One of the recurring fears among some naval observers is the inability to reload VLS systems at sea. We’ve just recently debunked the concern but the fear lingers (see, "War Deployments"). Well, here’s yet another perspective on the issue that proves reload capability is not needed: the math!
A carrier group, for example, will consist of 3-4 carriers (4 is ComNavOps preferred number) and 20+ escorts (25-30 being ComNavOps preferred number) (see, "Carrier Task Force"). Let’s assume that each escort is a Burke with 96 VLS cells and that 50 are Standard missiles, 30 are quad packed ESSM, and the remainder are Tomahawks and VL-ASROC, neither of which are relevant to this discussion.
So, let’s do the anti-air warfare (AAW) math.
Standard Missiles: 20x ships X 50 Standards per ship = 1,000 Standard missiles
ESSM Missiles: 20x ships X 30 cells X 4 ESSM/cell = 2,400 ESSM missiles
Total = 3,400 AAW missiles
This ignores any SeaRAM point defense missiles the group might have.
So, in order for reloads to even be required, the group would have to fire off well over three thousand missiles! Given that the enemy’s anti-ship missile inventory is limited just like ours, does anyone really believe a single battle will see the enemy bring over three thousand anti-ship missiles to bear on a single carrier group????
Let’s do some more math. The average modern warship carries somewhere around 8 anti-ship missiles and possibly up to a dozen or two. For sake of discussion, let’s use the higher number of 24. How many ships would be needed to launch three thousand missiles? Well, 3000 missiles / 24 missiles per ship = 125 ships.
The enemy would need to assemble a force of 125 ships to launch 3000 anti-ship missiles! No navy in the world can do that and even if an enemy had that many ships it couldn’t assemble that many in range in time. A reasonable assembly of enemy ships opposing a carrier group might be 12-24 which would give an anti-ship missile inventory of 96 – 576.
Well, you say, the enemy can also launch anti-ship missiles from aircraft. Yes, yes they can! Let’s assume, say, 4 anti-ship missiles per aircraft – I know, there are some aircraft that can theoretically carry more but the impact on aircraft range and endurance is significant and that load would be uncommon. So, 4 missiles per aircraft is a reasonable average. Thus, the number of aircraft needed to launch over 3000 anti-ship missiles is, 3000 missiles / 4 missiles per aircraft = 750.
The enemy would need to assemble, in short order, a force of 750 aircraft (of the right type!) to deplete our carrier group’s defensive missile inventory! Not possible.
Of course, this analysis is simplistic. Defending missiles aren’t launched one-for-one at attacking missiles. A ratio of 2:1 is more realistic. That means that the defending force in our example can only engage 1,700 attacking missiles. Go ahead and rerun the math. That’s still way, way beyond the attack capacity of any actual enemy.
A more realistic scenario is a single engagement with, perhaps, a dozen surface ships and/or a few flights of 10 or 20 attack aircraft. Of course, the attackers would have to get past the carrier’s defensive aircraft before missiles even come into play but we’ll ignore that aspect. We see, then, that a realistic scenario likely involves only a few to several dozen attacking missiles versus the defensive inventory of over 3000 missiles. Depletion of the ship’s missile inventory is simply not conceivable and, therefore, reloading at sea is not a requirement.
Recall the old Soviet attack plan against US carrier groups? Regiments of bombers would launch a couple of anti-ship missiles each for a total of 70+ attacking missiles. Again, not even remotely near depleting the ship’s defensive missile inventory.
Here are the salient points to keep in mind regarding ship’s missile inventories.
- The enemy’s inventory of attack missiles is just as limited as a ship’s inventory of defensive missiles.
- Assuming even a small amount of surprise, the enemy has to assemble their attacking forces with little notice and can only bring a small fraction to bear in time. This assures that attacking missile numbers will be small and manageable.
- Ship’s don’t just stand in one spot and slug it out. They appear, execute a mission, and retire. Typical missions (the combat portion) last hours or a few days.
- Ships don’t fight individually, they fight as groups and it’s the group’s missile inventory that matters.
Missile depletion is simply not a concern and, therefore, at-sea reloading is not a requirement.