One area where the Pentagon is playing catchup with Russia and China
The Pentagon’s $583-billion budget proposal for fiscal year 2017, which the Defense Department released on Feb. 9, cuts back on new fighter jets, helicopters, warships and armored vehicles.
Military leaders say the reductions in equipment, valued at billions of dollars, would help pay for the wars in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. They would also cover U.S. troop deployments in the Western Pacific and Europe to counter an increasingly aggressive China and Russia, respectively.
But on examination it’s clear that the Pentagon is not cutting back on one particular type of weapon — indeed, it’s doubling down with hundreds of millions of dollars in new investment.
Anti-ship missiles. All of a sudden, it seems, destroying enemy warships is a top Pentagon priority.
In stark contrast to cuts in other weapons, the U.S. Navy proposes to buy no fewer than three different kinds of new munitions specifically designed to sink enemy warships at great distance. The new anti-ship weapons in the budget are stealthier, fly farther and faster and pack more destructive power than the Navy’s current arsenal.
The Navy’s crash acquisition of hundreds of long-range, ship-killing missiles reflects the sailing branch’s determination to outgun what Robert Work, the deputy defense secretary, described as “a resurgent Russia and a rising China” on the high seas.
Defense Secretary Ashton Carter, Work’s boss, laid out the argument. “We face competitors who are challenging us in the open ocean,” Carter said, “and we need to balance investment in those capabilities — advanced capabilities — in a way that we haven’t had to do for quite a while.”
During the Cold War, the Navy excelled at sinking enemy ships. It possessed two of the world’s best anti-ship missiles — the Harpoon and the Tomahawk.
The 13-foot, 1,500-pound Harpoon, launched by ship, submarine or airplane, can travel roughly 70 miles at wave-top height and slam into enemy vessels near their vulnerable waterlines.
The far larger Tomahawk — 20 feet long and weighing 3,000 pounds — can be fired from a ship or submarine. It can fly 600 miles before entering a circular search pattern, scanning for and then diving into its target.
With these two weapons, the U.S. Navy was prepared to engage Soviet warships if the Cold War had ever turned hot. But after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the U.S. fleet shifted its attention to land. It launched missile and air raids on Iraq, Serbia, Afghanistan, Iraq again, Libya and Syria, among others.
“The U.S. has been neglecting its anti-ship capabilities since at least the early 1990s,” Eric Wertheim, an independent naval analyst and author of Combat Fleets of the World, told Reuters. Confident that at-sea combat was history, the Navy decommissioned all its Tomahawk anti-ship missiles and removed Harpoons from many ships and planes.
The result: a gap in American naval power. U.S. ships were adept at hitting targets on land but on the high seas they were all but powerless. When the Chinese navy began its build-up in the early 2000s, and, a few years later, Russia began restoring its own neglected fleet, both countries exploited the American gap. Moscow and Beijing equipped their ships, subs and planes with a wide range of highly capable anti-ship missiles with greater range and destructive power than the aging Harpoon.
Russia’s 27-foot-long Klub missile, for example, can travel as far as 400 miles and, during the final moments of its flight, can boost to supersonic speeds to maximize the damage it inflicts on its target. China’s YJ-18 is roughly equivalent to the Klub and might even be an illicit copy of the Russian munition.
Russian and Chinese ships armed with the far-reaching Klubs or YJ-18s can shoot at American warships before the U.S. vessels within range can fire their older Harpoons, which puts the Americans at a serious disadvantage.
This imbalance persisted for years. Then in 2011, President Barack Obama announced that his administration would “pivot” to the Pacific and dedicate more military, diplomatic and economic resources to the region as a counterweight to China. In 2014, Russian troops invaded Ukraine, a de facto announcement of Russia’s return to great-power status.
The U.S. Navy realized it could no longer assume it would never have to wage a war at sea. It also realized that it lacked the weaponry to do so. A few old, short-range Harpoons would no longer suffice.
Working under the radar over several years, military engineers and their civilian defense-industry counterparts devised a wide range of new anti-ship weapons. The 2017 budget proposal pays for the first significant production of the three new munitions.
The Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM, is a sea-attack version of a cruise missile that Lockheed Martin developed for striking land targets. The 14-foot, 2,100-pound missile, launched by a ship or plane, has a range in excess of 200 miles, according to the military. And it’s stealthy: Its angular shape makes it hard for enemy ships to detect before it strikes.
The Pentagon’s 2017 budget proposal includes $30 million for the first 10 copies of this long-range missile.
The Navy also began experimenting with a new anti-ship version of the latest iteration of the Tomahawk, which is still the sailing branch’s primary weapon for attacking stationary land targets. In a January 2015 test off the California coastline, Navy and Raytheon engineers added a more sensitive tracker/seeker — one capable of following/honing in on a moving target — to a Tomahawk and launched it at a ship.
The test was an explosive success. Work, the deputy Defense secretary, called it a “game-changer.” “It’s a 1,000-mile anti-ship cruise missile,” he said in February 2015. “It can be used by practically our entire surface and submarine fleet.” The 2017 budget proposal buys another 100 Tomahawks for $187 million. Work said the Navy would modify all Tomahawks in its arsenal — hundreds or even thousands of missiles — with the new anti-ship seeker.
Then there’s the new SM-6. Twenty-one feet long and weighing 3,300 pounds, the Raytheon-manufactured missile is the Navy’s best missile interceptor. That is to say, it’s a missile designed to hit other missiles to protect ships, ground forces and even cities from attack.
In a surprise move that the Pentagon revealed as part of its budget proposal, the Navy and Raytheon tweaked the SM-6 software so that the missile can also target ships. The missile’s high speed — several times the speed of sound — gives it tremendous destructive power. The military hasn’t specified the SM-6’s range — how far it can fly — when it’s used as an anti-ship weapon, but it’s likely hundreds of miles. In any case, the budget includes $501 million to acquire 125 SM-6s.
Together, the three new weapons should begin to tilt the at-sea balance of power back in the U.S. Navy’s favor. “Of course, it would have been optimal if these issues had been addressed earlier,” Wertheim said, but “other priorities always seemed to win out.”
Now, however, the time for a new class of U.S. anti-ship weapons has finally arrived. If done right, they will help Washington blow the competition out of the water before they even know what’s coming.