Saturday, November 26, 2016

ESSM Distributed Lethality

We’ve talked repeatedly about how the US 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. 

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


  1. Seriously, if I was an Iranian I would send a swarm of small boats to attempt sink the hvt and eat the newly repurposed ESSM's. If the swarm fails to sink the high value us ship then I would follow up with an ASM salvo against the ship which just fired off most of its ESSM's.

    1. Your suggestion is fine, on the face of it, but when would you ever find a high value unit operating with no escort?

  2. A logistics ship, like one of the Supply-class ships, would be a high-value target that generally operates alone. They are not as expensive as a carrier or LHA/LHD, but losing a few would put a strain on the Navy.

    The Supply-class used to be armed with a single Mk 29 launcher, but that was removed as part of their transfer to the Military Sealift Command.

    In the case of a support ship armed with ESSM, the idea has some merit. It won't provide much offensive capability as indicated, but it does give the support ship something of a fighting chance.

    1. If they operate alone it's because they operate far from any anticipated enemy force. Sure, we can always say, "what if", and arm every cargo ship with a full Aegis system and 100 VLS cells but we couldn't afford it. So, we assess what ships will be expected to encounter enemy forces and what ones will not and design and spend accordingly. If we guess wrong then we take our lumps. To try to apply capabilities that are extremely unlikely to be used is to unwisely spend our limited budget.

    2. I'm not arguing putting Aegis and a 100 VLS tubes on support ships in the off-chance they come in contact with an enemy. But, I am in favor of increasing the capability of what we have fielded. I think adding an anti-surface capability, if it doesn't have it already, to ESSM is good idea so long as it's simple and cheap to do.

      If ESSM can hit an aircraft at 27 nmi, it could probably hit a ship at twice that distance. What is needed is targeting information and the ability to communicate with the missile at extended ranges.

    3. "If ESSM can hit an aircraft at 27 nmi, it could probably hit a ship at twice that distance."


    4. "so long as it's simple and cheap to do."

      "What is needed is targeting information and the ability to communicate with the missile at extended ranges."

      And you think that's going to be cheap to do?

  3. Just curious , anyone in any navy ever think of using large ships like supertankers , filled with water or something inert , as ASM shield or decoy ? such ship will easily eat up missiles with small warheads

    1. I've read that tactic used in fictional stories but I've never seen it discussed in any authoritative naval writing.

  4. My take is that SECDEF Carter and Navy are hyped up on the distributed lethality concept, their answer to enable the Navy to combat of peer adversaries (China & Russia). One prime example is using the SM6 AAM as a supersonic anti-ship missile. This comes after Navy's failure since end of cold war to develop modern anti-ship missiles (Harpoon was introduced in 1977), supersonic or subsonic, China and Russia have numerous missiles, even India has the BrahMos. The LRASM was developed by DARPA not the Navy. It appears with current developments that the Air Force has the lead in anti-ship missile capabilities, not the Navy.
    The author of article Cdr. Lukacs may be thinks it will not harm his promotion prospects by embracing distributed lethality concept with the ESSM.

  5. They mean as an anti swarm weapon right ?

    ESSM wont make a dent in a medium to large surface combatant.

    I have NO IDEA why on earth they are mentioning carriers, unless they mean assault ships ?

    In terms of a costal assault with every ship you can muster using ESSM as a surface attack weapon against RHIBs ( if that would even work ) and patrol boats, then I don't think its a bad idea, its better than using griffin \ hellfire on LCS. At least you have a "to the horizon" reach.

    Pity about the SEMI active radar nature of ESSM.
    But I understand Block 2 will be active seeker ?
    This should allow for fire and forget multiple target engagement and true swarm attack defence.

    At that point a stack of these on LCS MIGHT make that hull some use.

    I do think we have over focused on "Iranian" swarm attacks though. I cant see ESSM making any difference in Peer warfare ?

  6. HVU with "enemy combatant" on the horizon? HMS Glorious...

    1. An historical example of, "If an enemy ship “appears” on the horizon, our ship is probably already sinking."

  7. I don't mind this per se...

    * If you have all your other bases covered.
    * If its cheap and effective

    Why not have another tool in the tool box?

    However, we aren't even close to having our other bases covered; as we've seen with the Zumwalt/LCS issues.

    " I cant see ESSM making any difference in Peer warfare ?"

    I like the idea of ESSM. Especially block II. It gives a good mid range, linebacker like punch to an Aegis ship. For a low end vessel it gives it some area defense ability.

    But like many other things the tests I've read about it were set up affairs, so we have no idea how well it works in real life.

  8. On the other hand a single ESSM has more combat capability than all the LCSs combined! Plus most 6" rounds and everything smaller! Another thing to remember it moves at Mach 4! Over 3,000 mph! The missile weight is approx 600lbs if memory serves! That's an S load of kinetic energy. Not forgetting the 86lb. WH in the right spot on the right ship would equal a mission kill! Perhaps an outright kill! Against the right target, FACs, PCs, Corvettes, riverine, anything 500 tons! On down or sub 200 footer! Would be susceptible to the ESSM! The next point is this one hit against a ship is nearly never enough for an outright kill! That means worries of two, four, 8, 12, whatever it takes! But in it out hits and outranges every cannon in the us arsenal! So fewer ESSMs to take a ship than 5", or 6", and much better than anything else! Only harpoon, standard, and tomahawk can touch it on range and payload. I suppose we have lots of weapons mounted on all our ships that could sink an enemy ship no matter how many rounds, .50s and 1" cannon are everywhere on every craft large and small. But if you can sink a Chinese factory or corvette for 8 or 12 ESSMs would it be worth a few million development? It's a Mach 4 missile, if all it takes is a software update, if we can receive more assets from picket and screen duties for more important duties like missile defense, if it forces our enemies resources a little thinner, than in these cases it's worth it! If ESSM is developed like standard than it may be with the fleet the next 50 yrs!

    1. The issue is not whether an ESSM could make a potent anti-ship missile (it can't). If that were the issue then we should mount hundreds of Harpoons of every ship because they can do an even better job and we should put 16" battleship guns on every ship.

      The issue is whether there is any tactically realistic scenario in which an amphibious ship or carrier would have the need for an anti-ship weapon - and there isn't. If a carrier of amphibious ship sees an enemy ship on the horizon then it means that all the escorts have been sunk and we have much bigger problems than a few ESSM's can solve.

      Given all the weapons and systems we have in development and procurement that need funding, wasting even a dollar on a tactically impossible scenario is foolish.

    2. We have China investing heavily in submarines; many with AIP. We know that our current CVBG's are vulnerable to submarine attack with the reduced emphasis on ASW.

      We have a clear problem with simple quality control, and likely training, in our new ships.

      We have many vessels without a proper ASCM.

      We have a new SSBN in the planning stages.

      There are many, many projects that should come in front of an anti ship upgrade for ESSM that will give marginal return.

      And using them for anti-swarm duty is another example of putting us on the wrong side of the economic battle.

      Shooting an Iranian swarm boat with a million dollar missile (one that takes up valuable VLS space, moreover) is insane.

      We have got to think of cheaper ways to deal with cheaper enemies. Good Lord it would be cheaper to tow a bunch of our own speed boats behind a 'phib if we were worried about swarm attacks, and man them when we needed to.

  9. Focusing on the carriers or big deck amphibs might be missing the potential Benjamin Oliver posited, the idea of having an ASuW capability for the ESSM would seem useful in the anti-swarm / small boat scenario. Most platforms already support the ESSM, and quad-packing provides more rounds at a reduced weight than attempting to mount Harpoons or 16 inch guns on existing platforms. I can't see a plausible scenario when you would want a big deck to be duking it out with an enemy combatant, mano e mano, but if you're providing a capability to an existing system already integrated on DDGs/CGs as well as the big decks, then why not?

    It would be interesting to conduct an actual wargame scenario with and without the capability - a real one without a pre-determined outcome. Would the capability provide an appreciable advantage in certain scenarios? Is that advantage cost effective when compared to other technologies that could fill that gap? Is there even a gap?

    - InterestedParty

    1. Are you advocating using $1.5M ESSM's to sink a $10K speed boat? Look back at my swarm posts and you'll see that most of them are just tiny speed boats. We'd be on the losing side of that financial balance!

      Rather than spend the money to be able to use $1.5M missiles (and, after spending the money the missile cost would be more like $2.0M) it would make far more sense to buy $110K Hellfires for the amphibs.

      Also, there is absolutely no evidence that a Mach 4 missile designed to intercept aerial targets could even target and hit a small boat hidden in the wave clutter radar return.

    2. This got me to thinking last night.

      What is the stated purpose of the 5" guns on our vessels? They don't really expect to use them in battle vs. a peer opponent from what I've seen. They don't seem to be able to handle swarm attacks, or anti-air all that effectively. And they can't do effective NGFS.

      What role do they fill, at which they are effective? If we feel the need to kill ships without using full sized ASCM's why in God's name are we trying to modify a 1.5 million dollar missile to shoot ships instead of going to an 8" gun? The range might be shorter but the per unit cost is alot cheaper.

    3. "What is the stated purpose of the 5" guns on our vessels?"

      The stated purpose is "everything". What you're really asking is what is the practical purpose. The answer is as a last resort anti-ship weapon (the likelihood of which is something that I think is much greater than most people think!) and the low end of naval gunfire support.

      The next logical question is whether those roles could be better filled by an 8" gun. The answer is yes and no. On paper, yes, an 8" gun would be better but, no, we can't just mount 8" guns on every ship. Some ships are just too small to support the stresses associated with 8" guns. WWII Fletchers were 5" gun platforms because they were too small for 8" guns. The Burke probably can't support an 8" gun, as is, because they're too weak, structurally. However, a purpose designed and stronger built Burke probably could since the Spruance class was designed for the 8" gun. This line of reasoning suggests the need for a purpose built 8" gun platform that's a little bigger than a Burke destroyer ... like a cruiser!! Gee, we keep returning to the wisdom of WWII, don't we? It's almost like they had things pretty well figured out then and we've spent the ensuing years drifting away from the wisdom.

    4. "Are you advocating using $1.5M ESSM's to sink a $10K speed boat? Look back at my swarm posts and you'll see that most of them are just tiny speed boats. We'd be on the losing side of that financial balance!"

      If it contributes significantly to the survivability of a $1B+ ship (not to mention the crew and on-board systems) that is necessary to win the fight, then I guess I am. The key would be to conduct honest up front modeling to determine the best mix of capabilities to defeat a given threat. For the swarm threat, an advantage to an ESSM solution would be the dual purpose of the system and the extended range, contributing to a layered defense. Hellfire might be smaller and cheaper but hasn't been integrated on any ships (either as a standalone launcher or integrated with a fire control system) and has a limited range, increasing risk. Or the solution might be a combination of 25mm/30mm auto-cannon with a Hellfire or similar system. I'm sure that multiple organizations have looked at the problem but I fear that those studies had a preconceived answer (ie, NAVAIR commissioned a study that concluded a MH-60R/S is the right answer).

    5. "If it contributes significantly to the survivability of a $1B+ ship"

      You're quite right about that calculus. It is worth it. The point is that the calculus is unsustainable and illogical. It would be like using a front line, state of the art jet to plink pickup trucks ... Oh, wait - I guess we're doing that. Anyway, faced with a minor threat, we need minor solutions. We'll quickly go broke flinging multi-million dollar solutions at ten thousand dollar problems.

      Besides, every ESSM used against a tiny speed boat is one less that is available for defense against aircraft and missiles, the ESSM's main target.

    6. The $1.5M missile would be perfect against North Korean FACs and infiltration boats, to use one realistic example. Anything in the 200-500 ton range would be a mission kill at worst, anything larger and multiple missiles might be needed.

    7. Actually, the $70k Hellfire is a much more suitable and affordable weapon for anti-small boat work rather than an ESSM.

      The Naval Strike Missile, depending on its cost, might be another good alternative for somewhat larger vessels.

  10. "The answer is as a last resort anti-ship weapon (the likelihood of which is something that I think is much greater than most people think!) and the low end of naval gunfire support."

    It does seem that way, doesn't it. Between stronger construction materiel (HY80) and bigger guns....

    I think there's a lot of merit to the argument to having an anti ship gun. I just wondered why 5" because the destructive power of a single 5" gun just doesn't seem that great.

    1. Remember, the 5" gun of WWII wasn't intended as an anti-ship "sinking" gun. On the Fletcher, for instance, the "sinking gun" was the torpedo. The 5" gun was a general purpose, secondary, anti-ship gun and a low end naval support gun. For the size of the ship, it was just a good general purpose gun.

      Today, we've neglected to provide our ships with a "sinking gun". Harpoon was the equivalent of the WWII torpedo but that has almost left our inventory now and the only anti-ship weapons are undersized 5" guns (the Fletcher had 5x 5" guns vs. a Burke with 1x 5" gun) and ill-suited surface to air missiles adapted for a makeshift anti-ship role.

      WWII also saw a balanced mix of 5" destroyers, 6"-10" cruisers, and battleships. There was always a mix of ships available to cover the range of firepower needs. Today, we have only one surface ship, the Burke, with 1x 5" gun and no anti-ship weapon. Not much of a firepower mix!

      Yes, the Tico is a surface ship but the Navy has already retired six of them and is attempting to retire the rest. Besides, they have little more firepower than a Burke.

  11. CNO, there is something very important that we have to consider at this point.

    Dr. Michael Gilmore, the DOT&E head may or may not be replaced by President Elect Donald Trump. Gilmore so far has proven himself to be a very competent and highly principled man for the job.

    We can only hope that Trump will realize the importance of this position and either give Gilmore another 4 years or appoint someone equally capable.

    Otherwise, if he appoints someone who sells out to the defense industry, there will be few other sources of truth, particularly if the GOP guts GAO (and they have historically been hostile to GAO).

    1. You make a very good observation. Gilmore's future is one of my major concerns.

  12. One more matter, kind of off topic, but if you are looking for the latest F-35 DOT&E report:

    Hint: It's not a pretty read.

    1. I had read snippets but hadn't seen the entire document. Thanks!

    2. Now for the scary part:

      If Trump does not renew Mr. Gilmore's tenure or he does not appoint someone that is as capable, then that may be one of the last honest reports we may ever see concerning the F-35 and the progress of the whole JSF program.

      The cruel reality is that we desperately need those organizations intact or what do we have? Marketing materials from defense contractors? That and literally, learning the "hard way" in a shooting war.


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