The U.S. Navy Is Re-Arming for Surface Warfare
An explosion of new anti-ship missiles
In 2016 the U.S. Navy possessed just one surface-launched anti-ship missile type — Boeing’s Harpoon, a munition that first entered the fleet in the 1970s.
Two years later, the Navy had added no fewer than five additional ASM types to the fleet and also updated the Harpoon. The fast expansion of the U.S. fleet’s ship-sinking arsenal pointed to escalating seaborne threats from Russia and China.
The U.S. Defense Department’s budget for the 2018-to-2019 fiscal year, “continues the work of the department to maximize as many munitions production lines as possible — particularly those specific to the high-end fight,” according to a U.S. Senate summary.
As part of the budget, the Navy was asking Congress for $27 million to being upgrading its Harpoons to the new Block II+ version, which adds GPS and a data-link allowing missile to switch targets mid-flight.
At the same time, the Navy was buying its second batch of new Long-Range Anti-Ship Missiles from Lockheed Martin, adding 35 of the new munitions to the initial batch of 25 it bought in 2017.
The Navy was also paying Raytheon to begin modifying old Tomahawk land-attack missiles for anti-ship missions — part of a $78-million account for the fiscal year. Raytheon was under contract to provide the first 32 Maritime Strike Tomahawks in 2020.
At the same time, the Navy had just tapped Raytheon and Norwegian firm Kongsberg to build, under an initial $15-million contract, their Naval Strike Missile for the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships and future frigates.
Finally, the Navy was paying Raytheon to modify in-service SM-2 and SM-6 ship-launched surface-to-air missiles for the anti-ship role, as part of the service’s $490-million investment in the Standard Missile program for the fiscal year — a sum that also paid for 125 new missiles.
The explosion of new missile efforts represented a remarkable turnaround for the U.S. fleet. In early 2016 Robert Work, then the U.S. deputy defense secretary, warned of “a resurgent Russia and a rising China” on the high seas.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Work’s boss, laid out the argument. “We face competitors who are challenging us in the open ocean,” Carter said, “and we need to balance investment in those capabilities — advanced capabilities — in a way that we haven’t had to do for quite a while.”
During the Cold War, the Navy excelled at sinking enemy ships. It possessed what were, at the time, two of the world’s best anti-ship missiles — the Harpoon and a first-generation Tomahawk anti-ship missile.
With these two weapons, the U.S. Navy was prepared to engage Soviet warships if the Cold War had ever turned hot. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the U.S. fleet shifted its attention to land. It launched missile and air raids on Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Libya and Syria, among others.
“The U.S. has been neglecting its anti-ship capabilities since at least the early 1990s,” Eric Wertheim, an independent naval analyst and author of Combat Fleets of the World, said in 2016. Confident that at-sea combat was history, the Navy decommissioned all its Tomahawk anti-ship missiles and removed Harpoons from many ships.
The result was a yawning gap in American naval power. U.S. ships were adept at hitting targets on land but on the high seas they were all but powerless. When the Chinese navy began its build-up in the early 2000s, and, a few years later, Russia began restoring its own neglected fleet, both countries exploited the American gap.
Moscow and Beijing equipped their ships with a wide range of highly capable anti-ship missiles with greater range and destructive power than the aging Harpoon possesses.
A Harpoon can hit a ship at a maximum range of around 100 miles. Russia’s Klub missile, by contrast, can travel as far as 400 miles. China’s YJ-18 is roughly equivalent to the Klub and might even be an illicit copy of the Russian munition.
The surface-warfare imbalance persisted for years. Then in 2011, Pres. Barack Obama announced that his administration would “pivot” to the Pacific and dedicate more military, diplomatic and economic resources to the region as a counterweight to China. In 2014, Russian troops invaded Ukraine, a de facto announcement of Russia’s return to great-power status.
The Navy realized it could no longer assume it would never have to wage a war at sea. It also realized that it lacked the weaponry to do so.
Working under the radar over several years, military engineers and their civilian defense-industry counterparts devised a wide range of new anti-ship weapons. The Pentagon’s 2017 budget paid for the first significant production of the LRASM as well as anti-ship modifications for Tomahawks and SM-6s.
A Tomahawk can travel as far as 900 miles. A LRASM — 200 miles. The SM-2 and SM-6 in surface-to-air mode can reach 90 miles and 150 miles, respectively. The Naval Strike Missile roughly matches the Harpoon’s 100-mile range.
As recently as 2016 the Navy’s warships were badly out-gunned by Russian and Chinese ships. In 2018, the U.S. fleet was on the cusp of reversing that dynamic.
When significant numbers of new anti-ship missiles reach the front-line fleet in coming years, the U.S. Navy could return to its Cold War status as the world’s leading surface-warfare force.