We’ve talked repeatedly about how the
military is abandoning high end, heavy combat in favor of low end
“combat”. While much of the most obvious
examples of this trend are within the ground combat community, the Navy is
following the same path. For example,
the Navy retired an entire class of Perry frigates and replaced them with an
almost non-combat-capable class of LCS. US
We’ve also discussed the absence of critical and logical operational and tactical thinking that plagues the entire military. We’ve shown that the military has abandoned strategic thinking and is no longer capable of devising sound strategic plans.
Finally, we’ve discussed the myopic focus on technology at the expense of operations and tactics.
Now, the latest issue of Proceedings shows us another example illustrating these trends (1). Cdr. Lukacs suggests converting the Navy’s amphibious ships (the LXX vessels) into anti-surface warfare (ASuW) ships using the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) controlled by the Ship Self Defense System (SSDS) combat software program.
For starters, let’s set aside the fact that the SSDS has been plagued by problems and, according to DOT&E’s annual reports, can’t even properly perform its intended defensive purpose. Problems include poor sensor placement, legacy sensor integration issues, target detection and identification issues, weapon employment and guidance issues, and ESSM performance issues. Thus, the author wants to begin modifying the SSDS to perform offensive warfare before the system’s primary function is even working – but we’ll set that aside for the purpose of this discussion.
Moving on, the author proposes utilizing the ESSM for offensive warfare. The proposed list of candidate ESSM offensive warfare ships includes carriers and all amphibious ships. Certainly, the ESSM can be used to hit a slow moving target (a ship) with the proper software modifications. The question, though, is whether this is a good idea and a worthwhile use of time and limited funds, given all the other problems the Navy faces.
Let’s start with the missile, itself. The RIM-162 ESSM is 12 ft long, 10 in. diameter, and weighs 620 lbs. It has an 86 lb blast fragmentation warhead with a proximity fuze. Guidance is provided by mid-course datalink and terminal semi-active radar homing. Speed is Mach 4 and range is 27 nm. The missile costs around $1.5M.
As best I can interpret it, the 86 lb warhead is not 86 lbs of explosive but, rather, the total weight of the warhead which is mainly the “fragmentation” component. The actual explosive weight is some fraction of the total. Note that I may be misinterpreting this and some reader may be able to shed more light on this.
The first thing to look at in assessing an anti-surface weapon is lethality. A 0.50 cal. machine gun, for example, despite having a high rate of fire, has almost no lethality in the anti-ship role. The ESSM, being a fragmentation weapon, has limited lethality. Shrapnel can disable topside electronics but has very little lethality against a ship.
Even the Standard missile, which has an anti-surface mode, is considered a marginal anti-ship weapon and the ESSM is a much smaller, less capable anti-ship weapon than that. As the author states,
“While possessing only a fraction of the range and carrying one-third the warhead of the SM-6, …”
So, the ESSM is somewhere between ineffective and marginally effective in terms of lethality. The obvious question, then, is why pursue it? Well, in continuing the author’s statement, above,
“While possessing only a fraction of the range and carrying one-third the warhead of the SM-6, this missile is nonetheless fast, maneuverable, …”
So, the author views the ESSM’s speed and maneuverability as positive attributes of an anti-ship weapon. I agree. However, the missile’s maneuverability is designed to allow it to engage incoming missiles. It has no maneuverability in an anti-ship mode – it flies straight at the target. It has no terminal evasive maneuver capability. Possibly some kind of terminal evasion routine could be programmed into the missile but that would require a new developmental effort and raises questions like whether the missile could maintain communications links and target lock. The missile was designed to bore straight in at the target (incoming missile) while maneuvering just enough to achieve intercept. It was not designed for evasive maneuvers. Thus, the author’s contention that the missile’s speed and maneuverability are positive attributes is only half right. The speed is a benefit but the maneuverability does not apply in the anti-ship role.
|ESSM - Offensive Weapon?|
The lack of terminal evasion capability renders the missile susceptible to the target ship’s defenses.
So, the ESSM is marginally effective in terms of speed and maneuverability. The obvious question, then, is why pursue it?
The next question to look at in assessing an anti-ship weapon is range. The reported range of the ESSM is 27 nm. Of course, that’s the range against an aerial target and it assumes a viable means of target detection and designation. Remember that the author proposes installing the ESSM on carriers and amphibious ships, neither of which possess any particularly useful long range surface radar. Thus, the effective anti-ship range is probably around the radar horizon, perhaps 15-20 miles. Is this useful, tactically? As the author puts it,
“If, however, an SSDS-equipped HVU [High Value Unit] had its own ASUW capability, when an enemy combatant appeared on the horizon, the HVU could counter that ship herself, instead of retreating to safer waters or diverting her aircraft from their critical missions. The ship would simply take care of the enemy and continue with the critical mission at hand, reducing the demand for escorts.”
The lack of tactical thought in this statement is stunning. If an enemy ship “appears” on the horizon, our ship is probably already sinking. Even if not, and a completely surprise encounter has occurred, the tactical reality is that a carrier or amphibious ship will be facing an enemy warship. To believe that an amphibious ship with a handful of non-lethal ESSM missiles is going to “simply take care of the enemy” is ludicrous. Our amphibious ship is going to simply sink.
Hey, if we had the ESSM on our amphibious ship and could inflict some minor damage on the enemy before we sink, why not do it? The reality is that the time, effort, money, and ship’s deck and internal volume that would be consumed by mounting an ESSM launcher is not justified by the remote possibility of inflicting some minor damage in an incredibly unlikely scenario.
Let’s not let the aircraft carrier part of this go unnoticed. The author proposes mounting ESSM on carriers. If a carrier is surprised by an enemy ship appearing on the horizon, one has to ask where the carrier’s aircraft have been. The likelihood that none of the dozens and dozens of daily aircraft sorties (not to mention the E-2 Hawkeye) would have noticed an enemy ship slowly approaching the carrier during the previous day or two is vanishingly small. This is just an absolutely illogical proposition. This demonstrates a total absence of tactical and logical thinking.
The author proposes not just using the anti-ship ESSM in a self-defense role but using the ESSM equipped ship in an active offensive role.
“If every LSD, LPD, or LX(R) were armed with an NSSM or ESSM launcher, those ships would instantly be more relevant and could be employed offensively before and after they delivered Marines ashore.”
The author is proposing to use amphibious ships in an active offensive role before they deliver their Marines. So, he would have us risk a multi-billion dollar ship and the entire Marine complement to go ship-hunting with a near sensor-less, short ranged, non-lethal ship and missile???? The best case scenario for this is that the amphibious ship finds a target, inflicts some minor damage, and then is sunk with the entire Marine complement. The likely case scenario is that the amphibious ship is sunk before it can accomplish anything.
Even using a multi-billion dollar ship to go ship-hunting with a near sensor-less, short ranged, non-lethal missile after delivering its Marines is stupid and near suicidal.
Finally, let’s consider the overall scenario. The author proposes arming the carriers and amphibious ships with anti-surface ESSM against the possibility that enemy ships “appear” on the horizon. How likely is that? During war, carriers and amphibious ships will always be in groups escorted by rings of Aegis destroyers and cruisers and patrolling aircraft. No enemy ship is going to “appear” on the horizon. If they do, it means they’ve shot their way through all the escorts and aircraft. An enemy ship or force powerful enough to do that isn’t going to be even momentarily bothered by a handful of ESSM missiles and will have already sunk the carrier and amphibious ships from well beyond the horizon. There is no realistic scenario in which a single carrier or amphibious ship will be surprised by an enemy ship appearing on the horizon. Again, this is a complete absence of tactical thought.
The author states,
“This is the exciting implication of distributed lethality taken to its logical conclusion.”
No, this is the complete absence of intelligence, logic, and tactical thought taken to its logical conclusion.
Honestly, I can’t believe the author is even in the Navy. Sadly, he’s not alone in this kind of total absence of operational and tactical thought and blind pursuit of the next “gee-whiz, look what we can do” technology. For instance, one or more commanders in the Navy had to have approved the author’s article and, at the very least, found it reasonable. The Navy is raising officer-idiots with no fundamental understanding of operations and tactics.
(1)USNI Proceedings, “Setting the Defense on the Offensive”, Cdr. John A. Lukacs IV, Nov 2016, p.38