As we’ve thoroughly documented, the Navy is going full speed down the path of networks and data and de-emphasizing firepower. They now want to build smaller, unmanned ships that are significantly weaker than Burkes or even the coming frigate. ComNavOps has repeatedly demonstrated the folly of this approach and suggested that we should, instead, be pursuing firepower.
That said, what kind of firepower should we be pursuing? I’m not posing a question about specific weapons but, rather, a question about general types of firepower. For this post, I’d like to discuss the concept of saturation as it relates to firepower.
There are two general types of saturation firepower as it relates to naval weapons:
- Area bombardment
- Missile attacks (against either land targets or ships)
By definition, saturation attacks overwhelm the enemy’s defenses by presenting the enemy with more attacking munitions than they can defend against in a given moment in time. By implication, this means that even dumb, unguided munitions can be devastatingly effective if we have more of them than the enemy can stop.
It seems blindingly obvious - but remains a mystery to the Navy - that it does no good to have perfect situational awareness about an enemy but insufficient firepower to do anything about it. It doesn’t matter if you know the serial numbers of every piece of enemy equipment, how many missiles they have left, and what each enemy sailor had for breakfast if you can’t overwhelm their defenses and destroy them. There’s no getting around the reality of war that, sooner or later, you have to destroy the enemy’s equipment and kill their soldiers. Right now, we lack the firepower to do that. Consider our current weapons.
Harpoon – The Harpoon is obsolete and likely totally ineffective against a Chinese fleet due to its lack of stealth, speed, terminal maneuvering, and penetration electronics. We have Standard missiles that can be used in an anti-ship mode and are faster but their warheads are much smaller and are blast fragmentation rather than high explosive. The SM-6, for example, has a 140 lb warhead versus the 480 lb Harpoon warhead. And, of course, they lack terminal evasive maneuvers and penetration electronic aids. In short, they’re faster than Harpoon but much weaker and no better at penetrating. Worse, Harpoons are limited to 8 missiles per ship on Mk141 launch racks. We would need many dozens of ships to mass enough Harpoons to mount a saturation attack and we simply don’t have the number of ships in any realistic scenario.
Naval Strike Missile (NSM) – The NSM is modern and stealthy with a 276 lb warhead. The problem is that we have very few of them and no plans to acquire significant additional numbers. Given the extremely limited numbers, there is no possibility of mounting saturation attacks.
Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) – The LRASM has a large 1000 lb warhead, is stealthy, and has a high sub-sonic speed but, again, we have very few of them and no plans to acquire many more. In addition, it is currently only aerial launch capable. Setting available inventory issues aside, the problem with aerial launch is that each aircraft can carry only two missiles. Assembling even a small saturation attack of, say, 100 missiles would require 50 aircraft which is more than an entire carrier air wing. In practice, it would require around 3 air wings to assemble such an attack force and still provide sufficient tanking, EW, CAP, defensive reserves, etc. While the Navy has discussed plans to make a vertical launch (VLS) version of LRASM, the reality is that our surface ships currently have no LRASM capability and, given current flat budget projections, may not for quite some time. Interestingly, our most advanced anti-ship missile is carried only by the LCS! How’s that for ironically disturbing? Worse, the Navy seems to have abandoned the LRASM in favor of the Tomahawk.
Tomahawk Anti-Ship Missile – The Tomahawk is slow, non-stealthy, and lacks modern terminal maneuvering, sensors, and penetration aids although some upgrades have been applied to the missile. Currently, numbers are almost non-existent.
Land Attack Weapons
5” Naval Gun – As we’ve discussed many times, the 5” gun is nearly useless for land attack. It’s very short range requires that the attacking ship approach shore very closely in order to achieve any useful range. The 5” shells are good for soft targets but nearly useless for armored or fortified targets. In the area bombardment role, 5” shells simply don’t have the explosive power to be effective. Worse, the Burke class destroyers have only a single 5” gun each. It would require 5 Burkes to equal the firepower of a single WWII Fletcher class destroyer.
Tomahawk – The cruise missile is slow, non-stealthy, and has no terminal maneuvering or penetration aids. In short, it is unlikely to have an acceptable success rate against a peer defender. Further, at a few million dollars apiece, it is too expensive to use in the area bombardment role although it can be justified for use against high value targets like air or naval bases.
It is clear that the only weapon we currently have that is capable of mounting a saturation attack is the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) and it is obsolete and highly susceptible to modern defenses. The remaining weapons are either too few in number (NSM, LRASM) or have too little density (Harpoon, 5” gun) on ships to mass an effective saturation attack.
Modern enemy defenses, whether land or sea, are not going to be penetrated by a handful of weapons. We’ve grown used to attacking undefended, third world or terrorist targets and, as a result, have become lazy in our operational and tactical thinking. We have developed the mindset that one precision weapon equates to one destroyed target. The reality, however, is that modern defenses are equipped with layered surface to air missile systems, electronic countermeasures, sophisticated decoys, GPS jamming/spoofing, radar directed gun systems, radar stealth, IR masking, obscurants, etc. Small groups of missiles will stand no chance of penetrating such defensive systems. We need to saturate the defenses and overwhelm their ability to cope.
The degree to which we’ve abandoned firepower in favor of networks is truly frightening. I’ll keep repeating this: sooner or later you have to be able to destroy the enemy and networks can’t do that.
Here’s a few implications from this discussion:
- We need large caliber naval guns and not any of this sub-caliber sabot nonsense, either. Sub-caliber means sub-explosive which means ineffective. Not only do we need large caliber naval guns but we need large numbers of them. Quantity has a quality all its own.
- Saturation requires numbers. We need to be able to launch or fire large numbers of weapons. For example, attacking even a moderate size enemy task force will require hundreds of missiles to overwhelm their defenses. Where are we going to get hundreds of missiles for a strike? As noted, we seem to have standardized on around 8 Harpoons/NSM per ship as our offensive firepower. That means we need 12-30+ ships to generate a single anti-ship saturation strike.
- We need to develop saturation tactics. For example, maybe a second wave of high explosives after an initial wave of smaller, saturation weapons intended to deplete an enemy’s defensive magazines and inflict sensor blinding damage and disable weapon launchers.
- We need to develop a cheap, basic, anti-ship / land attack missile that can be procured in large quantity. The key to cheap is simplicity. It doesn’t matter if the missile doesn’t have every bell and whistle if we can procure and employ it in saturation quantities.
- We need to regain our offensive mindset. The Navy has, for far too long, been defensive minded and that has negatively impacted our capacity to conduct offensive operations.