Thursday, March 9, 2017

LCS and Hellfire

Here’s an ever so tiny bit of good news related to the LCS.  The Navy has conducted the first test in a series intended to integrate the Hellfire (AGM-114L Longbow) missile into the anti-surface (ASuW) module (1).  Before you get too excited, the test firing was just a structural test to see whether the ship and its structures and fittings could stand the stress, heat, chemicals, etc. of a firing.  This was not a firing involving targets and integration into the ship’s combat control software.  Actual integration and fielding is probably a couple of years away, yet.  Still, it’s a first step to that end.

Hellfire, if it can be successfully integrated into the ship’s combat system, will give the LCS a credible small craft defense capability.  The missile has a millimeter wave radar seeker which gives it a fire and forget capability which will be useful in a swarm scenario.  Advertised range is around 4 miles which is just barely adequate against rocket armed swarm craft.

Let’s also bear in mind the limitations of the Hellfire-LCS.  This does not turn the LCS into a full fledged warship.  The missile has a warhead of around 20 lbs.  That’s not exactly a ship sinker!  Also, the 4 mile range is very short when it comes to dueling with enemy missile boats or frigates.  The LCS will be woefully outranged and “outgunned”.

What the Hellfire gives the LCS is a credible capability against small craft – nothing more.

For a bit of perspective, recall that the original ASuW module called for the NLOS missile which had a range of 25+ miles and was supposed to be capable of in-flight, networked, self-designation of targets and a 30 minute loiter capability over the battlefield, both land and sea.  When one compares that to the actual capabilities of the Hellfire, it is readily apparent just how much capability the ASuW module has lost.  The Hellfire is better than nothing but not by much.

Hellfire Missile
Aside from the challenge of integrating the missile with the ship’s combat system, the main challenge will likely be getting the vertically launched missile to tip over and acquire its target reliably.  Getting the missile’s seeker to quickly spot a small boat, partially obscured in wave clutter, from an initial 90 degree off-angle, is, I suspect, going to be difficult.  The missile seeker’s field of view is limited and the target, a small speedboat, will be moving fast.  If the seeker does not quickly locate the target, it will go dumb and miss.  Also, the initial vertical launch will use up fuel on a path 90 degrees to the target.  In other words, the missile will initially be using fuel but will not be moving towards the target.  That will reduce the missile’s effective range.  Whether that reduction in range is significant or not, I have no idea.  At a guess, I would think the vertical launch will knock a mile of the advertised range, bringing the missile’s effective range down to around 3 miles.  That’s just speculation on my part.

In summary, this is a tiny bit of good news for a program that rarely has any but it is not going to turn the LCS into a warship.



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(1)USNI News website, “VIDEO: Navy Tests Anti-Swarm Boat Missile on Littoral Combat Ship USS Detroit”, Sam LaGrone, 7-Mar-2017,


30 comments:

  1. Dumb question 1: is it hard to just make the missile longer so as to incorporate more fuel, thus negating the extra needed to burn vertically.

    Dumb Question 2: Why not make a launcher that can rotate instead of VLS?

    Dumb Question 3: Hellfire is 20lbs of explosive... but my understanding is that its a HEAT charge; so its not a round spherical 'boom' but a jet of superheated gas designed to burn through steel. That's great.... but it seems to make targeting all that more important. Which leads to

    Dumb Question 3: Has any work been done on the seeker to make it maritime friendly? Its my understanding that wave clutter has long been a problem for targeting systems, and Hellfire was designed to zap tanks in Germany.

    I'm not trying to be overly skeptical here, but adding on to your concerns I really wonder if hellfire is going to require alot of work to make it function; and if the end result is going to be worth that money and that work.

    I'd almost feel better if it just had a 20 lbs fragmentation warhead. I was thinking air/fuel, but given the speed of a swarm attacker that might not work.

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    1. There are blast/frag/incendiary and thermometric versions of Hellfire.

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    2. As far as a trainable launcher, yes, it could certainly be done. I suspect the Navy is trying to make the Hellfire fit in the previously reserved vertical launch space for the NLOS.

      As far as the impact of a HEAT round on a small, unarmored boat, that's a good question. It might be that the round would just punch straight through and leave nothing more than a small hole behind. I have no idea what kind of "stopping" power this Hellfire has towards small boats. You would hope the Navy thought about this ahead of time but history suggests they haven't!

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    3. There is a version of the Hellfire with a blast fragmentation warhead.

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    4. Jim, I tried to find out more about some of your very valid questions. I couldn't find much about which specific warhead the Navy was using, interestingly, digging around, it does appear from more than 1 source that it wouldn't be easy maybe even impossible to reload at sea. Now, 24 missiles isn't bad BUT if we are dealing with a swarm PLUS LCS acting as the dedicated swarm defender in a convoy or company of other ships (civilian or military) 24 Hellfires might not be enough and no reload at sea means it will be useless or leave the scene early.....

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    5. Heres a detailed Q&A on the Naval hellfire
      http://www.navyrecognition.com/index.php/focus-analysis/naval-technology/1900-q-a-a-with-the-us-navy-on-lockheed-martin-hellfire-missiles-for-littoral-combat-ships.html

      Two interesting sections:
      What type of launcher will be used? VLS or inclined canisters (like Harpoon)?
      USN: The custom launcher structure design will enable vertical launch out of one of the LCS weapon stations. It utilizes an existing Army M299 launcher mounted within a gas containment system.

      Could the MH-60R typically found onboard LCS fire the exact same Hellfire missile?
      USN: Physically, yes. The ship and helicopter fire control systems are different; the Navy will demonstrate the capability in the future.

      Thats interesting because the 24 missile module isnt reloadable at sea.

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    6. Whim you are mistaken on the charge. The Hellfire comes in 3 warheads. Judging by the charge load its a blast fragmentation explosion vs. the usual EFP charge used for tanks. however regardless I am curious as to whether or not this will be able to actually provide a viable anti swarm defense. Considering that 4 miles by speedboat isn't exactly a long distance journey. Also in the mix what is the minimum range and time needed for the missile to acquire, tip over and then attack the target?

      For your info the warheads available were
      thermometric
      blast fragmentation
      EFP

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    7. While the Hellfire family has multiple warhead types, my reading suggests that the specific "L" version the Navy has chosen is only the HEAT warhead. Presumably, the warhead could be swapped out but it appears that it will only have the one type, at least initially. Do you have a reference that indicates otherwise?

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    8. "Heres a detailed Q&A on the Naval hellfire"

      Ztev, nice find on that link. Thanks.

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    9. "it wouldn't be easy maybe even impossible to reload at sea."

      Check out Ztev's link in his comment. Reloads at sea are not a capability.

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  2. The vertical launch might not be that bad. In lock on after launch mode, I think the Hellfire climbs to 1500' or so at the beginning of flight anyway to give the seeker has a better view and to do top-attack.

    Generally, missiles will have longer ranges in lofted trajectories than low ones, just like guns. The site linked below has the Hellfire II with slightly longer range in high vs. direct trajectory, so I think you won't loose much if any range from vertical launch.

    A mini VLS for 10" or so missles is kind of a cute idea.

    http://www.army-technology.com/projects/hellfire-ii-missile/

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    1. "missiles will have longer ranges in lofted trajectories than low ones"

      There's a difference between lofted and 90 deg off angle. Lofted trades a bit of initial forward travel for ultimate altitude and range. A 90 deg off angle launch trades fuel for altitude and zero range. Whether the resulting altitude is enough to offset the fuel usage, I have no idea. Lacking and data, I'll stick with my speculation that the range will be negatively affected but we'll have to wait and see.

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    2. A vertical launch gives a 360 capability, an angle mostly only covers 180 deg. When you have long range you can position the ship in right direction before launch

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  3. An alternative design approach used by the MBDA UK Sea Ceptor AA missile, cold launched by piston and vertically ejected from VLS cell to appox. 100', squib thrusters align missile in direction of target and only then main motor fires.
    Presumably advantages longer range as not trading "90 deg off angle launch trades fuel for altitude and zero range", cold launch allow more flexibility to position VLS cells anywhere on deck as no superheated exhaust or toxic fumes cells created and can pack in more missiles as no exhaust ducts required. Disadvantages slightly more complicated missile as requires the rear end squib control unit and specialized VLS cells.

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    1. Long range tradeoff. The fact that the range is limited to 4 miles vertical shows it cannot reach the approximate 6-7 mile range available when fired from helicopters

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    2. Good contribution. Another possible disadvantage is that if the missile's main motor fails to ignite, the missile will fall back onto the ship. The Soviets solved this using angled cold launches in the Kirov class, I believe.

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    3. Failure of missile motor to ignite does not appear a concern at the moment, may in future if one drops on deck :). Sea Ceptor sold to RN, Brazil and New Zealand and MBDA Italy developing extended range version of Sea Ceptor/CAMM using the cold launch VLS.

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    4. Sea ceptor range is claimed by MBDA to be in 'excess of 25km' (16 mi). this makes sense as Sea Ram a much smaller missile is 5-6 mi.

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    5. Looking at the EMALS and rail guns, I often wonder if there'd be any use for something in between for missile launch. At the low end, all the advantages of cold launch with less plumbing, at the high end it's plausible to could give enough starting velocity to increase range or shrink the missile. (EMALS delivers about 25% the energy as the SM-3 booster stage).

      Return of the magazine fed missile cruiser? As long as we're buying $12 billion carriers, worth thinking about what other capital ships could be built in that price range.

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  4. The VLS will limit the range as noted but will also increase the minimum range. This will leave a small circular band around the ship where it can engage. With fast attack boats moving 50+ knots it may only be vulnerable for a very short time.
    However, the short range of Hellfire probably make this a non factor as many of the anti-ship weapons LCS will face from small boats will launch outside the range of Hellfire.
    You really need an Apache helicopter armed with these to make them a credible ship defense. The Apache would allow engagement beyond the range of the threat weapons and would add the flexibility of a gun.

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    1. A helo is a fine idea but only if you know the attack is coming (and if your helos are mechanically up - helos are notorious for being mechanically down when most needed) so that you can get the helos properly armed and in the air. If there is any element of surprise, whatsoever, you won't be able to get properly armed helos up in the air before the attack is over.

      So, helos are not the panacea most believe them to be.

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  5. They should add a booster stage to the hellfire. It would extend the hellfire range (depending altitude), and should also help target acquisition as it will be attacking from above.

    Dam shame they didn't require at least one 5" gun on the LCS. Would have solved allot the basic problems of the LCS. Credible commerce raider/embargo weapon, credible shore support (is littoral after all), more range than these hellfire etc...

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    1. Just guessing ... that might increase the length of the Hellfire past the point where it can fit in the launch box?

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  6. I don't necessarily think HEAT is a bad thing. Hellfires airframe will physically snap a Rhib in two even if it doesn't go off.

    And on the flip side several of the myriad classes of Iranian fast patrol craft ( and I should put that in quotation mark, but why bother ) come with light to medium armour ( in tank terms ).

    There is hardly any point mentioning Sea-Brimstone, but I'm going to do it anyway :)

    Ben

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    1. Can it launch vertically? Can we pass up the opportunity to rain Hellfire and Brimstone down upon our enemies... ;-)

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    2. Ugh! That's either going to get you banned from the blog or into the blog hall of fame - not sure which!

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    3. I might as well face it. I'm addicted to puns.

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  7. Actually I’m going to take a minute to give credit where credit is due on this one.

    The USN managed to release the news about this without all the needless hype that has come to be associated with the simplest success of the LCS classes.

    The phrases, “stepped change” and ug, “game changer” were NOT used.

    The success was simply reported and no sound bite political point scoring was attempted.

    And that kind of simple straight forward, honest work , type approach is what’s needed for this sea frame.

    Its not great, but lets buckle down, do what we can, admit where we are, and see where what we can make of what we have.

    I hope the USN continues with that kind of attitude as far as the LCS goes. I’m sure something can be salvaged.

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  8. RIM-162 ESSM has a surface-to-surface capability. It also has an 80 pound warhead and about a 27 mile range. With the mk-56 VLS, there should be plenty of room on either LCS. It needs an expensive radar, but considering the added capabilities, it is more than worth it.

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    1. There are two problems with using the ESSM with the LCS. One, is the weight. The LCS, both versions, are overweight and every additional pound as to be compensated for by removing a pound. Two, is the cost. ESSM seems to be running around $1.5M per missile. This is way too expensive for the LCS' anti-swarm mission. Killing little speedboats with multi-million dollar missiles is way on the wrong side of the cost curve.

      A third possible problem is lock on. I don't know if the ESSM is actually capable of locking on to a small boat.

      Now, for use against missile boats and larger ships, the ESSM would be suitable, however, the cost and weight are still problems.

      As a comparison, the ESSM is on the order of 600 lbs while the Hellfire is around 100 lbs.

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