The US Navy's Cruise Missile Nightmare

By James R. Holmes

The U.S. Navy has a problem. Or rather, it has two intertwined problems, one material and one intellectual and cultural. To all appearances, thankfully, the sea service has resolved to attack both of them. As psychologists say, admitting you have a problem is the first step toward solving it. And, I would add, it’s the biggest and most consequential step. Once you reorient yourself, deciding and acting constitute the easy part—relatively speaking, anyway. Ergo…


The first of the navy’s woes is material. By and large American fighting ships and shipborne aircraft remain second to none as platforms. They’re festooned with state-of-the-art sensors, fire-control systems, propulsion plants, you name it. But the weapons they pack have fallen behind increasingly competitive times. Not since the early 1990s, for instance, has the surface navy procured a new anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM), its chief weapon for fleet-on-fleet engagements.

Time and technology moved on in the interim. Prospective competitors, notably China, have imported or manufactured missiles boasting greater reach, speed, and often times striking power than their U.S. counterparts. The U.S. Navy’s Harpoon missile, or standard ASCM, can strike at targets circa 76 miles distant. Impressive—except some Chinese ASCMs boast over triple that range, while the vast majority outrange the Harpoon by a sizable margin.

Which leaves American surface warriors—among whom I count myself despite the lapse of, ahem, a few short years—inhabiting an awkward spot.

Think about it in boxing terms. What happens when a short, stubby-armed boxer packing a crushing right squares off against a tall, rangy, equally musclebound opponent? It’s an unequal fight—never mind the apparent parity of strength. The long-armed pugilist jabs away from out of reach. He scores lots of points, and lands lots of blows. Sure, the brawny little guy may be a heavy hitter—but he takes a heckuva beating while closing the distance enough to counterpunch.

That takes its toll. Worse, the short-armed boxer may never get within reach. He could suffer a knockout before ever getting close enough to unleash that right. Likewise, never getting within missile range while an enemy pounds away is a Bad Thing in sea combat. Which antagonist fields the better platforms matters little if one fleet gets in range to deploy its principal armament and the other doesn’t.

Far better to lengthen your reach while amassing battle power—making yourself the tall, rangy, musclebound pugilist.

Which is why recent news out of the defense-technology world warms the heart of any American sailor. Last month off the California coast, a Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile repurposed for anti-ship missions slammed into a moving target at sea. It was fired from destroyer USS Kidd and guided by position data relayed from a F/A-18 Super Hornet aircraft overhead.

The reconfigured Block IV constitutes a new, old capability—the sort of undead U.S. mariners like. The navy leadership ordered Tomahawk anti-ship cruise missiles (TASMs) withdrawn from the fleet during the 1990s, when U.S. maritime supremacy appeared beyond challenge and the sea service turned its attention to projecting power ashore. That took a very, very long-range weapon out of the surface (and subsurface) navy’s arsenal—a weapon that would outdistance most if not all of its competitors on the high seas today.

Restoring that range advantage would restore the surface fleet’s fighting edge over competitors—matching superior platforms with superior combat power. Small wonder Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work touts the nouveau TASM as an inexpensive “game-changing capability.” The missile—the expensive component—exists. Fielding a new seeker to find and target shipping is relatively straightforward.

Still to come: a test of the Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM), a “bird” under development since 2009 under the auspices of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency—the Pentagon’s analogue to Q, the high-tech wizard from the James Bond films. If test-fired successfully from the vertical-launch system carried aboard surface combatants, the LRASM will add another arrow to the navy’s quiver in the not-too-distant future. Faster, please.

Neither bird is perfect. Both the Tomahawk and LRASM remain subsonic missiles, which means it takes them a long time to reach distant targets, which means the target may have moved by the time the missile reaches assigned coordinates, which means these weapons will presumably rely on airborne updates of the type used during last month’s test—even once perfected. Networking shooter with aircraft with missile opens up opportunities for mischief-making by adversaries who have every incentive to balk U.S. naval operations. Such is the reality of naval warfare.

Still, these are encouraging developments all around. For an appraisal of the second problem besetting our navy…tune in next week!!! 

James Holmes is Professor of Strategy at the Naval War College and coauthor of Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010. He is RCD’s new national security columnist. The views voiced here are his alone.

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