensors in some versions, or in some of the more recent larger systems shooting down UAVs and burning small boats. They are advancing just as quickly as missile technology is, and as ships all by virtue of necessity carry very large power generation systems, the future of laser weaponry is looking good…after all as long as the ship has power it will be able to fire lasers, and as they ‘move at the speed of light’, saturation attacks could well have to change. More importantly there is the option (with even the current generation) that the laser could be used to provide a more accurate targeting of the inbound enemy weapon, thereby smoothing the interception and increasing chances of it being stopped before it could do any damage.

A USN produced graphic explaining the current laser system being tested

o   ABM/ASSAT weapons, for the USN, IJN and the RAN the SM-3 & Aegis is the primary system for ABM work[11], it has a ceiling of over 100 miles and a range of over 270 nautical miles meaning it can provide protection over an area roughly 500x the Area of Greater London. The USN is aiming to put this system on every one of their Arleigh Burke class destroyers – and every other AEGIS equipped vessel they have; this means that multiple escorts in any task group will have the capability to defend it should attack at source fail or should they be caught by surprise… it also makes the job of the attacker that much more difficult as they have to factor in the likelihood of success into their use of a ballistic weapon, the more of those fire the greater the chance that a general exchange might be brought about.

Missiles being fired by Ticonderoga class cruiser CG 69 USS Vicksburg, the Flight I Arleigh Burke class destroyers DDG 64 USS Carney & DDG 68 USS The Sullivans and the Flight IIA (5”/54 variant) Arleigh Burke class destroyer DDG 80 USS Roosevelt

Furthermore, whilst the Aegis ships armed with SM-3s in the Pacific fleet might well consider the DF-21s and their kind to be their primary targets in any conflict, the ships in the Atlantic fleet might well be used to target the very satellites which would be used to hunt their Pacific brethren. For such a mission the system has already been demonstrated against a satellite which was 133 nautical miles(a little over 153 miles) above the earth moving at roughly 17,000mph[12], this is important because the majority of satellites are maintained in the Low Earth Orbit…and even in that most of them are within 90 minute range (Meaning they complete an orbit every 90minutes) or roughly 100miles above the earth, now whilst communication satellites and GPS systems are as a rule in higher orbits, intelligence & reconnaissance satellites (as a rule) are in the lower orbits putting them in range of SM-3.

Explaining the Orbits

Points of Interest:

·         In his 1925 book “Winged Defence; the development and possibilities of modern air power - economic and military”¸ Billy Mitchel proclaimed

“Surface navies have entirely lost their mission of defending the coast because aircraft can destroy or sink any seacraft coming within their radius of operation. In fact aircraft today are the only effective means of coast protection. Consequently, navies have been pushed out on the high seas. The menace of submarines from below and aircraft from above constitutes such a position that the surface ship as an element of war is disappearing. Today, the principal weapon in the sea is the submarine with its mine layers, gun fighters and torpedo craft.

In the future, campaigns across the seas will be carried on from land base to land base under the protection of aircraft. Expeditions across the sea such as occurred in the World War will be an impossibility. Water spaces between land bases in the northern hemisphere are very short. The space from America to Asia is only fifty-two miles across the Bering Straits and across the Atlantic it is scarcely more than four hundred.”[13]

Now leaving aside invading Siberia from Alaska and the logistical nightmares that would entail, it was an interesting claim, and supported by many such as Trenchard of the RAF and the Italian Air Power theorist Giulio Douhet… it was thinking like this which underpinned many decisions in the 1920s, unfortunately for the theorists whilst some of their arguments were later proved in the course of World War II, they were disproved on many more of them, including the notion that ships would only not be able to fight where land aircraft dominated… the evacuations of Dunkirk, Crete and many others all showed that whilst casualties would be taken, operations could be accomplished.

·         What drives the size of aircraft carriers, and their capability is the air group – aircraft are getting bigger, because more is expected of them and so they have to include more equipment as standard… this means to accommodate an air group of even the same size as a previous aircraft carrier, the ship will need to be bigger… and that’s before factoring the fact that an aircraft carrier will at minimum see two generations of aircraft fly from its decks, which means it needs to factor in some space for future proofing…otherwise the money will be wasted after just a decade and a half of service. Furthermore, when talking about an aircraft carrier it is necessary to consider the ship, a) may be any kind of large aviation ship (i.e. an LHA or LHD[14]), and b) it’s air group/role within the Task Force. Why is this point of interest to this report?

Well simply put the aircraft carrier is often set up as a ‘straw man’ for the arguments, or others say that these weapons mean that aircraft should be spread around more smaller aircraft carriers…these notes are not weighing into that argument, but to say that such points are missing the point, these missiles if used are not likely to be used against a Carrier Battle Group, more likely an Amphibious Task Group, it would be a very sceptical person who could believe  there is no coincidence that the DF-21’s range is advertised at being enough to provide support to forces operating within the second island chain[15]…and Amphibious Task Groups even launching assaults from beyond 10 nautical miles are still a lot more predictable in area than Carrier Battle Groups...and to a certain frame of mind, whilst bombing can damage or destroy, its marines & soldiers when landed by a navy which recapture or capture.

The First & Second Island chain


The reality of anti-ship ballistic missiles is it is they which are really the white elephant, not the aircraft carrier or the surface warship; they are drain on resources, as they will have to be defended, maintained and manned… all things which will cost money, but unlike the aircraft carrier they cannot be used – for if they are used then the likelihood of a general exchange depends upon the thinking of the least well informed/least prepared government leader whose nation is affected by such a launch. There is the very real possibility that success or failure would both lead to massive retaliation… under these circumstances, whilst defences must be built against such systems (as failure to prepare will certainly lead to failure, and it isn’t an impossibility that actually taking the step/running the risk of firing an Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile, and it then failing to sink its target could lead to leadership change in the country that fired it/peace talks); the reality of future conflict is more likely to involve dealing with attacks by incredibly sophisticated cruise missiles/UAVs (frankly the line is starting to blur between these two systems[16])… the good thing for navies is that defences that can deal with ballistic inbounds can most likely also give a very good effort against the more likely threats.

[3] There have been other systems built with a terminal guidance radar capability, but this was a radar designed to fix land positions to provide accuracy – i.e. where the surface wasn’t flat an essentially featureless, the difference in radar return between an Ultra Large Crude Carrier (ULCC) and an aircraft carrier is not that much.
[6] This is why the Battlestar Gallactica article is worth reading, it makes some good points about the problems of network centric warfare and over-reliance.
[7] For more information about the Prompt Global Strike Program;,‎,‎ and
[9] This could even be arranged to happen when the UCAVs are over the target, by the simple expedient of a carrier battle group ‘allowing itself’ to be seen within the strike range, under those circumstances the Chinese government would either have to order a firing of the weapons or accept a damaging loss of face when images of the carrier conducting operations from within their ‘no-go zone’ get beamed around the world.
[11] Its Wikipedia but it’s source list is a good place to start looking for information about this system, interestingly enough the RN’s Daring class AADs have an excellent radar for this role (the Sampson System) and are fitted for the large VLS (the MK41) necessary for them to be able to carry the SM-3 (or Tomahawk cruise missiles, should that be wished) but are instead fitted with the smaller A50 Sylver VLS, which is what limits them to the Air Defence role rather than a more general purpose role – for more info please read, & .  
[13] (Mitchell 1925, xvi)
[16] This will be the subject of another notes in future.

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