A Navy cruiser launches a Harpoon anti-ship missile, a 1977 design unsuited for long-range war in the Pacific.

A Navy cruiser launches a Harpoon anti-ship missile, a 1977 design unsuited for long-range war in the Pacific.

CRYSTAL CITY: “I’ve never wanted to enter any tactical scenario where all I had is a defensive capability. It’s a losing proposition,” said the chief of Pacific Command, Adm. Samuel Locklear. “You will defend yourself until you’re dead.”

That was the PACOM commander’s blunt and public response when I asked him about the chronic imbalance between the offensive and defensive capabilities of the Navy’s surface warships: its cruisers, destroyers, frigates, and controversial new Littoral Combat Ships. Other admirals had angsted over the issue at last week’s annual conference of the Surface Navy Association here, but it’s no coincidence the man who’d have to command any war with China was the bluntest.

The Navy’s has a three-step plan to boost firepower:

  1. In the short term, revive the long-range skip-killing capability it lost when it phased out the 600 -mile-range Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile (TASM) years ago.
  2. In the mid term, free up missile launchers for offensive use by replacing defensive missiles — each of which can be used against incoming enemy aircraft or missiles just once — with lasers that can keep firing as long as the ship’s generators turn.
  3. In the long term, equip ships with electromagnetic rail guns that can launch solid metal slugs at targets over the horizon at seven times the speed of sound.

“With respect to lasers, we’re talking more about defense,” said Rear Adm. Thomas Rowden, director of surface warfare for the Chief of Naval Operations (staff section N96), when I pulled him aside at the conference. “On the offensive side of the house, we have the electromagnetic rail gun.” Both will be able to fire far more times than any set of missile launchers; the laser will, in theory, hit incoming missiles at literally the speed of light; and the rail gun can fire projectiles at the enemy at velocities no missile can match.

“If you’re getting Mach 7,” Rowden told me, “speed is a difficult thing to defend against.”

That said, rail guns will complement long-range missiles, not replace them: While the rail gun shot would be harder to dodge, the missile can go much farther.

“We’ll have to see what kind of range we’re going to get out of the railgun,” Rowden said. So, I asked, would it ever be comparable to a Tomahawk cruise missile? The admiral laughed out loud. “No! I think it’d be Mach 40 or something like that to get the kind of range.” Rail gun tests to date have suggested they could hit targets up to 125 miles away.

All these weapons, of course, are in the near future. The triple-threat solution is still very much a work in progress, with all three prongs of the Navy’s new trident still in development:

  1. The Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), though a derivative of a proven Air Force weapon, is still in testing, with contractor Lockheed Martin putting up $30 million of its own money to bridge a funding gap. “Our lack of urgency on development of the next generation of surface-launched, over-the-horizon cruise missiles is troubling,” Locklear told the conference.
  2. The first prototype defense laser will deploy this summer to the Persian Gulf for tests in real conditions. But this baby-steps ray gun is only strong enough to shoot down relatively slow-moving drones, not supersonic anti-ship missiles. Even future high-powered lasers will remain relatively short-ranged defensive weapons, unable to fire at targets over the horizon and out of line of sight.
  3. Finally, the Navy’s rail gun has managed some dramatic tests on land, but the weapon’s raw power wears out components — especially the barrel — at an impractical rate. Even when (or if) the Navy gets a rail gun it can fit on ships, only three vessels currently in service or on contract can generate enough electricity to fire one, specifically the three DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers.

Meanwhile potential adversaries have invested in ever more weapons designed to sink our ships, the most recent example being China’s test of a prototype “hypersonic” missile. (Hypersonic means at least five times the speed of sound).

“That particular test doesn’t bother me,” Locklear told the conference. “[But] this isn’t just about China…..A lot of nations are pursuing hypersonics,” he said, and whoever develops it, “it’s going to get sold.”

Even with current technology, US Navy warships are “out-sticked” by their Chinese counterparts: Their anti-ship missiles have longer range (click here for a great diagram), so they can hit us at distances where we can’t hit back.

Modern warfare is about much more than ships (or tanks, or planes) trading shots with their equal and opposite counterparts on the other side, of course. Today’s weapons range from torpedoes to computer viruses, and they can be launched by platforms ranging from airplanes to the NSA headquarters at Fort Meade, Maryland. Even if you specifically want to sink an enemy ship with an anti-ship missile, you don’t need your own ship to do it: You can use submarines, aircraft, or launchers ashore. Most Iranian and Chinese anti-ship missile launchers live on dry land.

That said, surface ships can sail far from their homeland to threaten targets a shore-based weapon cannot reach, and they can carry far more missiles than an aircraft or even a submarine. So sinking enemy ships is something the US Navy still needs to be able to do. The problem is that its main tool to do so, in the absence of a long-range cruise missile, is the disco-vintage Harpoon, a missile that entered service in 1977 and whose maximum range is roughly 75 miles.

“People pooh-pooh that Harpoon weapon system,” Rear Adm. Rowden told me. “I think that is a gross underestimation of that weapon.” That said, he went on, the Navy’s working hard “to ensure that we have those long range missiles [to fight for] sea control.”

The Harpoon can be fired from either the Navy’s mainstay F-18 fighter-bombers or from shipboard launchers, but the Navy has removed Harpoon systems from its frigates and never even installed them on its newer destroyers. In fact, the mainstay of the surface navy, the DDG-51 Arleigh Burke, was designed from the beginning not to attack the enemy but to defend the rest of the fleet, especially the aircraft carriers, with a radar and missile system called “Aegis,” after the goddess Athena’s shield. In recent years, Aegis has taken on a new defensive role in ballistic missile defense of cities and bases ashore.

That’s all useful, even essential, but we can no longer assume that no other navy will challenge us with its ships. “We need to think about what is surface warfare’s role in other than defensive operations,” Locklear said, “[and] pay more particular attention to the ability to show up on the scene and be lethal and be dominant.”

“This has been an issue for my entire career,” said Vice Adm. Thomas Copeman, commander of naval surface forces, speaking at the same conference. “We need to improve the offensive lethality of the entire surface force,” he said, “[and] free up more space in the missile launchers for offensive weapons.”


  • PolicyWonk

    “Our lack of urgency on development of the next generation of surface-launched, over-the-horizon cruise missiles is troubling,” Locklear told the conference.
    Considering that our Burkes aren’t intended for offensive purposes, and that LCS (such as it is) has a near-zero ability to reach out and touch someone at a distance, this is a remarkable understatement.

    As the saying goes: no one ever won a war by having a great defense; they won by having one heII of an offense.

  • Araya

    It is nice to see what after 20 years of ignoring the growing offensive gap between the US Navy and all other Navy especially the enemy (red China, Russia) of the world it was notice by at last one Admiral. But it will be seen them the Navy really
    fix this critic capability gap I fear what they will soon cancel like as each time before
    any Program related to this matter.

    So for example as Mr. Obama enter the Office and give Gates the order to slash the DOD one of the many victims of the first cancelation round was a project called Harpoon Block III. The Harpoon is not a sophisticated anti-ship missile but the only US Anti-ship missile in service the Block III upgraded had make the Harpoon capable to be fired from all navy VLS Systems. With other Words any DDG-51 had get hypothetically for fire up to 90 Harpoon’s at ones a massive offensive capability against surface ships. But despite for low price tag and the bitter need of an offensive weapon the program was imediatly canceled and the new Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) is not a really a game changer but then it becomes operational and I really hope to see it, it will give the Navy a bit of the offensive capability back what they loses since the end of the Cold War.

    Them I have to fix the Problem I would choose a very different way how is faster and more deadly them the Navy plan how are to futuristic one long therm. So the easiest Way to give the Navy immediately the punch back is to start the purchase of Norwegian “Naval Strike Missiles” how have an effective range of over 180 kilometer and are like the LRASM stealthy and equipped with an advance sensor system. As the same time I would also give all Perry Class Frigate’s there Harpoon Starter back and equip the never DDG51 also with Harpoon Starter. Them the LRASM-A will become operational I will start to fit all Navy Ships how have VLS with at last 16 or 20 of them each but instead of developing a Laser defense Weapon (how can easily be switched off them the Enemy simply add to is Missiles a reflecting hull) I will spend the money to develop the LRASM-B/ Arclight Anti-ship missile (A DARPA Hypersonic Anti-Ship/Land Missile concept) how can be also like the LRSAM-A fired form VLS Systems. The rail-gun for is part can be a real game-changer but I will not count one what weapon before 2030 so I will accelerate the funding but not include this weapon in my plans to fix the actual offensive Problem.

    • bobbymike34

      The US should develop a ship launched IRBM housed in a converted heli-carrier. Imagine a strike missile with 3000km range hitting targets with hypersonic warheads 20 minutes after launch.

      • Araya

        Nice idea but the INF treaty forbid weapons of this class. I’m not a friend of so called “disarmament agreements“how I consider the biggest political bullshit especially them the enemy benefits at most form such treaties. But in this case the price to break the INF treaty can be too high just to get an own ASBM because why them you break the INF treaty the Russian’s will start the mass production of MRBMs, IRBMs how are much cheaper and easier to build them ICBMs. So in the moment it is better not to start a new arm-race with the other villain. And the other argument how speak against your IRBM plan is the fact what the USA didn’t have much experience with such technology so it is much more intelligent to start a program for a Hypersonic Anti-ship missiles like the DARPA LRSAM-B /Arclight how should have a range of at last 500 Kilometer and Hypersonic speed and use the VLS System of the DDG-51 this is much a more effective them a own ASBM like the Chinese DF21.

        Even more important is to fix the firepower problem quick and this should not be so hard them the Navy and the House/Senate are really willing to do it. The Harpoon is not up to date but also not useless so them you simply rearm all FFGs and DDG-51 with Harpoon Starter and restart the Harpoon Block III Program you get a lot of firepower back and them the LRSAM-A become operational the situation will improve a lot.

        The NSM is also a good alternative to the old Harpoon Missiles especially in combination with the F35C because of is 200 kilometer range and stealthy design. One longer term a weapon like the LRSAM-B/Arclight should be priority for the Navy not sci-fi laser technology.

        • bobbymike34

          I believe the INF Treaty did not include ‘surface ship based systems’? Hence, Arclight.

          Arclight was to have a 2000km range but because it was based on a “ground’ attack version of a Standard missile the warhead was tiny so not really effective unless you hit the target dead on as in zero CEP.

          I am more worried about China who never signed the INF Treaty and now has, at some counts, over 500 IRBMs. This leaves the US at a huge disadvantage. Is the US going to continue to let China target our carriers with IRBM’s while we try and build a hypersonic missile?

          As for experience building things we have built IRBMs starting with missiles like Thor and Jupiter back in the 50′s or more recently the Pershing I or II so I think we can do it again. Heck you could argue the GMD missile could be modified to be an IRBM if you just let it follow a ballistic path (just like Arclight based on the Standard air defense missile) rather than target another missiles warhead (it’s similar in size to a Midgetman) ATK has proposed a Submarine launched IRBM as well as the Forward Deployed Global Strike Missile (an land based version of the former)

          We have not yet built, for production, or any where near ‘weapon system’ status an air-breathing hypersonic missile.

          As for Russia;
          1) Abrogate the INF Treaty for ‘conventional’ missiles only (Russia has already hinted at this. They even have pointed to China’s missile build up.)

          • Araya

            Hi bobby, thanks for the information about Arclight. I agree with your argumentation especially about the INF treaty one the other hand any program how takes more than two years is to be consider as risky because of the dysfunctional political system of the USA. So personally I will prefer the option how can as fastest become operational so NSM, Harpoon Block II and III like LRSAM-A are my first choice even them they are not optimal. Because why in the USA any no big-ticket program (like the F35) especially Ammunition-Programs becomes victims of budgetary maneuver’s. As consequence crap like the LCS survives but far more important Programs like a VLS Anti-ship missile like the Harpoon Block III are canceled.

            So them you start a Program in order to develop an IRBM-ASBM you have to calculate at last with 10 or more years of developed time before the Missile becomes operational and this simply because of the disfunctionality of the US Politics in combination with the typical US habit to develop new instead of using existing know how. This means what the Program will have to survive up to three Presidential terms and 10 DOD budgets.

          • bobbymike34

            Yes I admit I don’t take DC’s dysfunction into account otherwise I might openly weep at the prospect of developing new systems to address the “Pacific Theater” threat.
            But what you say about my IRBM, unfortunately, will be true of what many have called either an unproven concept hypersonics (notwithstanding some success with X-51, etc) when the budget axe continues to take its toll on procurement and/or R&D I almost guarantee hypersonics will get cut. If you remember Fast Hawk, HTV-3 (HTV-2 follow on) X43B (X43A follow on) and there are other programs strangled in the cradle so to speak.
            I agree that not going to an IRBM leads back to support of your programs, DC I am afraid won’t cooperate with either of us, lol!

          • Araya

            I can only agree with you. The Problem of the USA is not the money or a lack of Know How the USA but the incompetence and even more the massive uncertainty created by the Political system itself. So for example every time those a new President or even a new Congress takes the lead a large part of all DOD Programs are canceled or at last slashed. Best example is the Obama Administration how killed around 44 military programs as they entered the service some of them like the F22, B3 also called (Bomber 2018), the Harpoon Block III like as the Multi Kill Vehicle for the GBI and SM3-Block II and many more programs how there all necessary to secure the US Dominance over the most dangerous enemy’s like Red China and Russia. But it was not only the Obama Administration how mass murdered Critical programs so even the far more Defense friendlier Bush Administration killed Programs like the Crusader Tank and the AH66.This mostly ideological driven decision’s in combination with the idiotic attempt to focus all the resources just for one scenario (like what I call for example the “War on Terror” obsession of the Bush Administration) are the real cause of the decline of the US Military power.

            And why they speak about Hypersonic Missiles so the USA was leading one this technology but now it looks what china has with is last hypersonic test surpass the USA. The USA is simply incapable to develop and flied new Military Hardware because of the political instability not because of a lack of funding. A good example is the failed attempt to replace the bell OH-58d Kiowa warrior the army developed at last two replacement’s (the stealthy AH66 and later the AR70) but both there killed despite of the fact what they there nearly all completely developed and ready to enter mass production and now the new plan is simply to eliminate the entire Kiowa warrior without any replace and this is just one of many examples. So Hundreds of Billions and around 20 Years there wasted one the developing of new weapons sometimes really good stuff what because of short minded politics never enter the service or the mass production.

          • bobbymike34

            Agree 100% and Bush 41 cancelled all nuke modernization and now 20 years later the entire Triad and nuclear enterprise is in budget limbo. We have waited so long we have to try and modernize the entire Triad and I know that’s not going to happen with these politicians.

        • Silverbowl10

          Maybe we need to do what our enemies do – cheat!

          • Araya

            Maybe we need first to elect an Administration how can cheat the actual Administration is so mentally ill what they even seek to disarm unilaterally because why all the bad guys from Nord Korea to Russia and Red China will be so friendly and fallow this “good” example. So the actually Administration (Obama, Hagel) are all enthusiastic member of the “church of Global Zero”.^^

  • Don Bacon

    These guys are great at talking, but on performance not so much, as evidenced by LCS/JSF/CVN developments, all over budget and behind schedule.

    The result? Admiral Locklear at the annual Surface Navy Association conference:

    “Our historic dominance that most of us in this room have enjoyed is diminishing, no question.”

  • Gary Church

    “We need to think about what is surface warfare’s role in other than defensive operations,”

    I have thought about it: the era of the surface combatant is over and soon enough even submarines will not be able to hide. Sea gliders, little submarine drones that can go out for months on a gas tank of fuel and are silent- completely silent- can be mass-produced in the tens of thousands and target anything operating underwater.

    Any real war will start with the Kessler Syndrome. No more overhead assets for anyone.

    Then will come the drones in the air and underwater providing targeting for anti-whatever missiles. EMP weapons mean that line of site relay networks, probably with lasers, will be the mode of data transmission.

    And that will be war at sea and in the air; drones and missiles. That’s it. Nothing else will be able to survive.

    On land, the lethality of infantry weapons means nothing will be able to move day or night or behind smoke without getting shot or blown up.

    What we are looking at is the tactical equivalent of MAD. There may be a few battles until everyone figures out nobody can win in a mutual bloodbath.

    So, in my ever so humble opinion, all we should do is build factories to keep such a force ready as long as the other side does. Drones, Sea Gliders, Missiles and Infantry. Those are the only players worth spending money on. Everything else is going to be useless.

    But it is very bad defense business to state there is no defense.

    • Gary Church

      Yes, you can call it “The Church Doctrine.” War really will be for “hearts and minds” because fighting with 21st century weapons will be suicide.

  • bridgebuilder78

    Rail guns AND lasers?

    Someone’s having a sequestration induced delirium.

    • Silverbowl10

      Whatever we need!

  • hokie_1997

    Harpoon can also be fired by P-3 and P-8

  • Silverbowl10

    With what we got in Washington, don’t expect much!!!!

  • @NotRizzo

    It’s important to keep in mind when comparing USN surface combatants with our potential adversaries, that each faction has a very different mission set as part of the larger battle plan, USN DDGs require significantly less surface-to-surface capability than Chinese or Russians because their primary mission remains providing AAW protection for the real offensive fire power, carrier launched strike fighters. It’s important to note that the USN is no no danger of being “out-sticked” when a CBG is included, in fact a CVN Alpha Strike can carry the equivilent of 2 full magazines of SSGN Tomahawks roughtly twice the distance, and repeat it just hours later.
    The potential addition of Railguns and Free Electron Lasers to the the battlegroup would significantly reduce (but not eliminate) the need for offensive missles in the surface fleets magazine and augment the defensive capabilies offered by those missles, but the real muscle of the Navy is and will remain on the carrier’s decks.

  • Prokhor Tebin

    “Only three vessels currently in service or on contract can generate enough electricity to fire one, specifically the three DDG-1000 Zumwalt-class destroyers.” Why not CVN?

  • Crom!

    They should recommission the 4 Iowa battle ships the US still has, fit them with nuclear reactors and replace their cannon platforms for quad rail gun placements.

    • Gary Church

      Wow. Sounds like a movie. Should have had that in “Battleship.” Which…..actually was not that bad of a movie (I was bored and it was the only thing in Red box).