January 10, 2018

Bringing Back the Battleships

Should we reactivate the battleships? That was a common question I got while tour-guiding, and I figured I should give a complete answer here.


Iowa moored in Los Angeles

In accordance with Betteridge’s Law of Headlines,1 my answer is no. Reactivating the battleships would be a waste of money and manpower. The military capability of the ships would be extremely low, and the cost would be excessive.

Most of the support for battleship reactivation comes from a misunderstanding of the reasons for the reactivation in the 1980s. Traditionally, this is believed to have been the result of either a need to counter the Soviet Kirov class, or a desire for heavy gunfire support platforms. Today, with the demise of the Soviet surface fleet, most support focuses around the later option. I've previously evaluated both options and shown them to have been flawed. Instead, the Iowas were brought back to provide more Tomahawk capability and to serve as capital ships, impressing friends and potential foes. The first role is entirely superfluous today. Ships routinely deploy with empty VLS cells, and the amount of work required to give an Iowa VLS was so excessive that it was rejected in the late 80s.2 The battleships were and are superb in the presence role, but in today's fiscal and strategic environment, there are many higher priorities.


USS Wayne E Meyer, an Arleigh Burke class destroyer

Not only was the bombardment mission insufficient to explain the reactivation in the 80s, it's become less and less relevant today. A traditional amphibious landing in the face of heavy opposition, a la Normandy or Iwo Jima, is never going to happen again. It would be a deathtrap in the face of determined opposition. The USMC has spent the past 50+ years figuring out new and exciting ways of putting troops ashore where the enemy isn’t, using helicopters and hovercraft, and the 20-mile range of Iowa’s guns is entirely inadequate to support such an attack.


A Marine Cobra and a Landing Craft Air-Cushion

The other major problem with the bombardment mission, whether in support of an amphibious landing or just against something the US wants blown up, is the increasing precision available from other weapons. In the 80s, smart bombs were expensive, and shells were cheap. Today, we’re less accepting of collateral damage, and the cost of guided weapons has plummeted. A single modern smart bomb is capable of taking out targets that used to take entire air raids, or salvoes from a battleship.


A Small Diameter Bomb

A good candidate for a ship-based bombardment weapon would be to adapt the Ground-Launched Small Diameter Bomb for naval use, potentially quad-packing it into VLS cells. This would allow us to turn any ship with VLS capability into a bombardment platform, instead of being forced to rely on a few battleships. The SDB is a 250 lb GPS-guided glide bomb, intended for attacking targets where minimal collateral damage is required. It's a favored weapon for attacks on light targets, and the variant in question can reach out nearly 80 miles and attack targets the battleship guns could never reach. It could also be developed for a fraction of the cost of reactivating even one Iowa, and the SDB itself is fairly cheap. For targets too hard for the SDB, either Tomahawks or any of a multitude of air-launched weapons could be used.


Iowa being reactivated

Now what about the costs and obstacles? I don’t have a firm estimate of reactivation costs, but my best guess is that it would be above $2 billion per ship, more than a new Burke.3 Much of the infrastructure and knowledge necessary to operate the ships has been lost. When she was selected for reactivation in 1981, New Jersey had only been out of active service for 12 years. It’s been over twice that long now since Missouri retired, and much of the supporting infrastructure, such as shells and spare gun barrels, was scrapped in 2006. Recently, what I believe to be the last batch of 16" shells was put up for disposal.


USS Sacramento

Moreover, many of the systems that were still in service on other ships in the 80s have since become obsolete. The machinery from one of the canceled Iowas, USS Kentucky (BB-66) was used on two fast replenishment ships, USS Sacramento and USS Camden. These ships provided the nucleus of the reactivation crews for the machinery in the 80s, but were retired in 2004 and 2005 respectively.


USS Wasp

The problems with engine reactivation go beyond the specific machinery. Recent decades have seen oil-fired steam plants almost totally disappear from USN service. With the exception of the Wasp class amphibious assault ships, and possibly a few old auxiliaries, the fleet is now driven by either nuclear plants, gas turbines, or diesels. The Boiler Technician (BT) rating was merged into Machinist Mate in 1996, and the support infrastructure for running boilers has been dismantled. The schools are closed, the shops have mostly had their equipment scrapped, and standing them back up would be unduly expensive for the few ships they'd support.4


USS Oklahoma City

Likewise, the 5”/38 guns were still in service on a few ships in the 80s, but the last, the missile cruiser Long Beach, was decommissioned in 1995.5 The main battery fire control system on the Iowas was the same as that on US gun cruisers, the last of which, Oklahoma City, had remained active until 1979. The Mk 37 for the secondary battery was still active on several modernized WWII destroyers until the early 80s. Obviously, this institutional knowledge is simply not present today.


Iowa's crew on deck, 1984

The biggest problem, though, is manpower. Personnel costs take up an increasing portion of military funding, and the Iowas were designed in an era where manpower was cheap. The 80s refit did what it could to solve this, but making major reductions past the ~1,500 crew onboard then would be prohibitively expensive or involve sacrificing significant capability.6 Based on numbers for the Arleigh Burke class destroyers, a typical crewmember costs the USN $80-90,000 each year in 2010 dollars. We'll round this to $100,000 per man to account for inflation. To run one Iowa is going to cost about $150 million in personnel costs alone, which is enough to pay all of the yearly operating costs for 3.4 Burkes. None of this takes into account the fact that the Iowas will not match the habitability of later ships, hurting retention, and that small, specialized units often suffer because there is not a good promotion path for those who gain the unique skills involved.


Iowa conducts underway replenishment from the ammunition ship Nitro

Besides manpower, the Iowas would need maintenance and fuel, and lots of both. During the 80s, the ships faced problems finding needed parts, and lots of parts were either custom-built or scavenged. This is another situation which will have gotten worse in the intervening decades. If we assume that these expenses scale proportional to hull size, then yearly maintenance alone will cost about as much as two more Burkes. I'm not going to attempt to untangle the math behind fuel usage, as I believe I've made my point.


An artist's rendering of the proposed Strike Cruiser from the 1970s7

The only real role a reactivated battleship would have is as a capital ship, for sending messages that the US is taking conflicts seriously. It's possible that our carriers are stretched too thin for this role, and that we need something cheaper than a carrier and more impressive than a Burke or a Ticonderoga to fill the gap. But if this is the case, then we should design and build such a ship from scratch. It might be slightly more expensive to build than a battleship reactivation, but the annual running cost will be much lower, and the military utility vastly higher.8

The challenges involved in bringing the Iowas out of their well-deserved retirements are significant, and the benefits we would get are minimal. Even advocates of increased defense spending should be able to think of better places to put money than a group of 75-year-old ships.


1 Any headline ending in a question mark can be answered with the word "no".

2 The armored box launchers they used when first in commission have all been retired.

3 Inflation-indexed reactivation costs from the 80s are in the $700 million-$1 billion per ship. They would need a lot more work now than they did then.

4 I'm not sure how they support the boilers on the Wasps, but from everything I've heard, they don't do it in a way that applies to the Iowas. The Wasps date to the late 80s, and I'd be very surprised if there hadn't been major advances in that time.

5 She actually seems to have lost her 5"/38s during a refit in the late 80s.

6 One example is loading supplies aboard. Modern vessels are designed to get food and other stores on pallets, which are then moved by forklift and struck down using elevators. Striking down supplies on Iowa involved forming a long chain of sailors and passing them down one box at a time.

7 This is the closest the US has gotten to building a large surface warship in the modern era, hence the picture.

8 Just to be clear, I'm not really advocating for this. I'm pointing out that even at the one role the battleships are incontestably good at, there are better and cheaper ways to achieve the objective. Whether or not we need to fill that role is another question entirely.

Comments

  1. January 10, 2018Eltargrim said...

    So if the US were to develop a "show of force" ship that wasn't a carrier, what kind of specifications/features would you expect to see?

  2. January 10, 2018bean said...

    What features do I expect to see, or what features do I want to see?

    The answer to the former heavily depends on who drives the adoption of the ship. If it's some bizarre idea out of Congress, goodness knows what we'll get. Probably a bigger Zumwalt, with lots and lots of guns and anything else they think is a good idea to cram in.

    If it's the ship I think would be most useful, here's a sketch:

    25,000 tons full load. The designers are told to make it look good. I'd go for the most impressive gun armament I can get cheaply. That might mean 2-4 AGS, like the Zumwalt. Even if the smart ammo doesn't work, the main point is to impress visitors. Otherwise, 4-6 5". Basically a Burke/Tico combat system, probably with some extra VLS cells. Decent air facilities, 2-4 helicopters. Use the remaining tonnage for good flagship facilities. These ships should be able to replace the Blue Ridge and Mount Whitney, as well as being good at presence roles.

  3. January 11, 2018Andrew Hunter said...

    Out of curiosity: One always hears about old decommissioned ships being scrapped for materials. Wikipedia happens to claim that CVN-80 will use recycled steel from the previous Enterprise, though I'm sure that's more for show than anything else.

    How much economic value is there in the corpse of an $8.5B (when new) carrier?

  4. January 11, 2018bean said...

    Well, the last carrier I heard of being sold (I think it was Ranger, but I can't promise that's correct) was sold for $1. But the contractor had to do the environmental cleanup. I have no clue how much profit they made on it.

  5. January 13, 2018Johan Larson said...

    How large a modern warship would it take to defeat a state-of-the-art battleship from mid-century, such as the Bismarck? I once suggested pitting a modern missile boat such as the FNS Hamina against the Bismarck, and was told that the Hamina's four RBS-15 SSMs wouldn't do more than scratch the paint on the Bismarck.

  6. January 13, 2018bean said...

    How large a modern warship would it take to defeat a state-of-the-art battleship from mid-century, such as the Bismarck?

    Define "defeat". Modern warships are set up to fight other modern warships, not battleships. If you want to actually sink the ship, then you need a submarine with heavy torpedoes. You could disable it by destroying the upperworks with missiles.

    I once suggested pitting a modern missile boat such as the FNS Hamina against the Bismarck, and was told that the Hamina’s four RBS-15 SSMs wouldn’t do more than scratch the paint on the Bismarck.

    Depends on where they hit. My Big Book of Naval Weapons says 250 kg SAP warhead. I'd say that's going to be broadly equivalent to a 10"-12" shell in destructive effect, though nowhere near as good at penetrating armor. If you get a hit on the belt, they'll bounce. If you hit the superstructure, they'll do a lot of damage. Bismarck was disabled by mostly smaller-caliber (6" and 8") hits in the superstructure. Four missiles is fewer than I'd like, but I'd estimate a dozen or so hits would render Bismarck combat-ineffective.

Comments from SlateStarCodex:

  • bean says:

    On Naval Gazing: Bringing Back the Battleships. Specifically, why it’s a bad idea.

    • cassander says:

      ah, but what if we bring them back as amphibious assault battleships!

      • bean says:

        Cassander,
        That is only exceeded in stupidity by the designs which leave Turret III. The ship is basically rebuilt aft of the conning tower (seriously, why are they mucking about in the superstructure?), which is expensive. There will be serious weight and balance problems because of the loss of Turret III. See Ise and Hyuga for an example of this. And there’s the topweight issues of the flight deck and the stuff on it. And the problem that the ship as a whole is pretty full already. Where do the flight crews, maintenance staff, and Marines go?
        Wait…. Is that a twin-arm launcher FORWARD OF TURRET I? Leaving aside the fact that there isn’t space for the magazine there, can anyone tell me the big problem?
        Yes. Blast damage. Seriously, people?
        (Also, there are no guidance radars.)

        Also, it looks ugly. And it makes no sense. Let’s compare it to the USS America. The running cost should be broadly similar. (Actually, America will be a lot cheaper, but that’s not the important bit.) America cost $3.4 billion. My $2 billion estimate was for a fairly simple reactivation, so this conversion would probably equal or exceed America’s cost. And for what? Fewer helicopters, fewer Marines, worse access.

        Digging into my reference books, this looks to be pretty closely based on an early 60s proposal to convert the Iowas into Commando Ships (sort of proto-LPHs). The twin-arm launcher was supposed to be an ASROC (weird, but almost understandable) and the conning tower looks like it was supposed to be replaced, which didn’t happen on that model. The design almost got approved, and might have if not for the squeeze that Polaris put on the Navy’s budget. But it’s a lot less attractive today, because you can’t cram 1,800 Marines onboard with modern habitability standards, and the ships have been out of service for about three times as long as they had been when it was mooted.

        • cassander says:

          Oh, I know. It’s not a good idea. It wasn’t even a good idea in the 60s. It just amuses me.

          • bean says:

            If the numbers given in Friedman had worked out, it might have been a good choice then, actually. But I suspect they wouldn’t have been quite that good, and the situation has changed a lot since then.

            Also, a correction. This appears to be a similar 80s scheme, with the intention of carrying Harriers. Lightly loaded, they would have been used for spotting for the main guns and Tomahawk batteries. Which makes absolutely no sense at all.

          • cassander says:

            @bean

            how could they possibly have thought that was a good use for harriers? Putting aside that they already had RQ-2s, and that helicopters would be better at the job, using a fully combat capable fighter for that is insanely extravagant even by the standards of the US military. They must have been intended for air defense as well.

          • bean says:

            how could they possibly have thought that was a good use for harriers?

            Beats me. I’m just reporting what Dulin & Garzke had to say about the design. The person who dreamt it up was apparently one of the advocates of the guns in the fire support role, and it’s pretty obvious what I think of that.

            Putting aside that they already had RQ-2s

            This was part of Phase II, which was cancelled fairly quickly. I don’t think RQ-2 was on the table at that time.

            and that helicopters would be better at the job

            For the guns, yes. Maybe not if you’re planning on playing with TASM, but that’s what the OTH-T is for.

            using a fully combat capable fighter for that is insanely extravagant even by the standards of the US military.

            Yep. Hence my derision.

            They must have been intended for air defense as well.

            The radar-equipped Harrier didn’t even start development until 1987, well after Phase II was dead. A visual-only Harrier with Sidewinders is not a particularly good air-defense fighter. It was a stupid idea on all levels.

          • John Schilling says:

            You all are forgetting that the 16″ gun is such an awesome weapon that the Marines will be able to simply walk in and take over, the enemy’s morale having been utterly shattered along with his bunkers and his bodies by that awesome ballistic awesomeness. But without 16″ guns firing in support, the Marines are doomed, DOOMED!, because the pansy girlie-man weapons of the modern navy simply don’t have the raw bunker- and morale-shattering awesome awesomeness of the only true fire support weapon, the 16″ gun.

            At least, I think that was the theory.

          • bean says:

            At least, I think that was the theory.

            Pretty much. But that does raise the question of why they planned to remove 33% of the 16″ guns to make this mod.

            (Also, the obvious counterargument is that it didn’t work all that well on the Japanese.)

    • gbdub says:

      What would a modern warship designed to optimally fill a battleship-type role look like? It would need to be:
      1) Large and very powerful (probably nuclear powered?), able to keep up with supercarriers
      2) Primarily a surface combatant / fire support platform (but with sufficient self-defense AA resources)
      3) Survivable – able to either avoid or absorb significant hits from modern anti-ship weapons

      I’m guessing it would not have big guns, other than maybe something like what they were talking about for Zumwalt (long range precision shells, one or two guns). Would it be significantly armored? Is there any point to significant armor anymore (that seems to be one of the biggest knocks against the “battleship” in modern warfare – so much deadweight steel being hauled around to defend against weapons that no longer exist)?

      • James C says:

        You know, I might even point at the nuclear submarine as the modern successor. If my fairly scant knowledge holds up, they’re a primarily anti-warship platform (leaving aside the nuclear deterent boats) to which vessels of other types have little ability to threaten. While they are very different constructions, their place in operations seems quite similar on the face of things.

        • bean says:

          Indeed. The role of the battleship is split between the SSN and the CVN these days, and while there might be some room to build big surface ships, trying to build a ‘modern battleship’ is not a particularly good way to get something useful.

      • bean says:

        What would a modern warship designed to optimally fill a battleship-type role look like?

        What do you mean when you say “battleship-type role”? I’m not trying to be difficult, because it’s a very important question. If you’re trying to replace the battleship in its original role, build a carrier. Those have taken over as the sea-control capital ship. (Alternatively, build an SSN. Depends on exactly what you want to do.)
        If you’re trying to replace the role they had in the 80s, then I’d say ~25,000 tons, good looking, fairly standard AEGIS fit, and fleet flag facilities, so you also can replace the LCCs. Probably a relatively heavy gun armament to impress visitors (4-6 of the biggest guns you can get cheaply, and they don’t even have to work that well).
        You seem to be looking for a ship which has the traits of a battleship, but those are incidental to role, and don’t make that much sense today. Aircraft, submarines, and maybe LRASM from VLS are the way to go for surface strike. Fire support has loads of options, none of which need heavy guns. And there are better ways to get survivability than armor, so we should probably leave it off.

        Edit:
        To expand on this slightly, let’s consider the question “What would a modern warship designed to optimally fill a galley-type role look like?”
        Either it would look like a galley made of steel and we’d all point and laugh, or it would look like a destroyer because that’s what it is. The battleship’s role is better filled by other ships, and attempting to bring back something identifiable as a battleship is basically spending the defense budget on LARPing that it’s 80 years ago. This isn’t a notably better idea than LARPing that it’s 800 years ago, although it’s somewhat more obvious in the second case what we’re doing.

        • gbdub says:

          To clarify, I’m not saying such a ship would be a good idea or a good use of reaources (indeed, this exercise might show that the best possible ship isn’t that good).

          Basically, I want a surface combatant designed to plausibly defeat any and all other surface combatants, and to survive attacks from the same. Basically a pure Dreadnought, with modern weapons and defenses.

          • bean says:

            OK, so you do want to LARP. John basically covered this one. (I’ve been reading a lot about strategy and fleet design lately for upcoming columns, so I tended to think in those terms.)

          • gbdub says:

            I’m honestly not sure how harsh being dismissed as “LARPing” should be taken from you (or anyone on this blog for that matter) 😉

          • bean says:

            It’s not intended to be harsh unless you start lobbying people to build it. It’s interesting enough to look at, so long as everyone understands that we’re not serious.
            (I may have read too much about people making stupid procurement decisions lately, so I’m coming down kind of hard on this stuff. I suspect that nobody important to defense procurement reads SSC Open Threads, and I really should lighten up.)

      • John Schilling says:

        The singular requirement for a battleship is that it be very, very hard to sink. That goes back to the old “line of battle” concept that gave battleships their name – lose one, and you’ve got a gap in your formation that means you lose the whole battle and maybe the war, so there’s a minimum standard that a ship has to meet or you just won’t include it in the line of battle at all. This becomes even more important if we don’t have lines of battle but rather task forces built around a single capital ship.

        I’ve argued elsewhere that even at the height of the dreadnought age, it wasn’t citadels of impenetrable armor that actually kept battleships from sinking but size and damage tolerance, meaning compartmentalization and redundancy, reserve buoyancy and stability margins, and more damage control capability than you ever thought you’d need (no, still more than that). Against modern weapons, you probably will want splinter protection everywhere (particularly the antennas), but not much more than that. Maybe a modest armored deck at the waterline, as with the old “protected cruisers”.

        Mostly, survivability is going to come from a very robust air and missile defense system. The Aegis system on modern US destroyers and cruisers would be a good place to start, but has inadequate redundancy and the directors can’t really be armored. There are roughly equivalent systems abroad, as well. Make a hardened, redundant version of one of those, and back it up with lots of point-defense systems, not just a couple of RD-D2s. Laser weapons are a wild card, but might be the thing that makes battleships practical in the 21st century.

        Then figure out how you’re going to do torpedo defense, which people mostly have clever unproven ideas on.

        Then figure out what you’re going to do with your big, expensive, nigh-unsinkable, expensive ship that doesn’t yet have a mission to justify the great and terrible expense.

        • gbdub says:

          That’s roughly what I was looking for, thanks.

          The problem seems to be that such a ship could basically only plausibly built as more than a one-off by the USN, and apart from the USN there aren’t really any fleets to justify turning such a beast loose on.

          Does the equation change at all if there were a peer or near-peer blue water navy to fight? Or is it still just supercarriers and subs as the premier anti-fleet platforms?

          • John Schilling says:

            The problem seems to be that such a ship could basically only plausibly built as more than a one-off by the USN, and apart from the USN there aren’t really any fleets to justify turning such a beast loose on.

            The Chinese could afford to build 3-4 of them. The Soviet Union used to be able to, and that’s sort of what lead to the Kirovs, but the Russian economy has not and may not recover to that point again. Then again, maybe they will.

            Doesn’t mean they will make battleships, because it might be that a mix of SSNs and CVNs can cover the same missions better and cheaper. That’s probably the way to bet at present, but if you tell me that someone is going to build a “battleship” in the next decade that’s where I’d bet on it coming from.

          • bean says:

            Does the equation change at all if there were a peer or near-peer blue water navy to fight? Or is it still just supercarriers and subs as the premier anti-fleet platforms?

            If you want to focus on anti-ship, build submarines. Carriers are decent at fighting other ships and very good at projecting power. I can’t see why this would be better than lots of LRASMs in the VLS cells of conventional escorts. Kirov is a bit of an odd duck, but I’m still trying to wrap my head around the Soviet Navy in general.

          • John Schilling says:

            Submarine dominance in naval warfare depends on a set of assumptions that may not prove valid in the future. That, plus submarines being nearly useless for show-of-force missions, could well lead to someone hedging their bets in the way the Russians did with the Kirovs.

          • gbdub says:

            I can’t see why this would be better than lots of LRASMs in the VLS cells of conventional escorts.

            Presumably survivability, but if the answer is “any hit(s) from modern anti-ship weapons on any plausible surface ship will be at least a mission kill” then LRASMs distributed across multiple ships could certainly be better than concentrating them into a single larger platform.

            Really this was just thinking about whether such a thing would even be plausible/possible. For a long time the primary mission of capital ships was to sink other capital ships, and in modern warfare that is not really the case (carriers and SSBNs are all about power projection, meanwhile SSNs and various anti-ship platforms are designed to sink capital ships but aren’t themselves really capital ships).

          • bean says:

            @John

            Submarine dominance in naval warfare depends on a set of assumptions that may not prove valid in the future.

            The same is true of any weapon proposed. Water has proved remarkably difficult to see through, so I’ll bet on the submarine as being quite potent for a long time to come.

            That, plus submarines being nearly useless for show-of-force missions, could well lead to someone hedging their bets in the way the Russians did with the Kirovs.

            AIUI, the Kirovs were intended to be the flagships of Bastion-protection forces way up north. That sort of requires a surface ship, and some of the size and propulsion choices were a result of Soviet tech being big and power-hungry. Also, the seas are really rough up there. I could see the US building something of approximately that size for presence/flagship missions, but I wouldn’t really call it a battleship successor.

            @gbdub

            Presumably survivability, but if the answer is “any hit(s) from modern anti-ship weapons on any plausible surface ship will be at least a mission kill” then LRASMs distributed across multiple ships could certainly be better than concentrating them into a single larger platform.

            I wouldn’t say that, but I do think that the trends today are definitely such that 3 ships of 10,000 tons apiece are a better choice than one of 25,000.

            Really this was just thinking about whether such a thing would even be plausible/possible. For a long time the primary mission of capital ships was to sink other capital ships, and in modern warfare that is not really the case (carriers and SSBNs are all about power projection, meanwhile SSNs and various anti-ship platforms are designed to sink capital ships but aren’t themselves really capital ships).

            Aviation allowed naval forces to develop power projection in a way previously impossible. There was no equivalent to the cruise missile in Nelson’s or Jellicoe’s day. I can’t say I’m surprised that this has played rather heavily with the categories.

        • bean says:

          Make a hardened, redundant version of one of those, and back it up with lots of point-defense systems, not just a couple of RD-D2s.

          Nitpick: The big problem with doing that is that the installation of CIWS is apparently limited by electronic interference. (This is a surprisingly common problem on modern warships, and one of the main reasons that the BBG conversions never happened. They couldn’t fit that many more missile launchers than they could on a CG, and it would have been a lot more expensive.)
          That might well be a serious problem for the whole ship, actually.

          • John Schilling says:

            There’s no reason you can’t use electro-optical fire control for a PD-SAM or a CIWS, with no interference problem and probably not much degradation of performance outside of really horrid weather. The US military is biased towards absolute dominance of the EM spectrum and a reluctance to acknowledge that photons smaller than an inch across have any military relevance, but I think that’s a blind spot that may bite them in the future and a number of foreign systems (e.g. Kashtan, Millenium) have at least a secondary EO mode.

          • bean says:

            AIUI, those are OK, but not as reliable or effective as radar. I’ll check sources later for more details, but I think you probably seriously underrate how bad weather will affect them.

    • gbdub says:

      On another tangent – it seems like the USN has an anti-ship missile gap. We’re puttering around with Harpoons, relatively short range subsonic weapons that would take several shots to take out any sort of sizable warship, even if they could get past modern anti-missile defenses (which seems unlikely). Or Tomahawks, which are bigger but still slow and sound like they would have been pretty iffy from a targeting/guidance standpoint. LRASM is a bigger and more survivable weapon, but still subsonic (and only recently coming online).

      Meanwhile the various potential enemies have big supersonic missiles designed to at least put a very big hole in a supercarrier and sink anything smaller outright.

      How bad is this gap actually, and how much does it matter? The problems of targeting being what they are, are the adversaries actually dangerous weapon systems, or just scary missiles that would be lucky to get an aimed shot off?

      • bean says:

        The problems I outlined in last Friday’s post are not unique to targeting carriers at all. With the demise of the Soviets, it’s made more and more sense to not worry about going after enemy ships with the surface fleet. And the world grows less tolerant of collateral damage all the time, so submarines and aircraft (which can get better locks on the target before firing) are the ASuW platforms of choice.

        The other issue is that the USN doesn’t face a symmetrical situation. Big ASMs are essentially an inferior substitute for aircraft, but we have aircraft. And I can’t think of very many supercarriers for us to shoot at, either, so we don’t need missiles designed to kill them.

        The problems of targeting being what they are, are the adversaries actually dangerous weapon systems, or just scary missiles that would be lucky to get an aimed shot off?

        More of the later. They’re potentially dangerous, but not nearly as dangerous as their proponents think.

      • cassander says:

        It does and it doesn’t. The harpoon is admittedly pretty lousy, but the USN doesn’t really have a lot of potential enemy ships to sink right now, so it doesn’t really need a good ASM. Should such enemies emerge, the US will still have its large fleet of submarines and carriers, both of which are perfectly good at sinking enemy ships.

        Heavy supersonic cruise missiles are big. the Shipwreck/Granit weighs 15,000lb and delivers a 1,500lb warhead compared to 3,000 and 1,000lb for a tomahawk, and 1,500 and 500 for a harpoon you can get about 4 tomahawks in a VLS cell big enough for one granit. I’d much rather stuff my surface ships full of many more defensive missiles than an enemy can possibly bring, dramatically reducing their PK, then use aircraft and subs to sink anything that needs sinking.

      • Andrew Hunter says:

        Assuming for the moment the planes don’t get shot down (we have reasonable air superiority and OPFOR doesn’t have US-quality AAW surface combatants [1]) what’s a carrier commanders’ best weapon system for sinking a surface combatant from the air? Harpoons are air-launchable, sure, but as you say they’re not that good. Do we have other good air launched munitions that could effectively sink a modern destroyer, even putting aside whether point defense would take them out?

        [1] For that matter, a question I’m not clear about: assuming for the moment everyone know where each other is, since you make it quite clear that’s a big deal: suppose the ComDesRon of CSG3 says something unflattering about CSG11’s commander’s mother, and in a fury he orders Nimitz’s air wing to sink CSG3’s surface combatants. (We’ll also assume Stennis does not get involved, so there’s no air-to-air component of this battle.) Could our F/A-18s get within strike range of CSG3, or would they get shot out of the sky pretty reliably by a hail of Standards?

        • cassander says:

          @Andrew Hunter

          Well, we will have LRASM shortly. And if the enemy is using their sensors, then EA-18s are supposedly capable of providing target quality data via passive listening and triangulation, which means you can use a whole bunch of other weapons, including air launched tomahawks. And if you can get relatively close, the SDB-II has an anti-moving target capability.

          • bean says:

            which means you can use a whole bunch of other weapons, including air launched tomahawks.

            Air-launched tomahawks? That’s not a thing. I do think TacTom has some anti-shipping capability, but they haven’t air-launched in ages.

            And if you can get relatively close, the SDB-II has an anti-moving target capability.

            SDB has a fairly absurd glide range. You don’t have to get that close.

          • cassander says:

            @bean

            You’re right of course, I was somehow getting the JASSM mixed up with the tomahawk.

        • bean says:

          what’s a carrier commanders’ best weapon system for sinking a surface combatant from the air? Harpoons are air-launchable, sure, but as you say they’re not that good.

          Actually, I think the Harpoon is a pretty good missile for what it’s intended for, which is hunting frigates/small destroyers. If you want to kill big ships, not so much, but we have LRASM coming for that.

          Do we have other good air launched munitions that could effectively sink a modern destroyer, even putting aside whether point defense would take them out?

          Cassander points out LRASM. Honestly, LGBs are probably what we’d use today. They don’t care that much if the target is moving, although you have to get closer than I’d want to use them.

      • John Schilling says:

        aircraft (which can get better locks on the target before firing) are the ASuW platforms of choice.

        Right, but for anyone who doesn’t have an aircraft carrier, “aircraft” may in this context default to “a helicopter or maybe an MPA”. Asking either of those to take on anything bigger than a corvette with their typical on-board weaponry is probably asking too much. If they can whistle up a couple dozen SSMs from a task group a hundred kilometers away, that’s probably a fair substitute for a squadron of carrier-based strike aircraft.

        Taking the Harpoons off US destroyers is basically an admission that the United States is going to run away rather than fight with anything less than air supremacy. Which, being basically true and already obvious, makes it a sensible economic move. The rest of the world can’t afford to do that.

        • bean says:

          Right, but for anyone who doesn’t have an aircraft carrier, “aircraft” may in this context default to “a helicopter or maybe an MPA”. Asking either of those to take on anything bigger than a corvette with their typical on-board weaponry is probably asking too much. If they can whistle up a couple dozen SSMs from a task group a hundred kilometers away, that’s probably a fair substitute for a squadron of carrier-based strike aircraft.

          Granted, but the question was explicitly in the context of the US, which has basically all of the aircraft carriers.

          Taking the Harpoons off US destroyers is basically an admission that the United States is going to run away rather than fight with anything less than air supremacy. Which, being basically true and already obvious, makes it a sensible economic move. The rest of the world can’t afford to do that.

          I’m not sure I’d frame it that way. We’re more concerned about collateral damage than we are about fighting without air supremacy, and Harpoon is easy to install. We could get it back pretty quickly if we need to.

          • John Schilling says:

            I think using the on-board helo for targeting eliminates the collateral damage risk in almost all practical circumstances, particularly with Block II+ Harpoon and the ability to take mid-course updates from the helicopter. But even with a fixed trajectory, TOF is going to be less than ten minutes, not enough time for the target to move more than a few miles, so it should be possible to set the aquisition window tight enough to include the target and nothing but the target.

            It might sometimes be possible for the target to e.g. hide in the immediate shadow of a container ship or something, but I don’t buy that we’re taking away the missiles because we think the target will always be so hidden, or that we don’t think our helo aircrew can tell the difference.

            And while the US and its allies have basically all of the carriers, I’m not convinced we have enough carriers that there will always be one available wherever the US Navy has to fight.

          • bean says:

            I think using the on-board helo for targeting eliminates the collateral damage risk in almost all practical circumstances, particularly with Block II+ Harpoon and the ability to take mid-course updates from the helicopter. But even with a fixed trajectory, TOF is going to be less than ten minutes, not enough time for the target to move more than a few miles, so it should be possible to set the aquisition window tight enough to include the target and nothing but the target.

            I’m not quite as sanguine as you are about this. I’ll grant that the Block II+ changes things, but before that, you did have the 10 minute blind spot, which is enough for a warship to run about 5 nm. I can’t say for sure how the seeker can be set up, but potentially anything within 5 nm could be vulnerable. In practice, add about 50% to these numbers because of delays in the process.

            And while the US and its allies have basically all of the carriers, I’m not convinced we have enough carriers that there will always be one available wherever the US Navy has to fight.

            Again, I point out that Harpoon is easy to install. A couple of days, max. And I kind of doubt we’ll be fighting people with air defense systems in that many places at once without enough warning to put it back on.

          • John Schilling says:

            And I kind of doubt we’ll be fighting people with air defense systems in that many places at once without enough warning to put it back on.

            The idea that America’s enemies will always give us advance warning and whatever time we need to deploy the preferred force mix is another conceit that I think is going to bite us hard some day.

            W/re the Harpoons, though, my preference at the time was to replace the deployed Block I’s with a surface-launch SLAM or SLAM-ER. Datalink can be provided by the helos or by the ship itself if the missile climbs to a modest altitude during cruise and acquisition. Result should be almost as good an anti-ship missile as a straight Harpoon with a more responsive tactical land-attack capability than Tomahawk.

            Useful for, say, taking out missile batteries and radar stations in Yemen immediately after they shoot at US destroyers, rather than waiting a few days for someone to set up a Tomahawk strike plan. Plus you get to assess the collateral damage risk through the missile’s FLIR thirty seconds before impact.

          • bean says:

            That’s an irritatingly good point. Thinking it over, I’m not sure why SLAM was never surface-launched. (SLAM-ER won’t fit in a Harpoon tube because of the wings.) I think it’s probably fair to blame the aviation community for this.
            WRT the Harpoons themselves, though, what hasn’t been pointed out here yet is the use of SAMs in surface-to-surface mode. Standard and ESSM will do a perfectly good job sinking ships, and we’re carrying them anyway. Yes, it may be horizon-limited (or not, I’m not sure), but given that they’re a lot faster, and thus harder to shoot down, I suspect the Harpoons wouldn’t do a whole lot against a serious opponent.

          • John Schilling says:

            We can probably blame a lot on the aviation community, yes. Whatever naval aviation uses for stand-off strike missions, against land or sea targets, there’s little excuse not to have a version with a solid booster on it for surface launch, and it’s particularly galling when the base system was surface-launched from day one.

            Standard and ESSM will do a perfectly good job sinking ships,

            Actually, they don’t seem to be very good at all at sinking ships; what they can do is mission-kill ships, if you can get close enough. Rather like the 6″ HE shell in the ironclad age.

            I do think that over-the-horizon attack, cued by helos, drones, ESM, whatever, is likely to be decisive, and I don’t think people will generally shy away from firing them for fear of hitting merchant ships. Well, the USN will until it starts losing destroyers. Meanwhile, we’re seeing just about everybody but the USN field a new generation of SSMs designed to defeat modern missile defenses. The LRASM is about a decade late to that party, IMO, and it remains to be seen whether stealth beats speed in this area.

          • bean says:

            Actually, they don’t seem to be very good at all at sinking ships; what they can do is mission-kill ships, if you can get close enough. Rather like the 6″ HE shell in the ironclad age.

            Slight imprecision on my part, but I will stand by the sense that they’re not much less effective than conventional SSMs. AAW warheads are nasty.

            Meanwhile, we’re seeing just about everybody but the USN field a new generation of SSMs designed to defeat modern missile defenses. The LRASM is about a decade late to that party, IMO, and it remains to be seen whether stealth beats speed in this area.

            Fortunately, some of those people are our friends. I know there’s been interest in NSM.

    • bean says:

      Why the carriers are not doomed, Part 2 (originally Part 1) is up now.
      Also, comments have been switched from manual approval to CAPTCHA.

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