Breaking the Anti-Access Wall

By Captain Sam J. Tangredi, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Metcalf himself admitted that the vessel would need more than an anchor windlass. However, throughout the early 1990s a common image took hold of a stealthy vessel with very low freeboard and very little, if any, superstructure, but VLSs numbering in the hundreds. This coincided with Metcalf’s frequent preaching that surface warfare was all about “ordnance on target.”

By 1994 the arsenal-ship concept was endorsed by many advocates of a revolution in military affairs, such as Dr. Andrew Krepinevich at the soon-to-be-influential Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. 2 Part of this vision included the suggestion that the “much cheaper” arsenal ships would be replacements for the “highly vulnerable” aircraft carriers around which the striking power of the Fleet was built. 3 Needless to say, replacing carriers was not a criterion advocated by the leadership of the U.S. Navy, even if the Tomahawk had proven its worth in the Gulf War of 1991.

The arsenal ship gained its second great champion in then–Chief of Naval Operations, the late Admiral Jeremy M. Boorda, who—along with Assistant Secretary of the Navy (Research, Development, and Acquisition) John W. Douglass—initiated a joint program with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 1995 to develop prototypes. However, the program quickly and quietly faded after Boorda’s death in 1996. 4

What It is Not

Before describing the specifics of an arsenal ship, it is important to describe what it is not—or rather, what it should not be. It is not a multipurpose ship; therefore, it is not a replacement for any other ship, especially not aircraft carriers. It is not a destroyer or cruiser capable of conducting missions in multiple domains (that is, antiair, antisurface, antisubmarine, and anti–ballistic-missile warfare). Its weapons are for strike from the sea , not for war at sea . It is not a ship for all reasons. 5 It is a gap filler that will give us the anti-anti-access capability that we need but do not have in the necessary quantity.

This is not to say that the idea does not have issues. Surface Warfare Capabilities Study 21, a multiyear study led by the late Rear Admiral Wayne Meyer that involved a number of former surface warfare leaders and experienced program managers, conclusively demonstrated what defense analysts and decision makers routinely learn and forget in repeated planning and budgeting cycles. Given continuing changes in missions, threats, and weapon technology, the multipurpose surface combatant is much more cost-effective over its lifecycle than more limited, focused-mission (specialized) warships. 6 Since specialized warships are almost inevitably cheaper to build, budget-conscious decision-makers—concerned primarily with defense planning for the next five years—can easily fall into the trap of thinking that more limited, specialized ships can satisfy current missions more cheaply, boost the numbers of hulls in the Fleet, or perhaps help reduce deficits. The Strategic Insight study provides ample evidence that over a 30-year (or longer) life-cycle—during which missions, threats, security postures, and expected contingencies may change—multipurpose warships remain a better investment, a fact defense decision-makers should keep in mind.

The arsenal ship would violate this principle of cost-effectiveness—and because it does, it must be conceived, designed, and built with its limitations as well as mission in mind. It is an adjunct to the Fleet, not a core component. Since its purpose is to break anti-access “walls,” substantial money should be spent on its ordnance, not the hull or propulsion plant. It should not cost anywhere near the price of current warships. Unlike the littoral combat ship, whose price soared from an estimated $240 million to around $600 million, its cap should be enforced. It should not be expected to be fast. It should balance its survivability with its mission requirements; once its inventory of missiles is expended, it would have no further role in a campaign but to try to make it home to reload. Its protection should be derived from the maritime environment—with little or no superstructure and extremely low freeboard, possibly from ballasting down. Adding to the protection should be a variety of deception techniques. The Navy has only begun to scratch the surface in harnessing modern deception technology.

A modern arsenal ship should not be designed to make port visits, provide humanitarian assistance, provide C2, host any sort of staff, or do anything else other than fulfill the third capability required to defeat anti-access strategies: provide maximum volume of precise fire onto enemy targets. The C2 of its ordnance should come from other warships. Its long-range and mid-range defenses would be provided by the rest of the Fleet or other joint assets. It should not be expected to operate independently, although a low maximum speed and unique sea-keeping characteristics might require independent transits and tactical rendezvous with deception techniques minimizing the risks.

Perhaps we should call it a self-propelled arsenal barge.

Notional Design

The best design for a ship that can provide the volume of ordnance required follows Metcalf’s initial inclinations. To describe it as “spartan” should be an understatement. A long series of VLSs encased in a largely submerged hull would be optimal.

For the purpose of reducing its radar signature, the ship’s freeboard should be as low as possible and not have a substantial superstructure—think of an iceberg with its top flattened. The most efficient method of doing this is by having the capability of ballasting down, similar to that of amphibious warships. With ballast tanks, voids, and fuel tanks along its underwater hull, and an internal double hull, a modicum of protection might be achieved against torpedoes and mines. However, its primary protection should be a large inventory of surface and underwater decoys, chaff launchers, jammers, and overall physical and electronic deception systems. Short-range point-defense systems against cruise missiles or aircraft could be installed, but with decks nearly awash, its most vulnerable exposure—like that of an armored tank—would be to plunging fire, not so easy to achieve with cruise missiles as might be commonly perceived. There could be three alternative—or combined—methods of targeting the arsenal ship’s ordnance. It could receive an ever-updating target set from a real-time satellite downlink or other Fleet network; it could fire its missiles at already preprogrammed targets relying on terrain mapping or GPS; and/or it could simply fire its ordnance to be controlled by another ship, an airborne controller, or be targeted by the force commander. (If preprogrammed for fixed targets, mobile targets would be the focus of other joint-strike assets.)

In any event, it should have an alternate target set already programmed so that if the arsenal ship took a severe hit, the entire inventory could be ripple fired to some meaningful effect before the ship became mission-incapable. The arsenal ship’s damage-control suite should be fully automated. The crew would be expected to conduct damage control only to the point of ensuring as many missiles as possible were launched. Similarly, the crew would be expected to perform only routine maintenance under way. In the event of a fatal hit, the arsenal ship’s minimally sized crew, perhaps less than ten sailors, would be provided with escape pods.

To reduce electronic detection, it should be a recipient—not a full participant—in Fleet network links. With no long-range sensors, it would not have any information to contribute to the net, except for when/where the missiles were launched. Once the missiles were launched, they would be completely autonomous of the arsenal ship itself. This would minimize electronic transmissions from the ship, thereby reducing the possibility of detection. The arsenal ship would be optimized so that the enemy could not hit the archer—or, at least, not until the quiver is empty.

Arsenal Options

Alternative platforms could conceivably perform the wall-breaking mission. Foremost is the nuclear-powered guided-missile submarine (SSGN) such as the four Ohio -class ballistic-missile submarines (SSBNs) already converted that each carry 158 Tomahawks. They can be supplemented; instead of disabling four strategic nuclear-missile launch tubes per remaining SSBN to conform to the ratified Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, START II, two more SSBNs could be converted to SSGNs. 7 Obviously the SSGN possesses the ultimate in stealth characteristics and is a platform that potential opponents have few if any means of countering. Opposing submarines would present the only significant threat. However, attack-submarine escorts (SSNs) could minimize this threat and contribute a limited number of strike missiles from their own VLSs. In fact, naval decision-makers have hinted that the additional payload modules to be added to Flight III Virginia -class SSNs will take up the slack when the Ohio SSGNs start to be decommissioned in 2029. 8

Unfortunately, the Ohio -class SSGN has two drawbacks. First, it may not have the prewar deterrent effect that a more detectable (surface or air) platform that could be used for diplomatic signaling would possess. Second—the most important consideration—the cost of conversion for each Ohio-class SSGN was approximately $890 million per submarine, not necessarily a cost-effective means of adding significant launch tubes to the Fleet. 9 Operating costs are also much higher than a surface ship. A combination of SSGNs and surface arsenal ships would be more cost-effective.

Another option could be the emplacement of submerged vertical-launch platforms on the continent shelf within range of a potential opponent. Although it might be possible to covertly put into position such platforms, they would suffer from the vulnerability shared by all fixed locations if their positions become known. An attempt to use fixed platforms for overt deterrence would likely cause a potential opponent to search for their location. It is possible to conceive of giving such platforms the ability to crawl on the sea floor. However, giving undersea mobility to very large platforms is still a technical challenge.

Some might argue that the issue of arsenal ships is moot since conventionally armed ballistic missiles could be fired from the continental United States (CONUS) in order to strike anti-access targets. Pushing aside the question of whether such long-range missiles could achieve real-time tactical effects, the launching of what could be nuclear-armed ballistic missiles at a nuclear-weapons-capable opponent would not seem prudent. The use of CONUS-based missiles might also incite enemies to use conventional-weapon strikes on CONUS itself. This is therefore not a viable alternative.

In terms of cost and tactical effectiveness, a number of surface arsenal ships, supplemented by the existing SSGNs (with a possibility of two more) still appears to be the best option for providing the ordnance capacity for countering anti-access strategies.

The ‘Deterrent Effect’

As discussed earlier, an arsenal ship is also a deterrent to war, particularly in situations in which hostile states believe that they are or will eventually be capable of greatly reducing American influence and support for other nations in their region. The deterrent effect could be ensured in three possible ways. First, the very existence of a significant number of arsenal ships could cause potential opponents to abandon their anti-access strategies, thereby reassuring concerned neighbors and contributing to the improvement of regional security. Second, the deployment of arsenal ships can be used for politico-military signaling purposes in the same way the movement of aircraft carriers into threatened regions is used today. It must be understood that an arsenal ship could never match the multipurpose versatility of an aircraft carrier. However, a low-cost arsenal ship may be an alternative and function as an initial signal, allowing carriers to increase their stand-off range. A third alternative is to routinely deploy arsenal ships with battle groups in the same manner as other Fleet assets, thereby contributing to the offensive power and hopefully deterrent effect of the overall group. (Critics of current naval force structure have repeatedly maintained that battle groups lack offensive firepower, with most of its assets dedicated to the self-protection of the group.)

Proposing the acquisition of a new type of warship amid severe (or anticipated) budget constraints does not sound like a particularly useful effort. In the coming years, the services’ focus will likely remain on the preservation of existing programs. Given the large investments in these programs, this approach is understandable.

But the arsenal-ship concept remains a useful gap-filler for dealing with the strategies we face now from potential opponents in wars of necessity as opposed to wars of choice. The production of the arsenal ship should be fast-tracked. It must be started immediately to reduce the perception that the United States will acquiesce to the control of near seas by aggressive authoritarian nations that are equipping their forces to remove U.S. deterrence, influence, and support for other nations in their regions.

A Versatile Platform

In addition to defeating anti-access strategies, the arsenal ship could take on several other types of missions. One is acting as the strike and fire-support ship for a “littoral dominant battle group” centered on a restructured expeditionary-strike/amphibious-warfare group. 10 The arsenal ship’s primary role would be to provide naval fire support for amphibious operations, a capability also in short supply in the current Fleet. A precedent exists in the much smaller bombardment rocket vessels last used in the Vietnam War. Instead of long-range Tomahawk missiles, shorter-range and rapid-flight missiles would be used for call-for-fire missions. Of course, that assumes that the U.S. Navy follows through with a plan to acquire strike missiles other than the Tomahawk. The program to arm the littoral combat ship with the then–under development non-line-of-sight missile did not end successfully. Right now the U.S. Navy does not have the appropriate missiles for fire support—another glaring gap that must be filled.

Both of these are plausible missions and point to the fact that the persistent-strike capacity to which the design of an arsenal ship should be dedicated could be adapted to other tactical situations when a great number of missiles are needed to ensure certainty.

Dismantling the Anti-Access Threat

Potential opponents’ anti-access strategies would logically include attacks from a variety of platforms: ballistic and cruise missiles, submarines, long-range strike aircraft, surface warships, naval mines, swarming fast craft, and suicide bombers. Although we view such attacks as asymmetric, they are descended from techniques used by weaker navies (and armies) throughout history. Proponents of the concept of a revolution in military affairs point out that the difference between today and the past is a growing ubiquity of high-technology weapons, sensors, and information systems.

However, these attacks must be coordinated to be effective against the Fleet and rely on real-time intelligence against moving targets. This creates significant potential vulnerabilities for the anti-access force. Dependency on high technology amplifies these weaknesses since the necessary C2 and intelligence can be denied through strikes on the C2, information-gathering, and dissemination nodes. Reducing the means of anti-access effectiveness is the primary goal of the sustained strikes fired from an arsenal ship, as well as counterfire against launchers and gunnery systems.

The need for an arsenal ship is not just a U.S. joint requirement. In the United Kingdom, the independent Phoenix Think Tank, which specializes in contributing new concepts for the renewal of Britannia’s depleted sea power, has advocated its version of a Royal Navy arsenal ship as a lower-cost means of providing joint-strike and ballistic-missile-defense capabilities. 12 In an anti-access environment, the arsenal ship is the most logical near-term means of maintaining the credibility of U.S. naval and joint military influence in potentially crisis-torn regions. If decision-makers recognize this, the challenge would be for the defense-acquisition system and American shipbuilders to produce a powerful yet lower cost warship—on time and on budget—that supplements the other naval asymmetric advantages that the U.S. Fleet already possesses. If there is the will, it can be done.

1. VADM Joseph Metcalf III, USN (Ret.), “Revolutions at Sea,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 114, no. 1 (January 1988), 37.

2. Andrew F. Krepinevich Jr., “Transforming the Navy’s Warfighting Capabilities,” Issues in Science and Technology , Fall 1996, .

3. Eric Schmitt, “Aircraft Carrier May Give Way to Missile Ship,” New York Times , 3 September 1995, .

4. LT Dawn H. Driesbach, USN, “The Arsenal Ship and the U.S. Navy: A Revolution in Military Affairs Perspective,” Naval Postgraduate School thesis, .

5. CAPT Sam J. Tangredi, USN (Ret.), “A Ship for All Reasons,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 125, no. 9 (September 1999), 92–95.

6. Robert E. Gray, Troy S. Kimmel, and CAPT Sam J. Tangredi, USN (Ret.), “Acquisition Reform the Meyer Way,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings , vol. 136, no. 12 (December 2010), 54–59.

7. Jim Hasik, “Should new START lead to two more SSGNs?” 6 May 2011, .

8. Ronald O’Rourke, “Navy Virginia (SSN-774) Class Attack Submarine Procurement: Background and Issues for Congress,” CRS Report RL32418, 26 March 2015, 6.

9. Ronald O’Rourke, “Naval Trident Submarine Conversion (SSGN) Program: Background and Issues for Congress,” CRS Report RS21007, 22 May 2008, 4.

10. LCDR John P. Looney, USN, A Proposed Littoral Battle Group Centered Around the Arsenal Ship , 1997, .

11. Mike Burleson, “Arsenal Ships for Ballistic Missile Defense,” 30 September 2009, .

12. Alexander Clarke, “Arsenal Ships,” 19 May 2011, .

Captain Tangredi is the author of Anti-Access Warfare: Countering A2/AD Strategies (Naval Institute Press, 2013). He is a member of Strategic Insight LTD, a planning-consulting firm located in Arlington, Virginia. He was previously a surface warfare officer and naval strategic planner.


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