Training Against the Navy's #1 Threat

By Captain Arnold Henderson, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Training means targets-and that is where the problem emerges. The Navy's supersonic sea-skimming target is the MQM-8G Vandal, a state-of-the-art conversion of old Talos missiles which are rapidly disappearing. The Vandal has a dual role:

  • Target for the testing of new weapons systems
  • Threat replicator for realistic live-fire fleet training exercises

Stretching the supply of missiles to allow time to find a replacement has resulted in an annual allocation of only 24 targets, barely enough to fill R&D requirements with few or none left over for training, a situation that concerns fleet commanders.

Even at the low usage rate of 24/year, Vandals will be totally depleted by 2002, as shown by Figure 1.

A usage rate supporting adequate fleet training, about 50 per year, would use up the existing inventory of Vandals and convertible Talos before 2000.

The two most recent attempts to develop a replacement either failed-the Supersonic Low Altitude Target (SLAT)-or were canceled for lack of R&D funding-the Supersonic Sea-Skimming Target, SSST). Subsequent studies and a Cost and Operational Effectiveness Analysis (COEA) apparently concluded that there is not enough money to develop a new target, which means that conversion of an existing missile system is the best alternative.

The Navy Standard Missile (SM-2) and the Air Force Short-Range Attack Missile (SRAM) are representative of rocket-powered systems considered. Both have an existing U.S. military logistics tail and launch capability, and both missiles are available for conversion. The SM-2 may be considered particularly attractive since a majority of Navy surface combatants already carry the missile, and accommodating a target version within the Vertical Launch System (VLS) or other existing launchers should mean minor modifications, if any.

On the downside, neither missile has a threat-representative infrared signature or radar cross-section. Most important, neither is capable of maintaining constant speed at low level, which is what defines a cruise missile. Thus, it would appear that their poor replication of the threat provides limited utility for either R&D or readiness training-which more than cancels out their advantages.

The Navy has programmed about $45 million in the period 1996 to 1999 to develop SM-2s (some excess, older Terrier missiles) as a target variant for an SSST and as a Tactical Ballistic Missile Target (TBMT). The TBMT variant appears logical, and would meet an expanding need, but fleet commanders remain unconvinced that the proposed SM-2 SSST can meet their requirements.

The most exciting possibility is to acquire an actual threat to use as a target, such as the Russian Raduga 3M-80 Moskit (SS-N-22 Sunburn) or the ZvesdaStrela Kh-31A (AS-17 Krypton). That possibility has become a reality in the topsy-turvy post-Cold War world where Russian companies (and the Russian government) seem willing to sell anything to anybody as long as it helps keep them in business.

The U.S. Navy sponsored a foreign comparative test of the MA-31 Target Variant of the Kh-31 antiship weapon, inviting a U.S. company to join with the Russian manufacturer to integrate the MA-31 with the QF-4 drone, modify it for range safety, and conduct live launches. Flights have been successful, and a contract for nine additional MA-31 targets has been let by the U.S. Government, for expanded testing, with a tentative goal to move directly into a procurement-modification program in 1998. Sound like a dream come true? It could be, but we should look at the potential negatives:

  • The U.S. would be supporting the weapons production base of a still-formidable former, and possibly future, adversary. Also, U.S. jobs will be replaced by Russian missile manufacturing jobs. To a retired U.S. Naval officer who spent every on-duty hour training to counter the Red Threat, this is unsettling, despite our present status as friendly nations.
  • A number of risks and unknowns exist in the process of converting a foreign system into a viable U.S. target. Is the projected cost of an MA-31 target system realistic when all of these are considered? The MA-31's range at sea-skimming altitude is too short for realistic training. Although the Navy has programmed about $8 million in the 1998 budget for fiscal year 1998 and 1999 to develop fixes for the range and other MA-31 shortcomings, it will undoubtedly cost more and there is risk involved. Can the MA-31 be adapted to meet stringent U.S. range safety requirements? In addition, a logistics support network will have to created from scratch.
  • What is the reliability of this Russian system, both inherent and in its long-term dependence on the stability of a non-U.S. logistics pipeline? An MA-31 damaged in an August 1996 launch attempt was to be repaired and used for a November 1996 test versus a manned ship but, "due to the complexities in obtaining repair parts from Zvesda-Strela", the target was not fully repaired in time and several months of additional delays ensued. Also, the Russian supplier reportedly has shown signs of discontent, such as demanding a long-term procurement contract before agreeing to provide additional targets. Will MA-31 failures and the attendant "lost opportunity" costs of range time, ship steaming days, and futilely-expended ordnance overwhelm its promise as a real threat replicator?

Fortunately, there is another attractive possibility: Buy the proposed Vandal Sea Snake target an upgraded version of a proved design. The current Extended Extended Range (EER) missile is a far cry from the original; its state-of-the-art avionics and components make it a competent replicator of the SS-N-2 and Kh31/AS-17. It can do an eight- to ten-G weave from 12 to five nautical miles while closing. In fact, it can fly lower and spend substantially longer at low level than either of them. The Sea Snake would replicate capabilities of the next generation of cruise missiles:

  • 15-feet above sea level ingress
  • An additional in-close terminal S-turn
  • Three-dimensional weave option
  • Inertial/Global Positioning System guidance

Production of the Sea Snake would engender full confidence in the availability of future targets. This could have an immediate beneficial effect on training by allowing an increase in the usage and conversion rates of the current state-of-the-art EER Vandal to 50 per year.

The fleet is crying for supersonic sea-skimming training targets. Standard SSST is not the answer. The MA-31 may provide partial relief before the end of the century, but political and programmatic risks make this unlikely. Making the decision to produce the essentially zero-risk Sea Snake line would fill a vital requirement now-and in the future. The Navy should reprogram the funding; the cost is modest and the benefits are great.

Captain Henderson is the Director of Business Development for Navy Air Programs at Cypress International. A naval aviator and Professional Aerospace Engineer, he commanded VA-83 and served as branch head, Navy Air Research & Development while on active duty.


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