The Transformation (Again!) of the Surface Navy

By Captain R. Robinson Harris, U.S. Navy (Retired), and Lieutenant Robert McFall, U.S. Navy

The first was a technological one. New Tomahawk-armed cruisers and destroyers, asserted the authors, would field an unprecedented offensive antiship and land-attack capability, and would provide singular warfighting capabilities—new possibilities for force employment not resident in a carrier-dominated strategy and Fleet.

Second, the authors averred there could be “something else,” because surface combatants possessed flexibility and usefulness that could be applied across the scope of naval operations, ranging from “violent peace” through global war. (The term “violent peace” was used by then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral James D. Watkins in the 1980s to draw attention to the fact that the Cold War wasn’t particularly “cold” for naval forces that routinely responded to regional crises around the globe.) 1

At the risk sounding like “We told you so” . . . well, the 1985 article did just that! Tomahawk did transform the surface Navy; it is no longer just a supporting player. Now, almost three decades later, we believe that the surface Navy is being transformed again.

Strike-Capable Surface Combatants

Full-rate Tomahawk production was recommended in 1985, the same year the article appeared. Tomahawk has indeed provided the surface Navy with its first long-range, highly survivable, unmanned land-attack weapon system capable of pinpoint accuracy. Tomahawk-armed surface combatants have become the weapon of choice for contingency missions around the world. It has been used to attack a variety of fixed targets, including air defense and communications sites, often in high-threat environments. It has proved to be a highly survivable weapon because radar detection is made difficult by its small cross-section and low-altitude flight. Similarly, infrared detection is difficult because the turbofan engine emits little heat.

Today’s diverse threats coupled with a smaller U.S. force structure place an absolute premium on system flexibility and responsiveness, and that is what commanders get with surface combatants armed with Tomahawks. During the critical early days of a regional conflict, Tomahawk, in conjunction with other land-attack systems and tactical aircraft, denies or delays forward movement of enemy forces, neutralizes the enemy’s ability to conduct air operations, and suppresses enemy air defenses. In addition, Tomahawk attacks high-value targets such as electrical-generating facilities, command-and-control nodes, and weapons-assembly/storage facilities.

Since the publication of the 1985 Proceedings article, Tomahawk’s operational responsiveness, target penetration, range, and accuracy have improved dramatically. Global Positioning System (GPS) guidance has been added, and the warhead and engine in the missile’s Block III configuration have been redesigned. With GPS, land-attack route planning is not constrained by terrain features, and mission-planning time is reduced. Introduction of Tactical Tomahawks in the late 1990s added the capability to reprogram the missile while in flight to strike any of 15 preprogrammed alternate targets or redirect the missile to any GPS coordinates. The Tactical Tomahawk is able to loiter over a target area for some hours, and with its on-board TV camera permits the warfighter to assess battle damage of the target, and, if necessary redirect the missile to any other target. It allows for planning on board cruisers, destroyers, and attack submarines for quick-reaction GPS missions.

On 16 March 2011 the Navy’s 2,000th Tomahawk missile was fired from the USS Barry (DDG-52) against an air-defense target in Libya. 2 Just as demonstrated at the start of the 1991 and 2003 wars in Iraq, in Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and in the recent hostilities in Libya, Tomahawks from surface combatants lead the way, making the skies safe for follow-on aircraft. The Libyan operation was different, however, because no carriers were present—naval strike capability resided in the Tomahawk missile, mostly fired from surface combatants. Although the surface community now shares this capability with our submarine brethren, we still provide a bulk of the missiles available to go down-range.

BMD-Capable Surface Combatants

Combatant commanders certainly continue to ask where their Tomahawk shooter is, but they also are looking for another capability that surface combatants now provide: ballistic-missile defense (BMD). The ability to station a ship off the coast of a radical or friendly state and neutralize a number of ballistic-missile threats to the region not only reinforces relationships with regional partners, it also makes the area safer from rogue regimes.

And the program is growing. “BMD-capable Navy Aegis ships are scheduled to grow from 23 at the end of FY2011 to 41 at the end of FY2016,” noted Ronald O’Rourke in a 2011 congressional report, “and the cumulative number of SM-3 Aegis BMD interceptor missiles delivered to the Navy is scheduled to grow from 111 at the end of FY2011 to 341 at the end of FY2016.” 3 In October 2011 the Navy awarded a contract to provide an additional 23 SM-3 Block IA Interceptor missiles, reported Inside Defense , “because ‘combatant commands’ requirements for SM-3 Block IA interceptors exceed available assets.” 4

The BMD cornerstone is the Aegis weapon system, which was first introduced just before the appearance of the “Is That All There Is?” article in 1985. Aegis has undergone dramatic changes and upgrades over the years, and it remains the most dynamic weapon system in the world. The addition of the BMD capability to the already impressive suite of missiles, guns, radars, and defense systems will leave most observers staring in awe. The following brief summary shows the evolution of the capability.

July 2009 : The USS Hopper (DDG-70) intercepted a ballistic-missile target in the exo-atmosphere. In addition, the USS Lake Erie (CG-70) tracked the target and the post-intercept debris for the first time with Aegis BMD 4.0.1 and the Aegis signal processor.

October 2009 : The JS Myoko , Japan’s third destroyer equipped with the Aegis BMD system, successfully guided an SM-3 Block IA to intercept and destroy a medium-range ballistic-missile target outside the Earth’s atmosphere.

November 2010 : The JS Kirishima , Japan’s fourth destroyer equipped with the Aegis BMD system, likewise successfully guided an SM-3 to intercept and destroy a medium-range ballistic-missile target outside the atmosphere.

April 2011 : During a test known as FTM-15, the Aegis BMD system successfully tracked and engaged an intermediate-range ballistic missile using data from a remote AN/TPY-2 radar during a test off the coast of Hawaii. This marked Aegis’ first engagement against an intermediate-range ballistic missile, as well as the first time the system used a launch-on-remote capability, which allows Aegis to employ remote sensors to detect threats as early in flight as possible.

Because of the success of the BMD program on Aegis-based surface combatants, Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta announced in October 2011 that four BMD-capable destroyers will be stationed in Rota, Spain, to “support NATO’s critical efforts to build effective missile defense.” 5 The BMD capability is so desired by the combatant commanders that the Navy is having a hard time filling the need fast enough. Vice Admiral Samuel J. Locklear III, commander U.S. Naval Forces Europe/Africa, remarked during a National Defense University speech, “We have a small Navy today—the smallest since 1926—yet we have a growing global demand for maritime forces, maritime security operations. And now we have a growing demand for maritime ballistic-missile defense. Our ships and our crews and our systems are up to the challenge.” 6 This demand signal for the technological edge that the surface combatants provide is not going away anytime soon.

New Tech + Flexibility = Vital Role

With the new technologies coming online in the near future, such surface assets will continue to be in high demand. Unmanned aerial vehicles already are starting to fly from destroyers. Advanced radars and multi-mission towed arrays are making the surface combatants more capable than ever, but it is the railgun that holds the potential completely to revolutionize the surface fleet. 7 This new weapon will put a piece of lead on target more than 200 miles away. The velocity of the round coming off the ship could top Mach 7. According to retired Rear Admiral Nevin Carr, former Chief of Naval Research, the railgun will be ready to put aboard ships in the next five years. This gun will take the same footprint of the current Mk 45 but since no powder is required for the railgun, the number of rounds that can fit in the magazine is almost tripled. This gun will easily replace the aging Harpoon missile for surface threats, and it will give the Marines on land the surface-fire support they so desperately need.

The second, more fundamental reason there is “something else” for surface ships has to do with the flexibility and usefulness that can be applied across the range of naval operations. While global war is still an important contingency for which U.S. forces must prepare, it is the least likely, largely because of our preparation for it. The many operations short of global war, such as peacetime deployments, crises of varying magnitudes, and small wars, continue to demand our naval forces. These operations are important.

As Admiral Watkins said in the 1980s, we live in an era of “violent peace,” and the Navy contributes to deterrence and to the protection of U.S. interests across the board. Surface combatants can be called on for anything from violent peace to global war. Therein lies the strategic significance of surface warfare. Surface combatants have been and will continue to be central players in a range of peacetime and crisis usages where carriers and submarines either have no role or are inappropriate.

So yes, there was indeed something more than just a “supporting” role for the surface Navy in 1985, and the Tomahawk led to that transformation in the 1980s and 1990s. The cutting-edge technologies, including BMD, that ships sail with today, combined with the inherent flexibility of the platforms themselves, have made surface combatants indispensable platforms that combatant commanders continually ask for in their theaters of operations.

1. See “The Maritime Strategy,” a special issue of U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , January 1986.

2. “Navy to mark 2,000th Tomahawk launch in Norfolk,” Associated Press, 1 August 2011.

3. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program: Background and Issues for Congress . (Washington, DC: Congressional Research Service, 19 April 2011), p. 2.

4. John Liang, “More SM-3 Block IAs Wanted,” Inside Defense , 19 October 2011.

5. Navy News Service, “SECDEF Announces Stationing of Aegis Ships at Rota, Spain,” 5 October 2011, .

6. VADM Samuel J. Locklear III, address given at “The Changing Strategic Landscape for Sea-Based Missile Defense” seminar, National Defense University, 2 December 2009.

7. Ronald O’Rourke, Navy Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) Program , p. 18.

Captain Harris works for Lockheed Martin Corporation. He commanded the USS Conolly (DD-979), one of the Navy’s first “Strike Destroyers,” and Destroyer Squadron 32. Ashore, he served as executive director of the CNO Executive Panel and director of programs in the Secretary of the Navy’s Office of Legislative Affairs. He was a CNO Strategic Studies Group Fellow and now co-chairs the Strategy Discussion Group in Washington, D.C.

Lieutenant McFall, a surface-warfare officer, did two tours on the USS Winston S. Churchill (DDG-81). He is on the board of directors of the Surface Navy Association and the editorial board of the U.S. Naval Institute.



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