The United States Navy is outgunned and outranged by China. The manned surface force and carrier air wing cannot get close enough to China to fight without taking significant risks against increasingly potent forts, while the less vulnerable submarine force can do only so much. Manned missile platforms tend to be expensive—and, therefore, few. What is more, these platforms need to first sail, fly, or stage deep inside dangerous territory to fire, then retreat thousands of miles to reload. Conventional deterrence against China steadily erodes and the risk of miscalculation grows, as the entire joint force struggles to maintain credible combat power within this increasingly contested environment. The Navy needs a better way to distribute weapons, to arm far more platforms, and to quickly reload in forward locations.
Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Gilday emphasizes that “the future fleet has to include a mix of unmanned,” because “we can’t continue to wrap $2 billion ships around 96 missile tubes in the numbers we need to fight in a distributed way, against a potential adversary that is producing capability and platforms at a very high rate of speed.”
The Navy can inject this sort of survivable offensive firepower by arming its modest sensor platforms with a powerful but adaptable and highly mobile weapons system. The missiles exist and the unifying battle network is maturing; what’s lacking is a way to integrate these missiles with their abundant, affordable, and often expendable hosts. The Hydra Redux concept would unite missiles and underarmed maritime platforms through a buoyant and platform-agnostic launch capsule. This proposal would revisit a proven launch technology to create a powerful and widely-deployable weapons system. The Navy should aggressively update this forgotten launch technology, regaining both offensive reach and conventional deterrence.
Past as Prologue
Many of the recent tactical and operational challenges that seem especially novel have strong echoes of the Cold War: Distributing firepower in response to a peer competitor’s precision fires is nothing new. The missile-basing debate of the late 1970s and early 1980s sought to maintain a credible but affordable nuclear deterrent despite the “improving accuracy of Soviet missiles,” which increasingly threatened U.S. intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) in their silos. Congress examined 11 different basing proposals for the experimental missile that became the LGM-118 Peacekeeper, then widely known as “MX.” Three of the ultimately rejected proposals would have placed the missiles at sea in waterproof launch capsules.
These concepts differed mainly in the nature of the launch platforms. First, General Dynamics’ ORCA concept would have placed encapsulated missiles with acoustic modems directly on the seabed. Second, Hydra Corporation proposed a fleet of globe-circling merchant ships to carry the new missiles. Third, the Shallow Underwater Missile would have clamped the encapsulated ballistic missiles onto small diesel submarines. All three concepts would have stored and ejected the massive, 97-ton, 71-foot-long missiles horizontally, using buoyancy to orient them for vertical launch from the sea surface.
Although the launch technology worked well enough, each concept had other serious flaws: ORCA would have violated the 1971 Seabed Arms Control Treaty, to say nothing of the fact that is also had a fragile command-and-control mechanism, mediated as it was through an underwater acoustic modem. Soviet forces would likely track and then capture or destroy Hydra’s merchant ships and their sensitive cargo, undermining its deterrent potential. Critics pointed out the Shallow Underwater Missile’s new diesel submarines would have cost too much and taken too long to build. Interservice competition played a role, too: The Air Force was not about to let the Navy steal its newest missile and take yet another leg of the nuclear triad to sea. In the end, the Air Force deployed the LGM-118 Peacekeeper in legacy missile silos, while the sea-launch concepts faded into Cold War curiosities.
. . . From the Sea (with Distributed Missiles)
Hydra Redux would take the basic Hydra concept and apply it to conventional strike and antiship missiles. It could quickly deploy small, encapsulated sea-launched missile systems from a variety of surface and subsurface vessels, both manned and unmanned. Like any number of modern missile rounds, each deployable Hydra Redux missile would fire from a sealed canister, in this case ejected from its host into the water. This canister would have a robust outer steel shell, like its predecessors, to cope with the pressure of direct submersion. To help make Hydra Redux independent of any specific host platform, it would incorporate smart umbilical adapters to present standard data and power interfaces, regardless of the missile inside. These could include cruise missiles (such as the Naval Strike Missile, Harpoon, and Tomahawk) and tactical ballistic missiles (such as the legacy Army Tactical Missile System or the follow-on Precision Strike Missile). A larger capsule could even handle the hypersonic glide weapon, whose massive two-stage booster (34.5-inch diameter) is too big for the Navy’s Mk 41 and Mk 57 vertical launch systems.
Most small surface vessels would carry the encapsulated missiles in deck-mounted launch cradles, similar to those used for launching torpedoes from PT boats. Most semisubmersibles and undersea vessels would also mount the capsules externally, akin to both the Shallow Underwater Missile concept and to how certain midget submarines once carried torpedoes. Some larger undersea vessels could carry them within payload bays.
Nearly all missiles interact with their launch platforms through very specific connections and software protocols. Many of the proposed missiles have never been integrated with the range of platforms that could carry Hydra Redux, and so they would need an adapter umbilical to present a consistent interface to all launch platforms while feeding the missile’s power, targeting data, and other data requirements. This adapter would continue to control and interface with the missile in the tens of seconds after being ejected from the host vessel and until the rocket booster fired. DARPA has already started working on such an adapter under the heading of “Distributed Fires,” which budget justifications describe as a “modular launcher unit [that] would provide the communications link and pass along targeting commands to the onboard stores.”
To account for the wide variety of missiles, launch platforms, and launch depths, the sea launch sequence for Hydra Redux would differ somewhat from the legacy concepts for launching a massive, 100-ton missile. Capsules jettisoned from a platform at or near the surface would sink to a preset depth, before de-ballasting and then rising quickly to the surface, while those jettisoned below this set depth would de-ballast immediately and rise to the surface with the same buoyant urgency. This rising water launch profile would dynamically stabilize the capsule for a vertical launch, no matter the sea state, and shoot the capsule clear of the surface before firing the missile booster.
The concept of weapons employment would be determined largely by the host platform and its level of connectivity with the tactical network, which would determine the degree of command-and-control responsiveness available. For example, underwater platforms with periodic communications, such as the Navy’s Large Diameter Unmanned Underwater Vehicle, might strike targets far inland by launching long-range missiles deep inside any area-denial system’s perimeter. The remote operator could order the underwater craft to conduct such an attack hours or even days beforehand, leaving the unmanned platform to swim autonomously to the launch site, fire, and then return. Aside from the timescale, this operator in the loop model matches how unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have employed weapons for decades.
At the other end of the spectrum, platforms in continual contact with the tactical command-and-control network could employ Hydra Redux missiles against emerging and time-sensitive targets. A medium unmanned surface vehicle could haul ballistic missiles or hypersonic glide weapons in company of a destroyer, firing these potent weapons under remote control – again, much like existing UAVs. Exposing a small mast and nothing else, covert semisubmersible unmanned vessels could loiter near chokepoints, each one mounting a few encapsulated antiship cruise missiles. Targeting data and launch command could arrive directly from a small force of Marines on the next island, a section of F-35s overhead, or remotely from a command center, relayed via atmosat, satellite, or maritime unmanned aircraft. However the launch commands might come, these fractional and expendable arsenal ships could jettison their capsules to launch a massed, multiaxis attack against enemy surface forces in the kill zone.
Hydra Redux would also allow small, manned platforms to be upgunned into instant missile boats. Undergunned Coast Guard cutters such as the Sentinel-class fast response cutters could mount missile capsules on deck cradle launchers on each side of the aft superstructure. Even the Navy’s diminutive Mk VI patrol boats could haul several Hydra Redux rounds on the aft boat deck, ready to sprint forward and slide the rounds over the stern ramp. Because the modular character of the Hydra Redux weapons system would allow the vessels to transform quite literally overnight, these latent missile boats could still conduct normal peacetime missions without the extensive modification, added weight, and raised center of gravity that come with permanent deck-mounted launchers. Furthermore, Hydra Redux would allow these vessels to carry and launch much larger missiles than they otherwise could.
Safety and Logistics
Contemporary vertical launch missile systems hold dozens of closely packed warheads atop sensitive rocket motors, and while this ready-to-fire magazine configuration has tremendous warfighting potential and flexibility for surface combatants, it also incurs real safety risks and demands expensive mitigations. Hydra Redux, on the other hand, would always deploy encapsulated missile rounds in a ready-to-jettison configuration. Just like an aircraft in flight, these vessels could simply jettison their Hydra Redux rounds during emergencies. Each capsule would be programmed with one of five pre-planned responses, as a function of location, hostilities, and likelihood of friendly recovery.
- Jettison and float would safely permit weapon recovery after a shipboard emergency, such as a shipboard fire in home waters.
- Jettison, sink, and crush would immediately zeroize electronics upon disconnect from the host platform, and then detonate small scuttling charges after a set time to allow overwhelming water pressure to destroy the missile capsule and contents.
- Jettison, sink, and detonate would more thoroughly destroy the missile components, preventing enemy recovery and exploitation of sensitive technology, but this option could also hazard friendly submarines and undersea infrastructure.
- Self-destruct in place would detonate the missile warhead on board an unmanned vessel to prevent exploitation by a hostile boarding party. This option would help deter future boardings.
- Use or Lose/Return to Sender would launch the weapon against an accessible secondary target from the joint integrated prioritized target list in the event the host vessel suffered battle damage or sank en route and could not reach its planned launch position, putting its primary target out of range.
Loading and reloading encapsulated missiles on many of these platforms could be accomplished quickly in port or with a bit more finesse at sea. In any case, reloading a Hydra Redux round would be a far quicker and easier operation than the delicate crane operation needed to reload the vertical launch system on a cruiser or destroyer.
An Urgent Operational Requirement
Hydra Redux would allow the Navy to quickly, cheaply, and easily inject more weapons into contested areas, on a wider variety of platforms, and with a more widely distributed pattern of deployment. All this would help the Navy regain offensive naval reach and reestablish credible conventional deterrence. The Navy should dust off the archives and bring the Hydra back to life.