By Norman Friedman*
At the end of May the U.S. Navy announced that it had chosen the Raytheon-Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile to arm the LCS and its projected frigate. It is the first new U.S. ship-launched anti-ship missile to be bought since the Cold War Harpoon and Anti-Ship Tomahawk. The missile is being bought as part of an over the horizon anti-ship missile initiative, which has also bought anti-ship versions of the existing Tomahawk IV and the SM-6 anti-air missile, as well as an anti-ship version of Lockheed-Martin’s stealthy air-launched LRSSM (AGM-158).
Although a surface-launched version of AGM-158 was dropped from the LCS missile competition in 2017 (it exceeded stated requirements), it may still end up on board larger surface ships with big vertical launchers. Boeing had also competed for the LCS weapon, probably with a much-improved version of Harpoon.
Unlike Harpoon, the new missile uses an imaging infra-red seeker for guidance. At least in theory, the seeker, which has access to a library of ship images, can distinguish an appropriate target from among other ships. The fear of inadvertently hitting merchant ships rather than warships plagued earlier attempts to deploy over-the-horizon anti-ship missiles. For example, in exercises conducted while Harpoon was being developed, launch ranges were typically limited by sensor ranges. Harpoon could fly 60 or 70 nm, but in early exercises the notional firing range was more like 15 nm. An elaborate tracking system was developed to target anti-ship Tomahawk, which had a nominal range of 250 nm. Officers were reluctant to use it in exercises because it was more likely to hit merchant ships. The missile had to be given a target identification feature (it sought a particular Soviet radar wave-form), but that was not considered good enough. In recent experiments to show that Tomahawk could hit a moving ship, target identification was provided by an airplane tracking the chosen target. It was the source of critical target data, enabling the missile to find its way. The missile’s long range did make it difficult for an enemy to know where the missile’s launcher was, but for the system to function a platform – the airplane or a UAV – had to be close to the target.
Interest in these missiles reflects the relatively new reality of a large Chinese surface fleet, which deploys large numbers of increasingly capable anti-ship missiles, and which also employs large numbers of air defense weapons. In a war, the U.S. Navy would try to cut the number of anti-ship missiles it faced by destroying or neutralizing as many anti-ship launchers – ships and aircraft – as it could before they could fire. However, a new concentration on means of sinking ships suggests some other options for the U.S. Navy.
Resources, not only in the United States but also in China, are always finite. It follows that we can and should ask is how to leverage natural Chinese concerns so that they spend more on defending their fleet and a lot less on attacking ours. We can remember that the winning naval Cold War strategy was to threaten the one maritime asset the Soviets had to defend, their strategic submarines in bastions off their north European and Asian coasts. In that case the object was to force the most potent Soviet anti-ship force, their big missile-armed bombers, to expose themselves to destruction in the Outer Air Battle. A U.S. submarine threat to the bastions would tie down the bulk of the Soviet submarine force; much of the rest would have to be expended attacking the carrier battle force which threatened the bastions. Fortunately we never found out how well this concept would have worked in practice, but the idea of maritime leverage was and remains extremely interesting.
The rise of the modern Chinese navy is linked, at least in Chinese official writings, to a pair of factors. One is that despite its size China relies heavily on maritime supplies of raw materials. The other is that Chinese security demands that China dominate the Far Eastern seas out to at least what it calls the First Island Chain – which includes the Philippines and Taiwan and even Japan.
Both concerns suggest that the Chinese navy has sold the Chinese leadership the idea that China must control adjacent seas. The modern U.S. Navy espouses sea control as a vital mission, but it may be time to ask whether seeking to deny the Chinese sea control would be to our advantage. When we look back at the effort to maintain NATO control of the North Atlantic in the face of Soviet threats, we may notice how brutally expensive that was, and to what extent the sea control effort precluded investment in more offensive (power projection) naval capability. The genius of the Maritime Strategy of the 1980s was that it used the threat of power projection to gain sea control. We forget that the most powerful of our allied NATO navies, the Royal Navy, found itself giving up any power projection capacity in the face of rising sea control (and NATO land warfare) costs. Except for the French, the other NATO navies had long since decided to concentrate on sea control, a concentration which proved ruinous once the Cold War was over.
Sea control becomes expensive once the likely enemy decides to contest it seriously. For example, although the Chinese have bought many frigates and corvettes, it is unlikely that they have invested in the grinding cost of large-scale anti-submarine warfare. We have the best submarines in the world, as measured by the combination of silence and command and control. We constantly announce that they are dedicated anti-submarine platforms, with a secondary long-range (Tomahawk) strike capacity. Given the limited number of U.S. submarines, it seems unlikely that the Chinese spend much of their time contemplating a possible U.S. or other submarine offensive against the shipping which they consider so important.
To some extent simply announcing that the U.S. Navy is developing sea denial tactics should affect what the Chinese navy does. However, real sea denial capability requires much more. First, it is necessary to track enemy surface ships – including valued merchant ships – continuously, and in enough detail that they can be targeted. U.S. experience during the Cold War showed that tracking was possible, and also that it required expensive resources. As computer capacity has grown, it is easier to imagine keeping track of hundreds or even thousands of ships on a continuous basis, but that also requires dedicated personnel. During the Cold War the U.S. Navy became very effective at tracking the Soviet fleet, but surely much of that knowledge has decayed since. It has to be rebuilt.
Chinese anti-ship capacity requires that they track us in similar detail. To the extent that we track them, we are better equipped to understand how to frustrate Chinese ship-tracking. The Chinese learned their naval skills from the Soviets, before about 1960, and from Russians after 1989. Much of Soviet naval operation was based on a picture of our movements, which informed central decision-makers. We learned to frustrate the Soviets, for example by enforcing electronic silence and by deception. Chinese technology is surely much better than the Soviets,’ but it can also be frustrated. Deception and frustration are not alternatives to effective anti-ship missile (and torpedo) defense, but they lighten the burden that such defenses must carry, to the point where they are more affordable. It seems reasonable to argue that the best way to build an instinct for wrecking the Chinese anti-ship system is for us to operate our own anti-ship systems and to think through how the Chinese can oppose it.
A serious U.S. sea denial posture would promote an understanding of Chinese dependence on the sea and on the vulnerabilities the Chinese have accepted (probably without paying sufficient attention to them). We had no reason to think this way during the Cold War, because the Soviets had, it seems, no sense of reliance on the sea. They did have a huge merchant fleet, but laying it up in wartime would not have carried much of a cost for them. To some considerable extent the merchant fleet was a way of gaining influence and spreading mayhem, as the Soviet-flag merchant ships could carry arms abroad (Khrushchev justified the Soviet merchant fleet program that way). It is no surprise that U.S. commanders considered Tomahawks aimed at merchant ships of whatever flag wasted. This time the situation is, or should be, rather different.
Anti-ship missile warfare should involve large numbers of missiles. During the Cold War, it was often argued that a hit by one Harpoon was good enough, because modern warships were fragile, and were often filled with flammable material. After all, a single Exocet, with a comparable warhead, sank the British destroyer Sheffield in the Falklands War. It was often forgotten that Sheffield was relatively small (smaller than a Perry class frigate) and that even though she was abandoned soon after the hit, she did not sink until much later, when storm water washed in through the hole the missile had made. More aggressive damage control would probably have saved her, as it saved USS Stark (of similar size) five years later. It took several thousand pound bombs to sink Sheffield’s sister Coventry, by blowing out her side. Except for huge Soviet missiles, no single anti-ship missile of the time would have had that effect. Publicity photos of the damage inflicted by single anti-ship missile hits were generally cropped to show only the part of the target ship which had been hit. The real lesson of these tests was probably that ships could be made quite survivable by duplicating their key systems. We have to aim at multiple hits, both because the targets will be shooting back at the missiles and because targets have to be sunk. Otherwise we cannot know whether a missile flying far beyond the horizon has really done its job. Probably we have to think about missiles capable of doing underwater damage.
Overall, we are creating the opportunity for a shift in Chinese naval thinking, to our considerable advantage, from strategic defense through attacking our fleet to strategic defense involving protection of their own considerable maritime assets. They have announced that they wish to gain sea control. We can make that an opportunity for us, to affect what they do.