In the November 2019 Proceedings, Lieutenant Commander James Turnwall, U.S. Navy Reserve, makes a number of excellent points in his article “The Navy Is Losing the Missile Arms Race” as he presents a bleak case for the surface navy’s survival in a battle against peers. His final point is the salient one: Adversaries know how many missiles the Navy’s ships can carry and are able to saturate them in multiple ways. They have studied the Navy’s designs, capacities, and tactics, and developed counters intended to overwhelm them.
But his proposed solution is mistaken. The notion that the only solution to the missile problem is more missiles is an oversimplification. Other options are available, at least against some targets. And returning to funding “future technologies”—railguns and directed-energy weapons such as lasers—is only part of what the Navy needs to do. The United States has invested in such technology at various rates since the 1950s, with a specific naval focus on the electromagnetic railgun (EMRG) and the laser weapon system (LaWS) for several decades. The Navy started considering these weapons in the 1980s in conjunction with the concept of designing and building an all-electric fleet. But even now, 30-plus years later, full operational capability for such systems remains possibly decades away.
As I have previously written, I do not oppose investing in these future weapons, but a sound investment strategy should not be hostage to an either-or proposition when balancing investment decisions with improvements to existing systems and platforms. The current situation, in which ship commanders see multimillion-dollar missiles as their only option, exists because we have not been creative enough with the other systems—the 5-inch guns, 20-mm close-in weapon systems (CIWS), 57-mm Bofors guns, and box launchers for smaller missies. As wars in the Middle East and Southwest Asia wind down, we should move away from the high-risk/high-reward investment strategy in advanced weapon development and turn some attention to improvements in these more basic systems to help overcome the missile threat.
Lessons from the Past
The phrase “if you want a new idea read an old book” is attributed to several people, but I first heard it from one of my mentors, General Alfred M. Gray, 29th Commandant of the Marine Corps. So, to frame the argument, let’s take a lesson from the histories of World War II operations in the Pacific Theater. This was the last time a peer adversary applied a tactic intended to saturate and overwhelm our ships’ ability to defend themselves: kamikazes.
The suicide-attack kamikaze aircraft emerged near the end of World War II, initially during the Battle of Leyte Gulf in October 1944. The Japanese employed this desperate approach when they realized they could not train and produce pilots fast enough for the fighter-aircraft combat characterized by earlier operations in the Pacific. Kamikaze tactics were designed to saturate and overcome U.S. fighter screens, recognizing that better-trained U.S. pilots would be able to shoot down many—but not all—enemy aircraft. The Japanese hoped the survivors of the fighter engagements would be sufficient to overcome ships’ self-defense weapons, or at least remain intact enough that they could crash into and severely damage or sink the ship. In essence, the Japanese turned brave, partially trained volunteers into the predecessor of guided missiles. (See “Operation Iceberg’s Mixed Legacy” for more on this.) They hoped to saturate and overwhelm the slower-moving ships.
Ultimately, however, the kamikazes were defeated, but not by any single hoped-for “wonder weapon” that could sweep the skies clean. They were defeated by a combination of weapons systems that collectively overcame the suicide bombers. In short, combined arms overcame saturation tactics. Once the “leakers” were past the fighter screens, every available ship’s weapon was used to shoot them down: deck-mounted .30- and .50-cal machine guns; 40-mm antiaircraft “ack ack” guns; and 3-, 5- and 8-inch guns, all engaging at various ranges and with various effects in a layered defense.
Application to Today
A combination of the weapon systems and onboard launchers already installed on ships and aircraft could change the calculus for adversary saturation tactics, if not defeat them, with improved munitions. It is easier to develop new munitions for existing launchers than to develop entirely new combinations of launchers and munitions. It is possible to develop the next-generation layered defense in three to five years if the Navy chooses—and that investment does not have to be massive, nor should it dramatically affect investment in more advanced, novel weapons. New munitions can improve ship-defense capabilities in the near term, provide a graceful transition pathway to whatever advanced weapons eventually become available.
In addition to vertical launching system (VLS) and the guns and box launchers already mentioned, most combatants also have the BAE Mk 36 Super Rapid Bloom Offboard Countermeasures for launching chaff and decoys. Many ships also have helicopter deck space that could be used to launch weaponized unmanned aerial systems (UASs). All these options could be resupplied under way. Furthermore, the number of missiles in VLS can be increased through multipack cannisters in cells, such as the quad-packed Rim-162 Evolved Seasparrow Missile. Simple concepts for adding near-term options exist, such as firing the Marines’ High-mobility Artillery Rocket System from the decks of amphibious ships or a BAE Systems’ bolt-on adaptable deck launcher
If the Navy leverages all available potential launchers and adds antimissile/UAS options to the existing aircraft capabilities, it is possible to increase the number of antiair weapons not marginally but by orders of magnitude. Of course, the question of effectiveness remains: Can any or all of these capabilities prove valuable, or would the Navy just be spraying more metal into the air and hoping to hit something as in World War II?
We have already started addressing that question within the Naval Surface Warfare Centers (NSWC) and Naval Air Warfare Center (NAWC) Divisions. A few years ago, Navy energetics experts at NSWC Indian Head (Maryland) EOD Technology Division (IHEODTD) and NAWC Weapons Division in China Lake (California) gathered to address capability gaps identified though more than 200 interviews with operational, requirements, acquisition, and experimentation experts. The result was the 2017 Energetics Renaissance (ER) Strategy, which proposed improvements to conventional energetics technologies, just as Lieutenant Commander Turnwall describes how potential adversaries have proven such improvements are feasible. The Navy’s experts addressed the highest priority capability gaps with the greatest potential payoffs, and proposed a variety of technology concepts. From advanced performance within insensitive munitions limits; obsolescence replacements and logistics reductions; clandestine applications of energetics; integrated energetics with artificial intelligence/“smart” systems technologies; to integrated energetics and sensing systems. These experts developed a prioritized, multi-generation strategy with technology roadmaps to begin development of these improvements. Finally, they used these roadmaps to develop an investment strategy leading to the realization of these improvements. The investment strategy calls for a few tens of millions of dollars increases per year, a small fraction (less than 3 percent) of the annual naval research and development investment in weapon systems.
In an ER-related offshoot called the “Joint Enhanced Naval Gunnery Assessment” (JENGA), energetics and naval gun weapons and systems experts from IHEODTD and NSWC Dahlgren Division (Virginia) explored potential improvements to the range, speed, lethality, sensing/targeting, and reliability of the more than 100 5-inch gun weapon systems installed on Navy ships. Using internal research and development resources, they developed and successfully tested several novel concepts, one of which was an improved 5-inch round optimized for small naval craft.
At the time, the fast-attack craft/fast inshore-attack craft (FAC/FIAC) threat was a high-priority for surface ship defense. Based on the results of physical testing, the experts modeled effectiveness against a FAC/FIAC swarm, with the results showing an improved round could have devastating effects. They also modeled the effectiveness of this round against subsonic cruise missiles, and demonstrated an increase in effectiveness compared to existing 5-inch rounds. Experts involved in the development estimated that similar design features optimized against air targets (either missiles or UASs) rather than surface craft could improve effectiveness of 5-inch guns by perhaps an order of magnitude, to the point of providing a high probability of kill with a few rounds.
Return to a Well-diversified Naval Lethality Portfolio
These examples demonstrate that the lack of a robust energetics ecosystem has resulted in fewer innovations and improvements to existing weapon systems, but the Navy can overcome that deficiency. Our focus on counterinsurgency operations in the Middle East has resulted in a decreased readiness for a high-end fight. The rise of two great power competitors quickly revealed our trailing position in the race regarding the performance of our conventional energetics-driven munitions. By relatively modest investment, however, we can get back into the race with a good chance of catching up though substantial improvements to existing platforms. Putting all of your retirement funds in a single high-return stock or sector is a risky proposition; wealth advisors recommend a diversified portfolio to secure a better chance of success in any future environment. The analogy rings true for the Navy’s investment decisions in naval weapon systems.
The United States may well be losing the missile-defense race at present, but the race is far from over—and there are a many more options in it than just missiles. Advancements in “conventional” energetics will be an important part of a sound strategy alongside development of next-generation weapons. By leveraging both existing launch capabilities and future developments, the Navy can turn this race around in relatively short order and win it over the long term.