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The War Nerd / April 1, 2009

War Nerd Update:

The U.S. Navy, Stuck With Its Own Harpoon

All day I’ve been thinking about the Navy and the fact that it has no defenses at all against ballistic missiles. The main point, the one I was trying to make in my last story, is that when something comes along like this and you’re tempted to say, “Well, they must have thought of that already, they must have some defense in mind…”-when you start talking like that, just slap yourself and remember all the other military traditions that kept going long after anybody with sense knew they were finito.

The most obvious example is European heavy cavalry trotting into longbow fire again and again. Crecy demonstrated that knightly charges were suicide against the longbow in 1346. But the French aristocracy had so much invested in prancing around on their damn steeds that it took another demonstration, at Agincourt in 1415 to even start to get them thinking about it. I’m no math wiz but I think that 1415 minus 1346…yup, that’s 69 years between catastrophes. Lessons learned? None.

These dodos always have one thing in common: whether it’s knights charging with lances on very expensive horses or top gun brats like McCain zooming onto carrier decks in history’s most expensive aircraft, you’ll always find that the worst, most over-funded services are always the ones where the rich kids go to show their stuff. Seriously: why are there aircraft carriers? For asses like John McCain to crash on. Why do they keep getting funded long after they’ve been shown up? The same reason knights were galloping around pretending that the longbow hadn’t turned half their friends into pincushions: because it was a way of life for the richest and dumbest people in the country and they weren’t about to let it go.

It’s weird the way war nerds who are up to the minute on the specs of this or that weapons system never think hard about what those specs mean. Let me tell you the example I’m thinking of here. Y’all remember the Harpoon, the US Navy’s first dedicated anti-ship guided surface to surface missile, right? Good ol’ AGM-84? A fine weapon by all accounts. You’ll remember it entered service in 1977.

Long time ago, right? Jimmy Carter, the peacenik jerk who got us in this Iranian mess, was still president, unfortunately. People still drove American cars and spoke English. Olden Times, in other words.

Well, instead of just paging through Jane‘s and drooling over the Harpoon’s range and 221-kg warhead (don’t bother lying, I spent years doing that stuff myself and I know), think about what that weapons means in terms of this key sentence from my last story: “Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.” Now put that together with the fact that the Harpoon, way back in the Disco Era, had a cool little feature called “pop-up.” And what it meant is that the Harpoon itself worked as a ballistic missile. So even in our own inventory, we’ve had a weapon lying around for decades that could have taken out all our carriers.

What “pop-up” means is-well, it’s actually kind of cool and for once I can talk my old fave, hardware, without feeling like a tool. So anyway, the Harpoon has an interesting trajectory. It’s fired from vertical or diagonal tubes on the deck or the hold of surface ships, but there are other models that can be launched from aircraft or even subs. If you’ve seen video of a harpoon launch, you see it zoom up from the tube, then slide down to fly level, just above the waves, so’s to avoid enemy radar.

But once the Harpoon’s own radar has spotted the target, does it keep flying level to slam into the side of the ship? Nope. I’ll quote from the owner’s manual: “Once a target has been located and the seeker locked…the missile climbs rapidly to about 1800m before diving on the target (“pop-up maneuver”).”


American-fired Harpoon wastes a pesky Libyan missile corvette back in 1986.

In other words, the Harpoon does a last-minute transformation from wave-skimmer to ballistic missile. If you diagrammed its flight path, seen from the side, You’d get a capital “P” lying on its back, with the loop of the “P” being the pop-up maneuver.

The reason the Harpoon was designed to hit the target from above rather than the side is simple: a ships defenses are configured to stop planes (and missiles, even though they don’t work against missiles and everybody knows it) coming in diagonally or horizontally. To repeat that sentence again–and I’m going to keep repeating it till everybody realizes what it means–“ships currently [just like in 1977 when the Harpoon entered service] have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.”

So we have the Navy’s own weapons system testifying against it: way back in Carter’s time the Navy bought a weapon that was designed to hit ships like a ballistic missile, yet now, forty years later, USN ships have no defense against ballistic missiles.

It gets worse. The Navy didn’t even want the Harpoon at all. It was only adopted because after seeing Soviet-made anti-ship missiles destroy the Israeli destroyer Eilat in 1967, a few of the more honest R&D guys at the Pentagon forced the Navy to shop for their own model. The Navy-remember, they’re just like the French heavy cavalry brass of the late 14th century, trying real hard not to think about the real world-didn’t like the idea of anti-ship missiles at all. They were the equivalent of the longbow: unmanned, longrange, un-chivalrous weapons, and you couldn’t drink with them at the officer’s club.

But the Eilat sinking was so embarrassing it forced a few hungover sober moments. Here’s the pride of the Israeli navy, the INS Eilat, formerly HMS Zealous, doing what surface ships do best: lookin’ good and being completely useless. Yes, useless. I’m sick of softplaying it and I’ll say outright: any surface vessel bigger than a patrol boat is useless scrap iron, and the story of the Eilat proves it. 

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  • 1. Phoenix Woman  |  January 23rd, 2012 at 7:02 am

    Bert and Ernie @ 250: You missed this piece by Brecher on China’s joining the yacht club:

    Synopsis: China’s got one (1) carrier they’re building, which is an old half-finished 1980s-era USSR hulk they bought for cheap through intermediaries. Hardly a “mad rush”.

  • 2. Milkman Dan  |  March 5th, 2012 at 7:30 am

    I do not agree with your opinion that downsizing ships is a way to go. Also you comparison with Israel and it’s WW2 era Z Class destroyer is misleading. In that scenario, ship built in 1944 was hit and sunk by that time relatively new and innovative weapon. Now, speaking about modern scenario, you cannot do pop-up attack with anything bigger then Harpoon easily. And Eilat was certainly not destroyed that way. USSR designed and build anti-ship missiles used to be very fast, especially in the final dashing sequence. And at the moment you try to do some aggressive pop-up maneuver with something dashing at Mach 2+, it either breaks up in mid-air or misses the target because of the inertia mechanics.

    Now, back to your downsizing ideas. If USA wants to keep it’s superpower status, then it needs to be able to actually project power. And power was always projected by Navies, it scaled up during centuries, from simple frigates and heavy frigates to first class ships-of-the-line and battleships and to aircraft carriers. Basically battleships and aircraft carriers are for diplomacy, what was gold for legal tender when it was cover by it. You can have some very nice ideas that you want some other not very friendly countries to adopt, but they will keep laughing at you. Until your battleships or aircraft carriers will arrive to shooting distance of their ports. Then you will get things done. Also it is a well known fact that whomever controls the seas, controls the trade. Considering how much dependent is USA at this moment on foreign trade, you have to be able to protect your trade lines, at the very latest. And because your trade lines are pretty much ocean wide, you need something bigger to keep them safe, then some lousy gunboat or fast attack boat. Atlantic and Pacific Oceans are not sunny Mediterranean see, much harsh conditions to operate in.

    Then, ballistic missiles are good at hitting hard programmed predefined targets, like war factories, cities (though city busting is now widely considered a counterstrike option in case of surprise first decapitating strike and as such lies on the back of missile submarines), nuclear missile silos and other like that hardened targets. When it goes up, it will hit its target in some 20-30 minutes, almost no matter what, if said target is on the other side of the world. But the speed comes with its prize. Steering such a vehicle is very hard and to effectively steer the warhead in speeds well over Mach 10, you have to start steering it before it re-entry the atmosphere. Even MIRV and MARV warheads will not buzz over your head like some overgrown bees. They will split in the very outer layers of atmosphere, maybe do some trajectory changes from one to another target before making final dive in and then go down to its target, literally “in flames”.

    So in the hypothetical scenario you described, USA ships having no ballistic protection against PRC ballistic missiles, we would have the situation that PRC army or navy is shooting at targets not very far away. The flight time of these warheads would be some 5 to max 10 minutes. You cannot shoot the bm’s on depressed trajectory in this case, because that would lower the accuracy. You need to launch them ballistic at very high speeds. You have to positively acquire target, very quickly calculate and extrapolate where the target would probably go and where it will be in another 5 to 10 minutes, program it to the missile warhead and launch it. Ship sailing at speed of roughly 30-32 knots, which is the speed of modern carriers, will make it roughly 10 kilometers in any possible direction. So shooting a ballistic missile is like a trying to find out a needle in a pile of hey. Sure, you can find it, but most likely not. Unless you go nuclear. But if you go nuclear, you do not even have to use ballistic missiles for that and whatever delivery vehicle you will choose, the receiving side will go nuclear as well.

    I would not be that skeptical about abilities of your Navy. Also I would not prize PRC weapons that much as you do.

  • 3. Milkman Dan  |  March 6th, 2012 at 1:42 am

    After giving it a bit more thoughts overnight, I would like to add some more to this discussion and to my comment. It may be possible indeed to score a direct hit on an aircraft carrier by Anti-ship Ballistic Missile and thus sink it in just one hit, but there is indeed a catch.

    1) Advanced targeting/locking/guiding system will be required. You will need a perfectly well working system and/or perfect satellite reconnaissance in place to achieve a valid lock-on at aircraft carrier group before your warhead will start re-entry. This is a bit complicated to achieve and the ability of target to actually move is not making it easier. Ballistic Missiles are good at shooting to standing targets, not the moving ones.

    2) Re-entry speeds over Mach 10 means that your warhead is closing in to its target at speeds excesing 12.000 km/h (sorry for metric system units, I’m from Europe, Czech Republic, not that good in miles and that stuff…). If your guidance system was working as expected so far, you achieved a valid lock-on, your warhead corrected its trajectory slightly because the target is moving and your warhead is now diving to the estimated aircraft carrier position and travelling 3-4 km every second. Because re-entry usually starts at height of 100-150 km over ground, your warhead has some 30 to 40 seconds to the target. Your terminal guidance software has to be state-of-the-art as with every passing second, the imaginary cone in front of the warhead, where it can score hit is getting tighter and tighter (due to inertia mechanics).

    3) Even if you correct trajectory well before re-entry, you have to be able to do some terminal phase corrections, because you cannot expect target to be a sheep being taken to the slaughter. This is going to be very tricky and it assumes you did some extensive research on steering vehicles at very high hyper-sonic speeds. We all know, from latest US financed research on high hyper-sonic unmanned vehicles, how complicated is to achieve this. To put it to normal speech, things that are fragile have tendencies to break up in the midair if you are trying to change its course. At speeds over Mach 10, warhead is definitely a fragile stuff. Also you would need some system to steer it, either by means of auxiliary rocket maneuvering system or some sort of flipped steering pads.

    Now, considering all of this, it is unwise to think that the rocket would hit aircraft carrier out of surprise. There would be a warning at launch, you have NORAD with its extensive launch warning satellite system exactly for that purpose. NORAD will calculate in real-time possible impact areas based on trajectory, speed etc and they will update this impact area every second until they will find out where it aims. At the moment they will find out you are aiming at blank see, do not expect that somebody will not say, hey, wait a moment guys, don’t we have a carrier over there in target zone? That will give the aircraft carrier group at least 2-3 minutes to maneuver, group will spread and every ship can move for 2 to 3 kilometers before impact.

    As I said, killing a ship this way is possible, though unlikely. Also, you have some fancy projects going on, US Navy was planning to build some 5-6 modern nuclear driven anti-missiles cruisers, larger then Ticonderoga class and equipped with laser guns and large rail guns as soon as these are available. I do not know if this idea was scrapped due to lack of funds, but exactly this system would provide excellent protection against BM strike. So the situation is not that black and white as it seems to be.

  • 4. Kurt  |  June 1st, 2012 at 11:20 am

    These missiles are just a new kind of kamikaze dive bomber. DF 21 test are lacking for this missile with claimed spectacular flight characteristics, including evasive maneuvers during homing. The problem with defense is gravity, you need rather a platform in the air to kill it.

    I think you are right by stating that the carriers of old are dated.
    While there’s no substitude for manned fighters and fighter bomber groups doing complex missions, a JSF bomber role and a A10 role can better be handled by unmanned very long range systems. These unmanned systems should be piston engine slow speed, simple low reflection constructions and do most of the time preprogrammed flying with human assistance limited to launch and recovery.
    A skyhook or just a monorail outrigger with a catch magnet from a scrapyard could do the launch and retrieval of such low tech devices from a wide array of platforms.
    Missiles remain important for fast strikes and some manned aerial platforms for conducting and countering complex air strikes.

  • 5. bear bear  |  June 24th, 2012 at 4:56 am

    The US always do things the most expensive way. they still believe in using SIZE as symbol of power, and hence SIZE to intimidate others. This arises from the classic American redneck farmer attitude where he loves his crude, big and macho V8, and if given a choice to play with an M4 or a .50cal, he’d definitely go for the big gun……cos BIG means kickin’ asses .

    So, that’s how the ultra expensively-run military machine resulted in a screwed up economy with 46mil in poverty, the HIGHEST Misery Index in 29yrs, massive unemployment and financial insecurity.

    You fucked yourselves, Americans.

  • 6. Shevalini Amin  |  September 1st, 2012 at 10:30 am

    Howdy! Would you mind if I share your blog with my twitter group?
    There’s a lot of people that I think would really appreciate your content. Please let me know. Many thanks

  • 7. General360  |  September 3rd, 2012 at 10:29 pm

    The only thing I can think of that would make this ”ballistic missile” useless is a EMP bomb or blast that would take out all the devices controlling it and send it crashing into the water, ground or break at the seams from the wind resistance and pressure but we have Solar Flares that can destroy anything electronic on the Earth so yeah

  • 8. Danno  |  May 8th, 2013 at 4:42 am

    “They could *not* give a damn what happens to the rest of us” would mean they don’t care. Saying “They could give a damn what happens to the rest of us” literally means they do care. Think about it!

  • 9. bad side effects of breast actives  |  June 26th, 2013 at 1:31 am

    I do not drop a leave a response, however after reading a
    great deal of remarks on this page The War Nerd:
    This Is How the Carriers Will Die (Updated Version) – By Gary Brecher – The eXiled.
    I actually do have 2 questions for you if it’s okay. Is it just me or do some of the remarks look like they are written by brain dead people? 😛 And, if you are posting at additional places, I would like to keep up with you. Would you list of every one of your shared pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

  • 10. Mik  |  April 9th, 2014 at 2:39 am

    Guess the name of one of Britain’s new carriers – yep, Prince of Wales.

  • 11. Bob Newton  |  July 18th, 2014 at 7:53 pm

    April Fool, right?

  • 12. nubwaxer  |  June 21st, 2015 at 10:19 pm

    but then where do we put the non functioning, expensive, and made obsolete by drones f-35? what else are we supposed to do with all that $1.5 trillion investment to fund this turkey?
    how about paying off all the current student loans over 20 years?

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