Fight Fire with Fire

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Facing growing networks of anti­access warfare systems, the U.S. Navy can regain an early offensive capability by taking conventionally armed intermediate-range ballistic missiles to sea.

Attack effectively first. That is how retired Navy Captain Wayne Hughes, long-term sage of naval tactics, describes the fundamental principle that offensive action remains the key to victory in naval warfare.1 But in the face of growing networks of antiaccess warfare systems that appear to require navies to remain on the defensive until they can achieve the range to commence an attack, how can that principle be applied?

As noted by Chief of Naval Operations Admiral John Richardson, public discussions of antiaccess/area denial (A2/AD) invariably focus on defensive operations, with an assumption that a potential opponent’s sea denial ambition is a fait accompli.2 Contemplation of offensive maneuver is relegated to “step two.” He also is right in noting that early offensive actions can be carried out from inside current A2/AD threat envelopes, especially by nuclear attack submarines (SSNs and SSGNs).

Yet, currently, our SSNs and SSGNs are armed with subsonic, low-altitude Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles that—while effective against many fixed targets—do not necessarily have the speed to be effective against such mobile targets as the transporter-erectors of the Chinese Dong Feng (DF) 21D antiship ballistic missile, often referred to as the “carrier killer.” Neither do the Tomahawks necessarily have the power to destroy hardened or buried facilities. If carrier aviation must stay beyond the DF-21’s range, how could the U.S. Navy take the offensive actions that would be fundamental to victory if a conflict were to occur in the East or South China seas? And if the Navy lacks such offensive power, how can it be assured it could deter such a conflict?

A potential option to enhance deterrence and bring an early offensive capability against A2/AD strategies is to “fight fire with fire” and take conventionally armed intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) to sea.3 Although there have been a small number of recent articles discussing the development of a land-based Pershing III IRBM for operation by the U.S. Army coast artillery, taking IRBMs to sea is an option that has not been publicly examined (at least since the 1960s).4 It is, however, a future fleet architecture option discussed in the MITRE Corporation’s report to Congress of July 2016.5 There would be many difficulties, cost, and risks, but as national security professionals, we owe it to the American people to discuss and debate this option.

What follows is a preliminary analysis of the advantages and disadvantages of the IRBM option, not with a spirit of advocacy, but to lay out what appears to have been previously unthinkable.

Not an Arms Control Issue

Before beginning the discussion, we must dispatch the common perception that IRBMs are banned under the 1988 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, which prompted both the United States and the Soviet Union to destroy their entire stocks of land IRBMs, as well as ground-launched cruise missiles. Pushing aside the fact that China and other nations are not parties to the treaty, and that Russia appears ready to break from its constraints, the INF Treaty does not include sea-based IRBMs. This has been a consistent interpretation of the U.S. Department of State in every administration from President Ronald Reagan to President Barack Obama. The implications for arms control and objections to the idea of IRBMs at sea can provoke a fierce debate, but for now, it must be recognized that sea-based IRBMs and shorter-range ballistic missiles are not constrained by any treaty or informal agreement.

Another issue that needs to be resolved up front is what constitutes an IRBM. A range of 1,000-5,500 kilometers is covered by the INF Treaty. Other sources separate “medium-range” (1,000-3,000 kilometers) from intermediate-range (3,000-5,500 kilometers) ballistic missiles. This distinction often is used within the Department of Defense (DOD); however, it is not a distinction codified in international law. Other nations do not categorize their arsenals in terms of medium range. The DF-21 frequently is described by U.S. analysts as a “medium-range missile,” but it would fall under INF Treaty limits. Moreover, the DF-26 missile, follow-on to the DF-21 with additional booster staging, has an estimated range of 3,000-4,000 kilometers. Referred to as the “Guam killer” or “Guam express,” the DF-26 is thought also to have an antiship ballistic missile variant. Given these facts, it is logical to apply the IRBM term to the INF 1,000-5,500 kilometer range and include the DF-21/26 in that category.

The Chinese IRBM Threat

Under many scenarios, the DF-21D could be a severe threat to the operations of U.S. and allied navies in the western Pacific. Also known by the designation CSS-5 Mod 6, it is estimated to carry a 600-kilogram/1,330-pound warhead with maneuverable reentry and terminal guidance capability targeted from either radar or information provided by the Yaogan-series maritime reconnaissance satellites.6 Combined with an expanding Chinese maritime reconnaissance-strike network of satellites, over-the-horizon radars, and maritime intelligence assets, the DF-21D is a significant and symbolic component of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA’s) antiaccess strategy.7

What makes it significant is its 1,450-kilometer/780-nautical-mile range, capable of reaching beyond the Taiwan Strait and “first island chain,” which is considered the potential area of Chinese naval dominance.

What makes it symbolic is the perception that it is a weapon through which the PLA can “use the land to control the sea,” particularly against the U.S. fleet.8 This would ensure the United States could not intervene in a Taiwan crisis as it did in 1995-1996, when U.S. carrier strike groups operated as a deterrent in the Taiwan Strait with apparent impunity. With the DF-21, the PLA theoretically could threaten the U.S. fleet in the western Pacific without a sortie of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN). Another perceived advantage in land-based anti­ship strike is that the United States presumably would be more reluctant to attack targets on mainland China than PLAN units operating at sea.

Whether or not the DF-21 would be effective in combat, its impact on naval strategy debates in the United States has been profound and continuing. Critics of new U.S. aircraft carrier construction cite cost comparisons between a large arsenal of DF-21Ds and a single aircraft carrier.9 Numerous studies suggest the U.S. Navy cannot operate within the first island chain, which stretches from Japan to Malaysia. Adding to the debate is the development of the follow-on land-attack/antiship DF-26.

Up to now, discussions of how to best counter the DF-21 and other antiship ballistic missiles have focused on defensive systems, such as the U.S. Navy Standard Missile (SM) 3 with its antiballistic missile capabilities, and on electromagnetic maneuver warfare (EMW) systems. The U.S. Navy also is developing the “distributed networked operations” concept. If these systems are combined with the inherent mobility of warships, defense against the DF-21 is possible, albeit difficult, particularly if reports that the PLA is working on a multiple independent reentry vehicle (MIRV) payload are accurate.10 A MIRVed payload could cover a wider area, making a hit more likely, although striking a moving target in a clutter of deceptive EMW signals and physical decoys is much harder than many commentators suppose.

Even as we work on developing other defensive operational solutions, there are potential advantages to taking a countering action on the strategic level. Introducing our own IRBMs at sea to target the land elements of the reconnaissance-strike networks would allow us to put DF-21 launchers and hardened network nodes at risk in ways we currently cannot. In conjunction with the defensive systems in service and under development, this could allow for an early phase offensive capability to break A2/AD strategies. If the offensive is truly the key to victory, then greater offensive capabilities should be a source of more credible deterrence.

Strategic and Operational Advantages

A conventional sea-based IRBM capability appears to offer at least five strategic and operational advantages.

Sea-based IRBMs would deliver a prompt counter­targeting capability that Tomahawks cannot provide. Although calculations vary based on booster size, a ballistic missile warhead can achieve speeds of 24,000 kph/15,000 mph (20 Mach) by booster burn-out. The approach speed of a Tomahawk cruise missile is roughly 890 kph/550 mph (0.7 Mach). One of the reported lessons learned in the war on terrorism is that the Tomahawk cannot be used at the extent of its range against real-time terrorist targets because such targets can move during the missile’s flight. Obviously, conventional IRBMs could arrive on target much quicker. Having sea-based IRBMs could prove a strategic advantage over the proposed use of conventionally armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) under the Prompt Global Strike concept because a launch of ICBMs from the continental United States could more easily be perceived as a nuclear attack and be a greater source of nuclear deterrence instability.

Sea-based IRBMs would allow the U.S. Navy to place PLA (and other) A2/AD assets at risk at a greater distance than today, changing the war-planning calculus. The U.S. fleet could target the PLAN and C4ISR nodes without having to enter the first island chain and therefore not face the level of hazard that we currently expect. Potentially, sea-based IRBMs could out-range the DF-21/26, thereby neutralizing that aspect of a PLA antiaccess strategy without being subject to it.

Although there is considerable cost involved in a new-start IRBM acquisition program, the technology is mature, and there would be much less research-and-development cost and engineering risk than would be encountered in the development of more exotic weapons. Sources have suggested the DF-21 resembles a reverse-engineered U.S. Pershing II missile, the type destroyed under the INF. The Pershing II, with a range of 1,770 kilometers, is a proven system whose 1970s technology could be updated without having to explore previously unexploited technologies. Whether the tooling exists to rapidly reconstruct the Pershing is unknown, but from a technological risk calculation, it might be that such a system could have initial operational capability (IOC) at sea prior to the at sea IOC of, for example, the rail gun. With previous experience installing box and canister launchers, it is conceivable the Navy could put an IRBM capability to sea on big-deck surface warships with a minimum of structural changes. The word, however, is conceivable; there is no public record of weight and stability calculations for IRBMs on modern surface ships beyond tests of shipping Pershing missiles by sea conducted by the U.S. Army in the 1960s.11 Conventionally armed IRBMs also could be fired from SSGNs. In fact, the original Polaris submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) would be considered an IRBM today. Deploying SSGNs with IRBMs would raise arms control issues. Nevertheless, an updated Pershing could rely on proven technologies.

U.S. Navy IRBMs would provide a nonescalatory/unconstrained-by-treaty analogous response to the DF-21/26 that would enhance strategic stability in the Asia-Pacific region and make the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) less likely to believe it could act aggressively without fear of a U.S. response. Since deterrence is about perceptions, symbolism matters. As long as it is perceived that the DF-21 can be a “carrier killer”—the symbol of a growing A2/AD network that ensures the United States cannot operate in the western Pacific—the deterrent effect of the U.S. Navy (and assurance to regional allies) is reduced. No matter the operational difficulties involved in countertargeting, regional perceptions that the United States has a carrier killer-killer that can reach beyond PLA A2/AD range would enhance regional deterrence. One could argue that the United States might not be willing to trade Omaha for Taiwan in an ICBM exchange, but it is harder to argue that the United States would be unwilling to hazard warships in a potential conventional IRBM battle.

It is possible that deployment of U.S. sea-based IRBMs might lead to an Asia-Pacific IRBM arms control treaty in a similar way that deployment of ground-based IRBMs (and ground-launched cruise missiles) in Europe led to the INF Treaty. The United States began the search for an INF Treaty with the Soviet Union years before actual missile deployment. The Soviets refused. However, once it was clear that NATO was committed to the deployment and that the Soviet-sponsored antinuclear protest movement would not derail the decision, negotiations began and were completed in relatively short order. Would the CCP be willing to conclude such an agreement that would include the DF-21 missile family? Unknown. But it would be unlikely to even contemplate such an agreement without facing an actual deployment of sea-based IRBMs, rather than the mere suggestion.

It is conceivable that the initiation of an IRBM acquisition program itself could bring the CCP to the arms control negotiations table. Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once maintained that the idea of the sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM)—even before developed—brought the Soviet Union to START.12

Costs, Risks, and Disadvantages

Obviously, there are costs, risks, and disadvantages that must be weighed prior to embarking on any effort to bring modern IRBMs to sea. Depending on emerging trends and events, such cost and risks may outweigh the strategic and operational advantages. However, that can be determined only through more detailed analysis and open, public debate. At an initial over-the-horizon view, there are at least five significant disadvantages:

The first and most obvious is cost. To re-create a Pershing-type IRBM that can be deployed at sea will require resources on the level of other new-start acquisition programs. To determine an estimated “should cost” is beyond the scope of this article, but one source suggests a cost of $18 million per Pershing II in 2011 U.S. dollars, based on an original cost for the total 1980s program of $4.3 billion for 234 missiles.13 This would translate to $19 million per missile in 2017. The per missile cost actually would be determined by the total buy, but a new acquisition program costing $4 billion would be difficult to propose in today’s constrained budget environment. Barring a substantial budget increase, other programs would have to be cut or reduced. Under the circumstance, naval IRBMs might not seem to be a priority.

Along with the cost of the missile is the cost of launchers. At 34.8 feet long and with a diameter of 40 inches, a Pershing II would not fit in the standard vertical launch system (VLS) cell. VLS cells also are rated at a maximum missile weight of 9,020 pounds; the Pershing II weighed 16,451 pounds. Either a new, larger VLS would have to be developed or another launch system designed if a Pershing-type missile were to be installed on surface ships.

This is not an insurmountable problem, as the U.S. Navy has experience using box launchers fitted to existing ships. The weight involved likely would make it prohibitive for destroyer-sized vessels, but it could be supported by amphibious warfare ships—providing a capability that would result in some serious distributed lethality. Another option would be to tie down transportable erector-launchers on the decks of amphibs or aircraft carriers, and possibly smaller vessels, similar to those used for the former land-based Pershing IIs. This possibility follows a suggestion by Marine Corps Commandant General Robert Neller that the high-mobility artillery rocket system (HIMARS), a road-mobile system transported by amphibious warfare ships, be equipped with antiship missiles.14 While such a capability primarily would be used ashore, there appears little to preclude its use from the decks of amphibs. Targeting would be provided by other sea-based, airborne, or space-based assets. But, again, this would require resources.

Another option is to design new-type vessels specifically for sea-based IRBM systems, but that, of course, would increase costs substantially.

There have been no technical studies (at least no public studies) of the engineering requirements of putting IRBMs to sea, which means it is difficult to determine the technical risks of such a program. Despite the apparent feasibility, the risk of program failure may be high, particularly if initial cost estimates are understated and engineering difficulties mount. It is not that engineering challenges could not be surmounted; rather, the issue is that—despite the potential for the use of mature technologies—the total risks are unknown.

Like for all new capabilities, concepts of operations would need to be developed, and testing, experimentation, and training would need to be funded.

We have no clear idea how the CCP would react to U.S. development of a sea-based IRBM capability. Public rhetorical invective would be extreme, but what sort or political or military action the Chinese might seriously contemplate is unknown.

What Should be Done Now?

Given the advantages and disadvantages, what should the U.S. Navy do in the near term? Quite simply, now is the time for detailed study and experimentation.

First, the Navy should embark on multiple studies of the strategic, operational, and technical aspects of using sea-based IRBMs to counter antiaccess strategies and A2/AD systems. These should be both internal and commissioned studies, with emphasis on engineering requirements and technical risks. The focus should be on how to obtain such capabilities using existing technology and at relatively low cost.

Second, the Navy should experiment with the operation of existing land-based missiles on surface ships. There is no reason to wait for optimal launch systems. Most can be tied down and tested using the amphibious force.

Third, in conjunction with the eventual replacement of the Ohio class, the Navy should examine the possibility of converting Ohio submarines into SSGNs that can fire conventionally armed IRBMs. This looks feasible from a technical point of view, but there are strategic and arms control implications that must be examined.

It may be that, after a detailed examination, the Navy and the nation determine sea-based IRBMs are the wrong option. However, the time and effort it takes to examine the possibility will be worth it as it could lead us to identify a better option. In any event, we need to look at what might seem unconventional solutions if we are to regain the offensive capabilities to defeat antiaccess strategies and A2/AD systems. We cannot look at A2/AD as primarily a defensive challenge and expect to achieve victory. And we cannot allow an enemy to attack effectively first.

1. CAPT Wayne P. Hughes Jr., USN (Ret.), Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat, 2nd ed. (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2000), 40.

2. ADM John Richardson, USN, “Deconstructing A2/AD,” The National Interest (online), 3 October 2016.

3. The IRBM category includes ballistic missiles with ranges between 1,000 kilometers/622 land miles and 5,500 kilometers/3,418 land miles, which includes the DF-21.

4. LCOL Stephen L. Melton, USA (Ret.), “Resurrecting the Coast Artillery,” Fires (May-June 2014), 61-63; Even Braden Montgomery, “How Should America Respond to China’s Deadly Missile Arsenal?” The National Interest (online), 19 September 2014.

5. Although the MITRE study was not released publicly, it is available from a link at Senator John McCain’s official website at

6. Characteristics of the Dong Feng missiles are compiled from numerous open (unclassified) sources and should be understood as approximate.

7. “Maritime reconnaissance-strike complex” is a recent term used by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments to describe the Chinese and Russian antiaccess networks.

8. Andrew S. Erickson and David D. Yang, “Using the Land to Control the Sea? Chinese Analysts Consider the Anti-Ship Ballistic Missile,” Naval War College Review 62, no. 4 (Autumn 2009), 53-86.

9. CAPT Henry J. Hendrix, USN, “At What Cost a Carrier?” Center for a New American Security, March 2013.

10. Harry Kanzianis, “China’s Anti-Access Missile,” The Diplomat, 18 November 2011.

11. John H. Grier, Pershing Transportation Study, Vessel Stowage, vol. 4 (Fort Eustis, VA: U.S. Army Transportation Engineering Agency, July 1966).

12. Norman Friedman, U.S. Naval Weapons (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1985), 225; U.S. Department of State, Foreign Relations of the United States, 1969-1976, vol. 33, SALT II, 1972-1980 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2013), 482.

13. Matthew Hallex, “China’s Deadly Missile Arsenal is Growing: What Should America Do about It?” The National Interest (online), 5 October 2014.

14. Hope Hodge Seck, “Top Marine Wants to Fire Anti-Ship Missiles From HIMARS Launcher,” Kit Up! Military.Com, 14 December 2016,

Dr. Tangredi is a professor of national, naval, and maritime strategy and a director of the Institute for Future Warfare Studies at the Center for Naval Warfare Studies, U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies (Naval Institute Press, 2013) and two earlier books on the future security environment.

This article appeared originally at U.S. Naval Institute's Proceedings.

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