In the previous post, a reader brought up the possibility of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (IRBM) as an A2/AD weapon. I had considered mentioning them, specifically, in the post but opted not to because I feared they would bog the discussion down and obscure the more general topic. However, now that it’s been brought up, let’s look a bit closer at IRBMs in the context of A2/AD.
The Chinese, of course, have developed IRBMs for various uses including the so called “carrier killer”, the DF-21. This IRBM has generated much press coverage due to its combination of lethality and survivability. A ballistic missile is a difficult weapon to counter. Indeed, the USN is expending a great deal of money and effort in the attempt to defend against these weapons. The entire Burke class is being modified to counter ballistic missiles. Lethality and survivability are two of the characteristics that would be highly useful in an A2/AD penetration scenario. Thus, a US IRBM would seem to meet the needs for a weapon with extremely long range, massive destructive ability, and survivability.
Of course, this immediately brings up the first objection to the use of IRBMs and that is the possibility of misinterpreting a conventional ballistic missile as a nuclear strike missile. I’ll pause a moment, now, to allow some of you to finish wailing, gnashing your teeth, and wringing your hands in hysteria. I can hear you saying we can’t use an IRBM – the Chinese would assume we were launching a nuclear attack and it would mean instant nuclear Armageddon.
Take a deep breath …
OK, you did note the previous paragraph where we noted that the Chinese have already developed their own IRBMs and, apparently, have every intention of using them. They, clearly, aren’t worried about us misinterpreting their usage so why should we worry about their reaction? Well, some would answer that their missiles are incapable of reaching the US and so could not be a nuclear threat to us whereas ours could reach their soil and could constitute a nuclear threat. Hogwash! First, their missiles can reach US carriers which are sovereign US territory and they can reach bases such as Guam which, again, are US territories. Second, if the Chinese are that concerned about nuclear misinterpretation, all they have to do is enter into an agreement with the US to ban IRBMs – clearly they have no concerns. So, there is no problem with using IRBMs.
Moving on …
What platform would launch an IRBM? Two candidates come to mind. One is the submarine with it’s attendant benefits of survivability and stealth and the other is a surface ship with either the newer and larger Mk57 VLS (currently only installed on the Zumwalt, as I recall) or a new, purpose built launch system, presumably a VLS variant similar to an SSBN launch tube.
The Mk57 VLS is a larger version of the venerable Mk41 and is intended to accommodate future, larger missiles. The canister is around 23 ft long and 28 inches in diameter and can support around a 9000 pound load. Whether this is sufficient to house an IRBM developed for the A2/AD scenario, I don’t know. Remember, a 1000-2000 mile conventional IRBM is probably a significantly different beast from an ICBM. Can we build one to fit existing VLS systems? I don’t know.
Cost is an issue and I have no idea what the cost of a suitable tactical IRBM would be and, thus, what the cost-value relationship would be.
Numbers are also an issue and are closely related to cost. Can we build enough missiles to be effective? Presumably, these missiles would be tasked with destruction of fixed, high value targets. How many such targets are there and how many missiles would be required for their destruction? Again, I don’t know.
It would seem that IRBMs offer a partial solution to the A2/AD penetration requirement, at least in theory. Whether we could build them in sufficient numbers and come up with a suitable launch system is an open question although nothing I’ve read suggests we couldn’t. Certainly, the very characteristics of lethality and survivability that make defending against an IRBM such a headache for the Navy suggest that they would make an effective offensive weapon against an A2/AD zone.