We have a report that a Harpoon test fire from the LCS USS
failed during a RIMPAC 2016 SINXEX (1). The missile apparently launched successfully
but then disappeared. The Navy is
Let’s get this part out of the way. I do not link the Harpoon failure to the LCS. The Harpoon launched from the Mk141 rack launcher which is a self-contained, modular launch system that was, at one time, ubiquitous throughout the fleet. This appears to be a pure Harpoon failure. Plus, the Harpoon and launcher were not integrated into the LCS combat system, anyway, so the LCS seems an unlikely cause of the failure. Still, the LCS program can’t seem to catch a break, can it? But enough of that …
You’ll recall that the Navy’s inventory of Harpoons is old and most have been pulled from active duty in order to extend the life of the remaining stockpile.
This appears to be a simple failure associated with complex weapons. When you consider all the components of a missile (motors, sensors, circuit boards, flight control surfaces, etc.) that must function perfectly for overall success, you immediately realize that each component has a failure probability and that all those probabilities added together (statistically, it’s actually the product of the individual probabilities that determine the overall probability) determine the overall probability of success. Thus, statistically, there is a probability of failure for every missile (and every weapon system, for that matter). In other words, a certain level of failure is inevitable. Of course, the manufacturer and the Navy claim that the probability is almost non-existent while actual test data, such as this, demonstrate that the probability is significant. For what it’s worth, my overall assessment of Tomahawk/Standard/Harpoon missiles is that 10%-15% will fail to guide. That’s fine, as long as we have a realistic understanding of the failure rate and compensate for it by having and launching a few extra missiles.
|Harpoon Launch Failure|
So, what’s the point of this post? It’s testing, of course.
It’s not enough to simply conduct tests when a weapon is first introduced. That’s good, and madatory, but we must continue to test weapons throughout their service life, especially as the weapons reach the end of their shelf lives. I’m guessing that the Harpoon failure rate has doubled by now, compared to when the missile was first introduced. Again, that’s okay as long as we test and know the failure rate as time passes and the rate changes.
Has anyone heard of reliability testing of Harpoon in the last 5-10 years? I haven’t.
I’m just speculating about the failure rates. The Harpoon failure rate may be 70%, for all I know!!!
We’ve seen how hard it is to get the Navy to conduct proper testing when a weapon is new; how much harder and rarer is it to get the Navy to conduct proper testing of established weapons? And yet, these are the weapons we’ll go to war with. It’s vital to know how they’ll perform and how they are holding up over time.
Solitary live fire tests such as this one demonstrate nothing. That failure could be the unlucky one in ten thousand failure or it could be the common one in three failure. Without a statistical test, we don’t know – and that’s both the danger and the point of this post.
Someone is sure to bring up the cost of testing and that’s just idiotic. Say we test two dozen Harpoons. That’s $24M or so worth of missiles. That’s a vanishingly small drop in the budget bucket and if it saves a single ship in combat by having a better idea of how our weapons perform, it’s completely worthwhile.
(1) Popular Mechanics website, “Navy's Harpoon Missile Misses Target During Test Fire”, Kyle Mizokami,