Over the past decade, the lethality of foreign anti-ship missiles has improved at a rate greatly exceeding that of defensive missile development. The prime driver
is a technological development cost gap: It is far cheaper to
develop missiles to hit relatively slow-moving ships than to intercept other missiles moving at supersonic speeds. As a result, near-peer nations are fielding antiship missiles that possess greater range, speed, lethality, and, most important, numbers than U.S. Navy defensive missiles.
For too long, the Navy has promoted a defensive missile strategy, using Aegis cruisers and destroyers to protect a single, high-value target—the aircraft carrier.1 Against modern
offensive missiles, this strategy no longer is sound.
Time, Speed, Distance
For an aircraft carrier to operate effectively and uncontested, there must be adequate surveillance of the battle space at ranges sufficient to ensure no offensive missile platforms enter their weapons-release ranges. Many antiship missiles now have ranges exceeding 200 nautical miles (nm), and some exceed 300 nm. They also can be launched from aircraft that possess high closure rates or from difficult to detect submarines. Adequate surveillance and interception at these ranges with carrier-based assets is simply not feasible.
Pushing a picket asset, such as an Arleigh Burke–class guided-missile destroyer (DDG), downrange to expand the surveillance area only presents a lone, poorly defended target. Establishing a combat air patrol station that far downrange is impractical given aircraft fuel consumption, tanking requirements, and limited time on station.
Submarine-launched antiship missiles further complicate the problem. The Russian 3M-54 Kalibr (NATO designation SS-N-27A Sizzler) is used by multiple nations, including China. This sea-skimming, supersonic antiship missile has an average range of 160 nm.2 Third-party targeting data can be supplied to the launch platform by airborne or satellite assets, enabling a maximum-range launch. Detecting, let alone prosecuting, a threat submarine equipped with Kalibrs or similar missiles within weapons-release range is extremely challenging.
Three Types of Saturation
As frightening as these vulnerabilities are, there is another, more pressing threat in modern antiship missile defense. An opponent can defeat a ship by attacking with an overwhelming number of missiles. Once the defending ship or fleet expends all its defensive missiles and point-defense systems, it is completely vulnerable. Such saturation attacks are not a new concept in naval warfare. There are three types: point, platform, and economic.
Point saturation applies to the individual engagement. Defensive systems are limited in how many targets they are able to engage simultaneously. Exceeding this limit will result in a missile hit. Given the susceptibility of Aegis to battle damage, the probability of one hit resulting in a mission kill or severe mission degradation is high. The maximum number of simultaneous engagements is classified and varies by platform but nonetheless must be considered by naval commanders.
Platform saturation refers to a platform’s ability to defend itself from multiple engagements over time. If an attacker is not able to overwhelm the platform’s defenses in a quick, single salvo, over time it can force the defending unit to exhaust its supply of interceptor missiles. Point-defense systems, such as the close-in weapon system (CIWS) and Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), as well as electronic means of defense, also must be factored in, but the primary consideration in platform saturation is the supply of defensive missiles.
Economic saturation is based on the cost per employment of an offensive missile versus the cost per successful defense. Development costs, supply chain costs, employment doctrine (e.g., two interceptors per inbound missile, etc.), and other factors all contribute to a large differential that favors the offensive missile. Economic saturation also can be referred to as theater or strategic saturation when comparing the effectiveness of various missile systems over a large geographic area. Economic saturation is the least studied variable in missile defense, yet it may be the most important because it reduces all the various technical, developmental, supply, employment, and other factors to one variable: cost.
Given these definitions, compare the Chinese YJ-12 with the U.S. Standard Missile (SM) family of naval surface-to-air missiles. The YJ-12 is an air-launched, sea-skimming, supersonic antiship missile with a range of 215 nm.3 Late-model SM-2s have a range of 65 nm, new SM-6s of 130 nm, and the SM-3s (non–intercontinental ballistic missile interceptors) a range of 330 nm.4 Note that the sea-skimming capability of the YJ-12 negates any range advantage held by advanced versions of the Standard Missile.
Using open-source price data from a 2007 sale of Russian Yakhont missiles, on which the YJ-12 is based, the YJ-12 costs approximately $1.2 million per unit.5 Adjusting for inflation to 2018 dollars, that equates to a unit cost of about $1.5 million.
For the SM family, in fiscal year 2018, a RIM-161 SM-3 cost $18.4 million per unit.6 A RIM-174 SM-6 cost $4 million.7 Rounding out the family, the new RIM-156 SM-2 Block IV has a unit cost of $2.1 million.8 (Per unit procurement costs may vary based on contract terms). On a per unit cost basis, China can field 12 YJ-12s for every one SM-3, 2.6 for one SM-6, and 1.75 per SM-2. On an economic basis, China can achieve one-to-one theater missile saturation for between 8.3 percent and 57 percent of defensive missile costs.
Considering engagement doctrines of two or three interceptors per inbound antiship missile, platform saturation of a DDG could be achieved with 15–23 missiles (accounting for SMs only) or 19–27 missiles (allowing the DDG a loadout of 50 interceptor missiles and awarding point defenses a generous four intercepts).
Economic Cost to Mission Kill a DDG
Now let’s calculate the economic kill cost for a notional Arleigh Burke-class DDG loaded with 12 SM-6s, 10 SM-3s, and 24 SM-2s. (The remaining missile cells are loaded with Tomahawk land-attack missiles and are not factored in.) This missile loadout costs $202 million. Computing the saturation costs for YJ-12s ($1.5 million per unit) at intercepting doctrines of 2:1 and 3:1 reveals kill costs of $28 million and $19 million, respectively.
The economic cost of scoring a mission kill by platform saturation on a DDG at a 2:1 engagement ratio is approximately 14 percent of the cost of defending the platform ($28 million/$202 million). At an engagement ratio of 3:1, the cost to kill is approximately 9 percent ($19 million/$202 million). China realizes further efficiencies when taking into consideration the cheaper procurement and employment costs of its offensive platforms versus the expensive Arleigh Burke DDGs.
The strategic implications of a cost-to-kill ratio of 9–14 percent are shocking. In the South China Sea, the Chinese could achieve theater saturation with more missiles, employable from multiple air, surface, subsurface, and land platforms, than a carrier strike group can hope to intercept.
DF-21 and Carrier Strike Group Saturation
The concept of economic theater saturation applies to the family of Chinese DF-21 ballistic missiles. While cost data is not available for the DF-21, if the employment cost is lower than the cost of a successful defense, then China has an advantage in achieving theater saturation. A U.S. report on China’s military power estimated that nation had 80–90 DF-21/21As in 2010 and could produce approximately ten a year.9 If accurate, China may now possess 170–180. By sheer numbers, these missiles could achieve platform saturation of the destroyers and cruisers in a U.S. carrier strike group.
Even if the Aegis defense umbrella were to intercept every DF-21D antiship ballistic missile, the carrier strike group’s ability to defend itself from conventional antiship missiles would be severely degraded. Again, China has a force multiplier advantage in terms of the economic cost to kill a U.S. DDG or carrier, with antiship theater ballistic missiles and conventional antiship missiles.
In celebration of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in 2015, Chinese media company Tencent published an online video titled “Battle to Capture an Island: A Full View of Chinese Military Strength.”10 The video depicts a possible response to an attack on a Chinese base. Most important, the video features a variety of DF-type missiles employed against a concentrated fleet of (presumably) U.S. ships, as well as land-attack cruise missiles launched from H-6 bombers. The Chinese have developed a specific area-denial capability that U.S. leaders are barely acknowledging.
The Future is Needed Now
The U.S. Navy has fallen so far behind in this missile arms race it likely already has lost. It has no purpose-built supersonic antiship missile. The offensive capabilities of an SM-6 are woeful compared to its threat counterparts. Submarine-launched antiship missiles are almost nonexistent in the Navy. An SM-6 costs 2.6 times the price of a YJ-12. Even cutting-edge defensive missile technology is limited in effectiveness due to point, platform, and economic saturation. The cost of defending a ship is nearly ten times the cost for an opponent to score a mission kill. Being behind in technology, numbers, and economic efficiencies is no way to compete.
Current projects are merely stopgap measures. Upgrading SM-2s to a range of 90 nm provides just half the offensive range of most threat missiles, while also cutting into a ship’s number of interceptors.11 The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye and SM-6 offensive pairing has numerous implementation limitations, such as the inability for the air wing to provide sustained, 24-hour coverage. The Maritime Strike Tomahawk program will provide around 160 missile upgrade kits to the fleet between 2020 and 2022.12 With an estimated range of 900 nm and a submarine-launch capability, this is a step in the right direction.13
The problem is that the nation is starting its long-range and hypersonic offensive naval missile programs when the arms race is already half over. Even if it develops the world’s most advanced suite of antiship missiles, the rules of the game have not changed. It still will be possible for an adversary to overwhelm a DDG’s or a carrier strike group’s defenses with sheer numbers at a fraction of the cost of defending against them.
The United States must leverage its technological and military-industrial base to leapfrog the competition. Forget making more advanced missiles; it needs to develop the next technology that will revolutionize the naval battle space and make missiles obsolete. It needs to dramatically increase research funding for future technologies, such as railgun and directed-energy weapons. The cost-per-engagement for these systems is a fraction of that of the Aegis missile family. This would enable the Navy to achieve strategic saturation in any battle space.
High-energy weapons, both kinetic and directed energy, carry a much smaller footprint for ammunition storage and lower cost per engagement compared with conventional arms. This flips the tables on the YJ-12 and DF-21D, granting the United States an economic advantage. Kinetic weapons, such as railguns, would enable over-the-horizon offensive and defensive engagements of surface and airborne targets. Specialized guided rounds would allow the hypersonic projectiles to adjust course mid-flight, enhancing lethality. Directed-energy weapons, such as the still-in-development AN/SEQ-3 Laser Weapon System, increase point and platform saturation limits exponentially. Eventually, the United States will be able to equip airborne platforms with directed-energy weapons, greatly expanding offensive and defensive envelopes.
In December 2017, it was reported that funding for the railgun program was languishing in favor of the conventional hypervelocity projectile (HVP) research project.14 Congress could not be making a bigger mistake. The HVP is estimated to have a range of 30 nm and a top speed of Mach 3, compared with 100 nm and Mach 6 for the prototype railgun. It is as if the military-industrial complex were arguing that bigger battleships, with thicker armor and larger guns, were still the best counter to Japanese carriers after 7 December 1941.
In today’s naval environment, achieving economic superiority leads to numerical superiority. New technology, not another iteration of a missile, is necessary to leap past the competition and avoid an expensive and futile antiship missile arms race.
1. See CDR L. Paul James, USN (Ret.), “Rethink Navy Ballistic Missile Defense,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings 145, no. 10 (October 2019).
2. “3M-54 Klub/Caliber SS-N-27 Sizzler,” globalsecurity.org.
3. Wendy Minnick, “China Puts Guam within Missile Range,” Defense News, 12 May 2016.
4. Joan Johnson-Freese and Ralph Savelsberg, “Why Russia Keeps Moving the Football on European Missile Defense,” Breaking Defense, 17 October 2013.
5. “3M55 Oniks/P-800 Yakhont/P-800 Bolid/SS-N-26,” globalsecurity.org.
6. Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Comptroller)/Chief Financial Officer, “Program Acquisition Cost by Weapon System: United States Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2018 Budget Request,” May 2017.
7. Sydney J. Freedberg Jr., “Pit LRASM against Tomahawk for Anti-Ship Missile: VADM Aucoin,” Breaking Defense, 5 August 2015.
8. Alex Hempel, “The SM-2, SM-3, SM-6, ESSM, and RAM: A Guide to U.S. Naval Air Defense Missiles,” whitefleet.net, updated 15 June 2017.
9. Vitaliy O. Pradun, “From Bottle Rockets to Lightning Bolts: China’s Missile Revolution and PLA Strategy against U.S. Military Intervention,” Naval War College Review 64, no. 2 (2011): 6.
10. Lauren Dickey, “Chinese Animators Envision a Future War in Asia—and Blow Up the Internet,” The National Interest, 5 September 2015. The video is available at https://news.qq.com/zt2015/ddzy/index.htm?tu_biz=184.108.40.206. Pay special attention at 2:17 in the video; it depicts a DF-21 salvo attack on a U.S. carrier strike group resulting in massive damage.
11. Hunter Stires, “The Navy Is Teaching This Old Missile Some New (and Deadly) Tricks,” The National Interest, 12 August 2018.
12. Military and Aerospace Electronics, “America’s Powerful Tomahawk Cruise Missile Is Getting a New Upgrade,” The National Interest, 31 August 2019.
13. Steven Stashwick, “U.S. Navy to Re-Fit Tomahawk Cruise Missiles to Attack Ships,” The Diplomat, 14 September 2017.
14. Jared Keller, “The Navy’s Much-Hyped Electromagnetic Railgun May End Up Dead In the Water,” taskandpurpose.com, 4 December 2017.