TACTOM synthetic guidance- now with video!

We mentioned the use of offboard guidance to guide a TACTOM Tomahawk missile against a moving naval target. Here’s the video.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jgv5ixxgTsQ]

That’s not a warhead, by the way. That’s simply leftover jet fuel from the Tomahawk’s engine burning. For test shots like this, the warhead is replaced with ballast and telemetry. First, you want to gather as much information as possible. Second, you want to do as little damage to the (relatively expensive) target as possible.  A warshot would have a 1000 pound blast/fragmentation warhead. While that likely wouldn’t sink the target, hitting so far above the waterline, it would certainly do a good deal of damage to any warship, likely rendering it a “mission kill” where it could not be expected to continue to operate in a threat environment.

And yes, pigeons is misspelled.

A little more on Offensive Surface Warfare

LT Rusty raised a valid point in the comments on our earlier post.

Only one minor quibble here – Flt IIA Burkes didn’t give up the Harpoon launchers to get the helo hangar. The launchers on a Burke are located at the midships QD, between the fore and aft superstructures, where they would not interfere in any way with the addition of the hangar. The IIA’s also – or at least the early ones – were still wired for Harpoon, and even have the brackets in CIC to install the console. It would be a matter of an afternoon’s work to put Harpoon back onboard.

The reason that it was left off is because the Navy doesn’t (or at least didn’t in 1999-2000) want a BVR SUW capability. The stated reason for this back then was that, based on rules of engagement, we needed to have VID on all tracks before shooting at them in anything other than a RED / FREE environment, and since we were never going to get an ROE like that, what was the point of buying the launchers and the birds for it?

That’s the real challenge in long range missile engagements- targeting.

You’re familiar with the Tomahawk cruise missile, which has been the favored weapon for first day strikes on enemy shore based assets. Originally there were three variants of the Tomahawk. The land attack missile in use today, a nuclear armed land attack variant, and a anti-ship version armed with a 1000 lb warhead.

The Tomahawk Anti Ship Missile, or TASM, used the active radar seeker of a Harpoon missile coupled with recycled 1000lb Bullpup missile warheads. It had a range of about 250 miles.

The radar aboard a ship such as a Burke simply cannot detect a target at that range. Passive sensors, such as Classic Outboard, can, but only with somewhat limited accuracy. The other option for targeting is using offboard sensors, such as the ship’s MH-60 helicopter, P-3 or P-8 Maritime Patrol Aircraft, or any other ships that the shooter is datalinked with.

Further, the TASM flies at a fairly sedate 500 knots or so. That means about a half hour time of flight out to maximum range. The seeker head of a TASM has a limited range. Coupled with aimpoint errors at launch, the target might well be outside the seekers field of view when it reaches the target area. The TASM can conduct a search pattern, however. But the risk is that the missile will acquire and attack neutral third party shipping. Blowing up allied or neutral ships is frowned upon.

While the Harpoon has a shorter range (and smaller warhead) than the TASM, many of the same challenges to Over The Horizon (OTH) targeting still apply.

Many modern anti-ship missiles address these challenges through mid-course update. That is, they send updated targeting information to the missile after it has been launched. Any future US Navy long range anti ship missile will definitely have this capability.

What’s interesting about LT Rusty’s mention of the Navy’s assumption that a Visual ID is required before shooting is that it is completely reversed from the assumptions behind the entire architecture of the surface fleet’s assumptions for anti-air warfare. The entire Aegis/Standard Missile program is designed for long range engagements of targets, long, long before any visual ID can be made.

Ballistic Missile Defense in Europe

The US policy of extending Ballistic Missile Defense capabilities to our European allies originally envisioned building installations in Poland based on our own GMD program as installed in Alaska. Political factors, far more than technical or tactical ones, caused that plan to be scrapped.  US Aegis BMD capable Aegis cruisers and destroyers will be forward deployed to Europe to provide BDM. Significant questions of cost and capability also lead to a decision to forego using the GMD program and instead to install a land based version of the US Navy’s Aegis system in Romania and Poland.

The U.S. and NATO have begun construction on the first deployed Aegis Ashore installation in Deveselu, Romania as part of a wider ballistic missile defense (BMD) strategy on Monday, according to several press reports.

“The facility here in Deveselu will be a crucial component in building up NATO’s overall ballistic missile defense system,” NATO deputy secretary-general Alexander Vershbow said.”By the end of 2015 this base will be operational and integrated into the overall NATO system.”


Aegis BMD had a bit of stunning publicity back in 2008 when the USS Lake Erie used her Aegis system to knock down a dying satellite.

Aegis, named for the shield of Athena and Zeus, is an integrated shipboard air defense system in service from the early 1980s.  The term Aegis more properly refers to the computers and software that make up the combat system, but is colloquially used to refer to the entire hardware suite of combat system, radar, launcher, and associated equipment.

The radar itself, the SPY-1, is a passively scanned phased array. The launcher, the Mk41 Vertical Launch system, can be loaded with any of a number of types of missiles. Aboard ship, it carries several versions of the SM-2 and SM-3 Standard Missile family to intercept aircraft and missiles, Tomahawk cruise missiles, the Vertical Launch ASROC anti-submarine rocket, and increasingly, the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile short-range air defense missile. I think we can safely presume the shore based installation will only carry Standard Missile family members.

The SPY-1 radar was developed with open ocean air defense as its priority, and has struggled with tracking targets over land. But because ballistic missile trajectories are so far above the horizon, that shouldn’t be an issue.

Aegis Ashore is a great example of leveraging existing technologies for a low risk, low costs solution to a problem. With over thirty years of use, the basic components are well tested. The systems are already in production for shipboard use, and adapting them to shore use is a far easier task than adapting a shore based system for shipboard use.

Indeed, before the Navy even fielded its first operational Aegis system, it build a shore based system for testing and integration.


Shore basing the Aegis system is also quite a bit cheaper than providing the same capability via a forward deployed ship. Lower operating and manning costs, and simplified logistics drive down costs.

Aegis and the SM missile family have a good track record of success in testing against short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles. Full capability against ICBMs has yet to be demonstrated, but as capability grows, updating the ashore installations will be relatively simple.

Sprucans vs. LCS

I think CDR Sal spends a bit too  much time on the “coulda, woulda” part of this post discussing the plan to build the last Spruance class destroyer as a helicopter platform, but the main thrust of his post rings clear.

2. The facts. LCS-1 was commissioned in NOV08. Almost 5 years ago, and we have 4 LCS commissioned; two of each sub-class of LCS. The USS SPRUANCE (DD-963) was commissioned in SEP75. Five years later, in 1980, we had just commissioned hull 30, USS FLETCHER (DD-992). That left one ship in the class left, the USS HAYLER (DD-993) that we’ll get to in a minute. So, ummmm, no. Admiral Greenert, the experience we have having with LCS is quite significantly different than our experience with the SPRUANCE class. Shall we go on to OHP next? Let’s not and say we did; I want to stick with the Spru-cans.

The Spruance class destroyers were in many ways very revolutionary ships. They had an entirely new hull form, much, much larger than previous destroyers. Their primary mission was open ocean Anti-Submarine Warfare, as part of the escort for a carrier battle group. An important part of making an effective ASW ship was minimizing self-noise. And it is much easier to minimize self-noise on a larger ship than a smaller one. That was one of several factors driving the unprecedented size of the Sprucans. They were also the first major US warships to be powered by gas turbine engines.

Further, all the ships were built by a sole source contractor in a “winner take all” bid, virtually unknown to the Navy in those days. Litton built an entirely new production line to crank out the ships. It wasn’t without its problems, but with an average production of 6 ships per year, it, in the end, worked.


Importantly, the ships were designed from the earliest days to have plenty of room for growth to adapt to new technologies. Plenty of reserve buoyancy and stability, electrical power and other utilities were built into the original platform because the designers knew that every ship gains weight and more equipment as it ages. This imposes an up front cost, but in the long run, often saves real money during future upgrades.

By 1980, plans were well in hand to modify the Spruance class with several important upgrades. A towed tactical sonar array would be added, vastly improving their long range ASW capability, the original LAMPS I SH-2F helicopters would be replaced by the bigger, far more capable LAMPS III SH-60B helicopter, armored box launchers for Tomahawk missiles would be planned, and the 20mm Phalanx Close In Weapon System would be planned to increase point defense against anti-ship missiles. Even further modifications would come later, with the Mk41 Vertical Launch System replacing the ASROC launcher.  While most of these changes weren’t envisioned from the start, the capability to make fairly extensive changes easily was.

Compare and contrast with the LCS-1 Freedom currently deployed to Singapore.

The strength of the entire LCS concept is supposed to be the “plug and play” modules the ship is designed to carry. But because the ship has been designed and built, while the modules are still in (troubled) development, as a practical matter, fixed constraints on size, weight, power, and other hotel loads have been placed on those modules. Further, as the modules are supposed to be deployable on either of the LCS variants, any limiting factor imposed by one variant, say, chill water availability, imposes that limitation on the module across both variants.

Further, because of an obsession with high speed, the LCS-1 has a semi-planing hull form that is very sensitive to increased loads. That is, increases in loaded displacement will have a greater negative effect on top speed and endurance than a similar increase in displacement would have on a conventional displacement hull.

Further, to beat a dead horse a bit more, the LCS program first sought two completely different variants to test the LCS concept at sea, and then choose which approach best suited the Navy’s needs (if either). But the shortcomings in hull numbers (largely a result of retiring Spruance class ships long before their useful service lives were consumed) meant the Navy decided to push ahead with serial production of not just one variant, but both, long before either ship had proven itself in any way shape or form. In fact, to date, both have been plagued by engineering troubles, corrosion, and problems with their combat systems. To some extent, this is fairly normal for a first-in-class ship, but as shown by the example of the Spruance class, the fleet shouldn’t need five years just to get one variant onto its first deployment, and still be struggling with keeping underway for more than 3 or 4 days at a time.

I am a strong proponent of seapower, and want to support a strong Navy. But given the utter inability of the Navy to make hard choices about what it truly needs in terms of shipbuilding, and its stubborn inability to cut its losses on a project that was ill conceived, and poorly managed, I find it almost impossible to trust Big Blue when it starts braying about the need for more money because of a strategic shift to the Pacific.

Photo-tour of USS Iowa and the LA Maritime Museum

Popular lore says that prior to the debacle at Pearl Harbor, US doctrine focused on Battleships, and carriers were slighted as a striking weapon.

In fact, it was a little more nuanced than that. Carriers were seen by the fleet (even the Big Gun Admirals) as both the primary scouts of the fleet, and as a potent striking weapon.  While the assumption was still that a major fleet engagement would consist of both the US and Japanese lines of battle engaging in a gun duel reminiscent of Trafalgar or Jutland, the presumption on the US side was that carrier attacks would whittle down the enemy fleet through day long strikes, and then the main body of battleships would close to shoot it out the next day. Japanese doctrine was remarkably similar, with the exception that they planned for heavy torpedo attacks by cruisers and destroyers  the night proceeding the main engagement.

The primary escort for carriers was the heavy (8” gun) cruiser, as only they had the speed and endurance to dash forward at over 30 knots with the carriers to launch attacks. Destroyers lacked the gunpower and fuel to adequately serve as escorts, and battleships were too slow to accompany the carriers. Note that the primary threat seen to carriers in the prewar days was enemy surface ships, primarily cruisers. While carriers were seen as potent striking weapons, the fleet understood that they were incapable of launching strikes in poor weather or at night, leaving them vulnerable to surface attack. Hence the cruiser escorts.

After the Washington Treaty moratorium on battleship construction expired, the US began building “fast battleships” which were generally capable of a speeds of around 26 knots. Simply being faster than an enemy line of battle conferred advantages.

But the desire for battleships to be able to accompany fast carriers with their speeds of over thirty knots lead to the final US class of battleships to be built- the Iowas.

Roughly a hundred feet longer than previous fast battleship classes, and with an enormous bump in horsepower, the Iowas balanced installed armor protection with firepower and speed, over 33 knots, the fasted battleships ever built. This made them ideal to operate with the fast carrier task forces. As it turned out, they rarely needed to call on their giant 16” main battery to protect the carriers. Instead, they used their massive secondary battery of 5” guns, and vast numbers of 40mm and 20mm guns to provide close in anti-aircraft support to the carriers.

The Iowas were comparitevly expensive to operate in peacetime, both in terms of fuel and manpower, so they were fairly quickly placed in reserve. But the power and accuracy of their massive gun batteries saw ships of the class recalled for duty in Korea and Vietnam.

And with the Reagan buildup of the 1980s, facing the growing Soviet effort to build a blue water fleet, the Navy was willing to pay the price to modernize and recommission all four ships for service.

With new radars and communications, the Iowas traded a portion of their secondary 5” battery for 16 Harpoon missiles, and eight armored box launchers for a then staggering total of 32 Tomahawk missiles. The conversion made them formidable threats to both surface and shore targets.

After a final shoot at Iraqi targets during Desert Storm, the collapse of the Soviet threat, combined with the still staggering expense of manning the ships, lead to a final decommissioning of the class. While technically by law two of the class are still subject to reactivation, in fact, all four are now museum ships.

The USS Iowa, recently transferred from the Bay Area to San Pedro at the Port of Los Angeles, is now open to the public. To be honest, I was a touch disappointed with the tour. Most of the tour is of the main deck, and the superstructure up to  the navigation bridge level, and briefly down to the mess decks. The ship has yet to open tours of the turrets, Combat Information Center, or the ship’s engineering plant. As the foundation running the museum gathers funds, they plan to add those spaces to the tour.

The Los Angeles Maritime Museum is a separate entity, but located just down the street from the Iowa, and is very much worth the very modest suggested donation, with a nice array of ship models, and a historical overview of the history of the port of Los Angeles.

Is the Supercarrier Dead?

So, is the supercarrier dead? Jerry Hendrix wrote a thought provoking piece titled “At What Cost A Carrier?” Normally, we think Hendrix is pretty sharp, but this piece was not up to his usual standards. First, comparing the roughly $7bn cost of the last in class CVN-77, to the first in class CVN-78 (roughly $14 bn) is a bit misleading. The last in class benefits from the entire learning curve of a production run. The first in class always suffers cost issues because of the same learning curve issues. Further, as much as $5bn of the cost of the new class is in non-recurring research and development costs. So while the cost of the next-gen carrier is still rather appalling, it’s not terribly out of line with recent trends in comparable shipbuilding.

So let’s take a look at some of the alternatives the Wired article I linked explores.

1. Using the new America class or a derivative as baby carriers.

First, the America class are not baby carriers. They are amphibious warships. Sure, they look a lot like carriers, and have better ability to operate larger numbers of AV-8B or F-35B jets than the existing LHD class big deck amphibs. But they are still amphibious warfare ships, designed to carry and land the hear of a Marine Expeditionary Unit, the Battalion Landing Team, and host the majority of its Air Combat Element (ACE), a reinforced medium helicopter unit.

The biggest drawback of using an LHD/LHA as a carrier is the fact that it cannot operate either the E-2 Hawkeye, or the EF-18G. One of the key lessons of the Falklands War was that while carrier airpower can be decisive, operating carriers without airborne early warning and electronic warfare in range of shore based air is fraught with risk.

LHD/LHA are also quite a bit slower than carriers. That reduces their mobility quite a bit. One of the key strengths of carriers in the power projection role is their ability to close with a coast, launch strikes, and retire before the enemy can mount a coherent counterstrike. But you have to move pretty quick to do that. Even a relatively modest decrease in speed has a significant negative effect on that ability. That reduced speed also makes an LHD/LHA quite a bit more vulnerable to submarine attack.

Further, all of the vulnerabilities that supposedly make the modern supercarrier obsolete are there in any LHD/LHA, only magnified.

2. The “everything’s a carrier” approach.

Not a bad idea, to some extent.

That is, between helicopters and UAVs, more and more ships are capable of deploying at least some form of their own, organic air support.  UAVs obviously extend the sensor envelope for ships. And helicopters not only extend the sensor envelope, but often give much greater reach to the ships weapons, either by carrying their own, or providing much better targeting for ship launched weapons.

But the fantasy that unmanned combat air vehicles can replace the manned strike aircraft is just that- fantasy. For at least the next generation, manned aircraft will continue to be the only viable option.

As for converting merchant hulls to carrier like roles, that too faces severe handicaps. Virtually every challenge an LHD/LHA faces, so to any converted merchantman. Worse, not being built to warship standards, they are far less capable of withstanding battle damage or fire.

The linked article notes for the cost of a carrier, you could buy several smaller ships, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’d be buying equal effectiveness for your money, nor does it even mean the results would be cheaper in the long run.  Don’t forget, the big cost in operating a ship isn’t fuel, but manpower. And the manpower for several smaller ships would likely be greater than one supercarrier.

3. Submarine Strike

Yes, the converted Ohio class SSGNs are handy. And adding a few more tubes to later flight Virginia class SSNs is probably a good idea. But that’s hardly a substitute for airpower. First, right now, the only viable weapon is the Tomahawk cruise missile. While it is a good weapon, it is both slow, and only very modestly stealthy. It is quite vulnerable to air defense. It also has a rather paltry 1000lb warhead, far too small to hold at risk any number of critical targets in almost any campaign.

Worse, it has only the most limited utility against any target that isn’t a fixed installation. Latest versions can be retargeted in flight, but requires a data-link with an airborne assets. Which implies you can be flying over enemy territory. Which raises the question, if you can fly over territory long enough and far enough to retarget a Tomahawk, why not just use that aircraft as a strike platform anyway?

Submarine launched cruise missile attacks also suffer from “shallow magazines.”  An Ohio SSGN with full magazines only carries 154 missiles. That sounds like a lot (and at roughly a million dollars a pop, it’s a lot of money) but in terms of warheads on foreheads, that’s a day’s work for a carrier.  And the carrier can launch several days of strikes before having to retire to rearm.  Whereas a carrier can rearm at sea, an SSGN has to return to a friendly port to reload.  Such lack of sustained firepower is why URR refers to the SSGN as able to deliver a “strike”, rather than “fires.”

Since Billy Mitchell first bombed captured German warships in Chesapeake Bay, people have been sounding the death knell of the carrier. And yet, it continues to prove itself again and again as not only a viable weapon of war, but a crucial tool of warfighting and diplomacy.

That’s not to say Naval Aviation doesn’t face challenges. The short striking range of today’s air wing, the astonishing cost of the F-35C program (and limited capabilities it provides) and the short-sighted decision to jettison dedicated tanker, ASW and long range strike (as opposed to strike-fighter) assets have lead to the construction of ever more capable carriers, with arguably ever diminishing capability in the main battery of the carrier, its air wing.

If carriers are such obsolete and vulnerable warships, why are so many other countries striving today to build their own carrier capbability?