Ship-Killing Missiles Are the Pentagon’s Big Budget Winner
The U.S. Navy will get deadlier in 2017
On its face, the Pentagon’s budget request for the 2017 fiscal year is bad for the Navy — seven billion dollars in cuts, including one fewer warship than planned and the loss of 6,300 sailors. But the Navy will become a much deadlier force … to other ships.
It’s because the Pentagon is buying anti-ship missiles, and lots of them — anti-air missiles modified into ship killers, Tomahawks with an anti-ship function and a new stealthy cruise missile to replace the 1970s-era Harpoon. The badly-armed Littoral Combat Ship is even getting a missile … finally.
In fact, it’s arguable that military-wide, ship killing was this year’s big budget winner.
The new spending is also about catching up to a basic reality. If you can’t get close enough to shoot at your enemy, who can shoot at you — you’re dead in the water. And for most of the post-Cold War period, the Navy didn’t think much about battling other ships. It kept its old missiles, and the United States’ main rival at sea, Russia, went into steep decline.
But China spent the era modernizing its navy and developing missiles which can outrange American vessels. The Russians, too, have more recently long-range ship killers such as the Klub which can outrange the Harpoon. That alone isn’t too startling. The strategy not being to go toe-to-toe with the U.S. Navy — but present enough of a threat to push American warships farther away from hostile shores — and limit their room to maneuver.
What is startling is that it might just be enough to win a limited war.
“No ship in our inventory can disable another ship with its organic weapons at ranges greater than approximately 70 miles (the range of the Harpoon missile), and no ship has been added to the inventory since 1999 that can fire the Harpoon missile,” naval consultant and former U.S. Navy officer Bryan McGrath told Congress in December.
Hence all the new missiles — and upgrades of existing ones into the anti-ship role. The Pentagon’s budget keeps up funding for the Block IV Tomahawk missile, which can shift to different targets in flight, and “funds the development of a maritime strike variant to engage surface targets,” according to the request. The cost is $298 million in 2017.
Above — an SM-6 missile launches from the Japanese destroyer Kirishima. At top — the cruiser USS Gettysburg launches a Harpoon.
The Navy and Air Force also want to plow $341.5 million in 2017 into developing and buying an initial 30 Long-Range Anti-Surface Warfare Missiles, or LRASMs. The planned successor to the Harpoon, LRASM originated in the labs of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency as a stealthy, futuristic ship-killer. The LRASM would extend warships’ anti-surface range out to 500 nautical miles.
Its stealthy shape, speed and sea-skimming flight profile provides an edge over the slower Tomahawk, which more easily picks up on radar.
Then there’s the SM-6. An anti-aircraft missile, the Navy wants to spend $626.7 million on buying and an initial 125 SM-6s and turning them into anti-ship weapons. The amount will eventually grow to 650 missiles and $2.9 billion over the next five years. These are relatively small missiles designed for taking out aircraft, and will pose more of a serious threat to smaller vessels than big ones.
It’s still a lot of missiles.
“What this means is that in the space of a year, the Navy’s surface force, which many (including me) had believed was becoming “outsticked” by adversary surface forces, has gone from 50 ships capable of firing missiles out to 75 miles, to 90 ships capable of firing a subsonic anti-ship missile to nearly a thousand miles, in addition to a devastating supersonic missile to ranges in excess of the Harpoon missile (the SM-6’s range remains classified),” McGrath wrote at War on the Rocks.
Then there’s the troubled Littoral Combat Ship. The Navy will buy 100 Hellfire missiles — an air-to-ground weapon — for the LCS’s anti-ship role. The LCS has faced sustained criticism from Congress for its lack of armament. High-tech and modular, the goal behind the warship was to swap out various mission “platforms” for different roles. But its relatively short-range 57-millimeter gun is the biggest anti-ship weapon aboard the vessel.
The Navy even cut one LCS in 2017, and will buy only two instead of three. This reflects a broader scaling back of the LCS from a planned 52 ships to 40.
But consider the trade-off. Next year, you can have three ships that can’t defend themselves, or two that can. Which would you pick?