Counterbattery from the Sea

By Major James W. Hammond III, U.S. Marine Corps

NSFS first substitutes for the organic assets of the landing force as it phases ashore—the period when that force is most vulnerable—and then augments and complements the organic fire support units during subsequent operations. Operations in the littoral require that all battlefield operating systems project combat power across the complex sea-land interface seamlessly and continuously. The fire support system in this region, therefore, requires a full range of complementing weapon capabilities, including mortars, artillery, NSFS, and close air support.

To achieve success on the battlefield, these weapons must be supported by the other elements of the fire system. Many have made the mistake of focusing just on the weapon systems, but they are only one element. Two other very important components are needed to complete fire support—a target acquisition system and a command-and-control system. Failure to understand and develop a fire support system that integrates all three of these components can lead to military disaster.

Before Operation Desert Storm, for example, pundits touted the capability of Saddam Hussein's artillery force, its great quantity of guns, and their long range. When the battle came, however, the Iraqi artillery easily was countered and taken out of the fight. The Iraqi forces were ineffective and vulnerable because they lacked both effective target intelligence and a command-and-control system that would have allowed them to capitalize on their great strength. The quick destruction of the larger and longer-range Iraqi artillery and rockets during the ground war was a result of the balanced and complementary U.S. and allied fire support system.

Target acquisition is an important element of a successful fire support system. Countering enemy fire support is on many occasions the most important subset of this element, because it protects friendly units and gives forces the freedom to maneuver. The threat of enemy indirect fires—the largest casualty producers on the modern battlefield—is often the greatest impediment to the employment of our forces.

One of the most effective support assets used by artillery units since before the Vietnam War has been radars that track enemy projectiles in the air and compute a track back to the firing location. Both Army and Marine Corps artillery forces have found the Firefinder family of counterbattery radars—the AN/TPQ-36 and AN/TPQ-37—to be one of the most effective tools for rapidly and accurately acquiring indirect fire support targets. During the Gulf War, these radars created the opportunity for the rapid destruction of enemy batteries and allowed maneuver units to close with and destroy the enemy army. Other target acquisition assets may assist counterbattery radars in detecting and locating enemy guns, but they have limitations. Unmanned air vehicles (UAVs), for example, sometimes are proposed as an alternative to shipboard radar, but the electro-optic sensors carried on UAVs cannot look everywhere at the same time. These sensors suffer from the phenomena of seeing through a "paper towel tube"—a significant limitation.

Using radar to defeat the very serious indirect fire threat is time tested and combat proven. Other solutions may prove their usefulness in the future, but they have not achieved the high level of confidence that is required now.

The importance of having a counterbattery detection and location radar system capability on ships is not a new concept. In a March 1956 article in the Marine Corps Gazette , Marine Corps Lieutenant Colonel H. J. Woessner stated, "We must have . . . shipboard devices similar to the existing countermortar radar, capable of locating the enemy weapons quickly and accurately." More than 40 years later, this idea has yet to be achieved, even though such a capability could have been a significant force multiplier in a number of operations.

After a car bomb demolished the Marine barracks in Beirut in October 1983, for example, the amphibious force wanted as small a footprint ashore as possible. The new AN/TPQ36 radar, which recently had been deployed to support the Marine amphibious unit ashore, had been providing outstanding support, and a query was made regarding the technical feasibility of mounting the land-based radar on a U.S. Navy ship offshore, to provide the same support from a less vulnerable position. The idea quickly was discounted because the ground-based radar was not designed to operate while in motion. The technical requirements to make it capable for this new mission quickly became insurmountable.

The lesson of this story (and the more recent Mogadishu landing) is that any landing force desperately needs a radar to fill the gap between its initial landings and the operational capability of its own radar ashore. The Beirut Marines and sailors ashore were vulnerable to indirect fires, and the fleet offshore—which included Aegis ships—could not provide the needed support. Somewhat in response, the Aegis program office began to study the possibility of putting a counterbattery detection capability on the AN/SPY-IB/D(V) radar that was being developed for the new Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class ships, but little testing was performed, and the effort soon died.

Using Aegis Ships: Point and Counterpoint

A number of arguments are advanced about why Aegis ships (the Ticonderoga [CG-47] and Arleigh Burke classes) should not be used to provide counterbattery detection. Both the Aegis and Firefinder systems are phased-array radars; however, the Firefinders only search a small area of about 90deg horizontally. The radar sets up a narrow search "fence" of sequential beams along the top of the terrain horizon and tracks targets—projectiles—that break this fence. After a short track, the computer extrapolates, or backtracks, the trajectory back to a point of origin. The AN/SPY-1 radar system, on the other hand, is designed to search the entire hemisphere for targets.

Technically, the Aegis system and its SPY-1 radar can be modified to provide the same capability as the Firefinder system, but some argue that operational limitations make this discussion a practice in futility. These arguments fall into three main areas, but a closer examination demonstrates that these concerns are groundless:

Aegis Is Too Valuable . One argument is that Aegis ships are too valuable—both in terms of cost and in their value to the carrier battle group for antiair coverage—to approach so near to shore, where the risk of loss increases. If this is true, then these ships also cannot provide NSFS, including naval gunfire support, to the landing force, even though this is listed as one of the missions of these multimission platforms.

In addition, it would mean that almost 62% of the year 2000 cruiser and destroyer fleet will be incapable of providing a major portion of NSFS. By then, only four classes ( Ticonderoga , Arleigh Burke , Spruance [DD-963], and Kidd [DDG-993])—about 94 commissioned ships—will have five-inch guns and the required fire control systems. This is the smallest amount of NSFS available since the end of World War II; to say now that some of these ships cannot put in close to shore—the same position they must be in to provide naval gunfire support—demonstrates two things. First, there is a great deal of misunderstanding within the Navy regarding fire support capability. As numerous Army and Marine Corps studies have shown, it requires a full range of complementary capabilities, including tube weapons. Second, to say at this point that these ships cannot be brought close to shore is tantamount to saying that our operational maneuver from the sea concept-indeed, our entire national forward engagement strategy-is bankrupt. Suddenly, more than half of these assets can no longer be depended on for vital support.

Tactically, the U.S. Navy can say either that it has a minimum NSFS capability, which includes Aegis ships providing conventional naval gunfire support (and therefore it also can position these ships to provide counterbattery detection and location radar support) or that this nation has no amphibious capability. There is no middle ground.

Counterbattery Would Interfere with Their Primary Mission . The fear here is that an Aegis ship conducting counterbattery missions will have a poor air defense picture because too many of its radar resources will be narrowed to search for shells. This could allow attacking aircraft and missiles directed at the fleet to get through or to go undetected until they close with friendly forces.

Again, fire support is one of the missions of Aegis platforms. And with the dearth of NSFS-capable ships, submitting to this argument is like saying that our strategy for littoral warfare is worthless.

In addition, amphibious operations normally will be conducted only when the amphibious task force has established air superiority; so the threat from the air should be greatly diminished. With the increasing number of Aegis ships available, there should be enough platforms to provide an air defense umbrella to the force and to conduct, at that point in the operation, the equally important NSFS mission. With the incorporation of cooperative engagement capability into fleet units, it should be possible for one ship to keep a solid air picture while standing off from the beach, while other ships protect themselves using the common air defense picture and conduct NSFS and the counterbattery detection and location mission.

The Ship Would Be Extremely Vulnerable to Cruise Missiles . There is concern about operating these expensive ships close to shore because of the threat from sea-skimming cruise missiles, hidden from the radar by land clutter until it is on top of the ship. The AN/SPY-1 radar was built to operate in open-ocean scenarios and performs poorly when searching over land. (In the counterbattery mission, this limitation would have little effect because the radar would look over the terrain mask for projectiles in the same manner as the Firefinder.)

With the vast majority of its radars unable to function well in the littoral region—as a 1996 Navy study pointed out—one must wonder how the U.S. Navy ever intended to fulfill its mission to conduct and support amphibious operations. But again, by doctrine the cruise missile threat should be reduced by the time the NSFS portion of the operation begins. Already recognizing there is still a chance that some "leakers" may get through, the Navy is developing a cueing radar, AN/SPQ9B, to search for and detect sea-skimming cruise missiles in high clutter. Once detected, they could be handed off to an AN/SPY-1 radar automatically reconfigured to handle the immediate threat.

A counterfire detection and location capability is required on board ships, and it would increase the effectiveness of the naval expeditionary force greatly. In fact, the AN/SPY-1 radar may give the sea-based counterbattery detection and location system the range it needs for the longer naval gunfire ranges that are being explored for operational maneuver from the sea. In fact, the radar horizon for the AN/SPY-1 for detection of a projectile at 2,000 feet (a nominal height very early in the trajectory of a cannon firing near its maximum range) is 63 nautical miles.

To achieve an effective amphibious capability, the on-scene commander needs a complete naval fire-support system. The Aegis platform, because of its high-power, phased-array radar and processing capability, provides the best system for integrating a counterbattery detection capability at sea, without adding a new radar to the suite of systems already taking up valuable space or requiring additional personnel and maintenance support on board ship. Leveraging its existing capability appears to be the most cost-effective way of meeting this much-needed requirement.

Major Hammond , a 1982 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy and a Marine artillery officer, is assigned to Marine Corps Systems Command. He has commanded a Marine detachment on a submarine tender and an artillery battery and has served in a variety of artillery billets, including as a battalion operations officer. This article is taken from his recently completed Naval Postgraduate School thesis on the same topic.

 

 
 

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