US Navy Girds for Sea Control
Image Credit: US Navy

US Navy Girds for Sea Control


Maybe the US Navy surface fleet is getting serious about commanding the sea—at last. Exhibit A: the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has fast-tracked development of the navy’s first anti-ship cruise missile (ASCM) since the last AGM-84 Harpoons, the fleet’s workhorse ASCMs, were delivered nearly two decades ago.

Material superiority is crucial to the United States’ standing in the world, not least in Asia. As MIT Professor Barry Posen pointed out in 2003, command of the global ‘commons,’ namely the seas and skies outside any nation’s jurisdiction, constitutes the substructure on which US military primacy is built. Untrammelled ability to move forces through the commons permits Washington to project power onto foreign shores, shaping events in important ‘rimlands’ like the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean basin.

The US Navy has basically assumed it owns the commons ever since the Soviet Union’s demise left its chief competitor rusting pierside. As Samuel Huntington put it in 1954, describing the intellectual drift bedevilling the service following World War II, the American fleet ‘floated in virtually solitary splendour upon the waters of the earth.’

Its supremacy appeared unchallengeable. Intellectual drift ensued as the navy turned its attention to missions in near-shore ‘brown’ waters and coastal zones. Why prepare to fight non-existent enemies? But now, with the rise of a seagoing China, it appears the navy is belatedly acknowledging that it may have to fight for access long taken for granted. It must not only arm its warships to pummel adversaries, but also relearn the habits and traditions of sea control. This is about fielding new armaments. It’s also about rebuilding a culture of enterprise and risk-taking.

On the material side, Jane’s International Defence Review reports that defence manufacturer Lockheed Martin is approaching flight testing for two variants of a Long-Range Antiship Cruise Missile (LRASM). In effect, the US Navy may get two lethal ‘birds’ from the DARPA project, provided the technology pans out. Billed as an ‘evolutionary’ system, the subsonic LRASM-A will deliver a 1,000 lb. warhead against targets up to 500 miles distant, or about 800 kilometres. For comparison’s sake, the advertised range for the Harpoon is ‘in excess of 67 nautical miles’, or about 120 kilometres. The LRASM-A thus offers over a sixfold boost in striking range over existing weaponry. The ‘revolutionary,’ ramjet-powered LRASM-B could exceed Mach 5, delivering its high-explosive payload against targets at least 320 kilometres away. Meanwhile, the navy is exploring alternatives to the LRASM, such as an antiship variant of Raytheon’s Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile. Candidate systems are slated to undergo realistic, ‘tactically representative’ trials in 2012 or early 2013. The goal is swift shipboard deployment once the technology is proven.

Scepticism is a prudent outlook for outsiders assessing weapons programmes that hurtle along at such helter-skelter speed. There are grounds for optimism in this case, however. Many of the building blocks for the LRASM and Tomahawk are time-tested. Despite its revolutionary hype, the LRASM-B will be propelled by a ramjet engine that originates not from some exotic experimental programme, but from a project conducted 30 years ago. Navy vessels once sported an anti-ship Tomahawk. The principal challenge before weapon scientists is to develop guidance systems capable of detecting, classifying, and engaging enemy shipping across vast distances. According to Jane’s, the new birds are being designed on the assumption that future foes will boast the capacity to disrupt communications among networked aircraft, ships, and sensors—depriving ASCMs of external support once in flight. Next-generation ASCMs are thus ‘required to be effective in satellite-enabled, satellite-constrained and satellite-denied environments. They will be network enabled but not network dependent.’ This affords prospective opponents like China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) a healthy measure of respect.

What will the map of Asia look like should these projects fulfil their promise? Theorist Carl von Clausewitz likens international competition to a dynamic ‘collision of two living forces,’ or to two wrestlers grappling constantly for strategic advantage. Back-and-forth competition is the rule. Now assume another much-discussed weapon system, the PLA Second Artillery’s antiship ballistic missile (ASBM), also performs as advertised. Numerous range figures have been floated for the ASBM, from 1,500 kilometres in the 2010 US Defence Department report on Chinese military power up to the 2,700 kilometres touted by the official China Daily. If LRASM-armed US warships decline to venture within ASBM range of Asian coastlines, yet can strike 800 kilometres into the ASBM ‘envelope’ (or more in the case of carrier-based tactical aircraft), then a broad belt of the Western Pacific westward of the ‘second island chain’ that runs from northern Japan through New Guinea will become inhospitable territory indeed—for both surface fleets. How the contenders cope with this brave new world will determine who holds the advantage at any given moment.

Such interactions are largely a human affair. Warfare and peacetime strategic competition involve far more than gee-whiz hardware. During World War II, Royal Navy Mediterranean Fleet commander Sir Andrew Cunningham proclaimed that ‘It takes three years to build a ship; it takes three centuries to build a tradition.’ That is, constructing engines of war is the easy part. Engraving new habits of mind on big institutions takes time and resolute leadership. The surface navy could take a page from the submarine force, which is apparently undergoing a cultural renaissance. To prevail in a Clausewitzian struggle in the Western Pacific, the US Navy must not only equip itself with anti-ship missiles, but rediscover the audacity and ingenuity that allowed American mariners to overcome the Imperial Japanese Navy and compete successfully with the Soviet Navy. And it doesn’t have three centuries to do so.

James Holmes is an associate professor of strategy at the US Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.

September 3, 2011 at 17:52

@yang zi: sounds like the littoral ships idea scares you! Good!

August 30, 2011 at 21:21

John Chan is just upset that 1 or 2 planes from USS Carl Vinson could sink the Varya and a few of its escorts.

Anyways, a battle like this would never occur, by the time any hostilities are an actual possiblity, the U.S will have some type of Prompt Global Strike at least in IOC and we could sink the Varyag while it is still in port.

John Chan, clearly you do not do your homework if you are trying to suggest that the Varyag remix is equiped with nuclear engines? All of the photos clearly show smoke comming out of the somke stacks, and people that know more about engines than me say the color of the smoke indicates a diesel powered motor similar, if not identical, to the Ukranian version it came with.

Perhaps the Varyag does have a nuclear engine and all the smoke comming out its stacks was created by the hot air in John Chans head.

August 30, 2011 at 02:29

@Singapore boy: Keep on dreaming, boy.

yang zi
August 29, 2011 at 20:49

this makes more sense. the litoral ships concept is a waste of money with little benefits.

Singapore boy
August 29, 2011 at 07:45

Why spoil for war…you should wish for peace instead!
Based on past records and behavior, American are more likely to be the aggressor and start a war, not we Chinese.
Do not expect us to standstill when the USA has 11 carriers and building even more and behave ever threatening.
We Chinese must find a way to negate this threat by building more anti ship missiles, more subs and more nukes, so we can achieve MAD.
It is ridiculous to ask us to explain why we need these system, as it is pretty obvious.
If it is going to be an arm race, so be it……this will see to the demise of a bankrupted USA!

August 29, 2011 at 06:46

If people are as ignorant as you are than no one would bother constructing forces to counter China.

duke chan
August 29, 2011 at 05:40

Agreed! I would not worry about things “made in China” . Every one knows that the Chinese can not even build a jet engine.

August 29, 2011 at 03:34

Admittedly I don’t play video games… so have to fess up to my ignorance on whether it’s a video game or a ‘created’ computer animation.

But it still speaks for itself.

August 29, 2011 at 03:14

You don’t have to pretend to be ambiguous in order to make it appear “dangerous” more than it is. The original version before refit already could travel 25+ knot plus. Nobody but you claimed it could travel above 30 knots recent photos/videos showed the Shi Lang getting “towed” out to sea not under its own power.

What is funny is how the J-15, which is a copy of the Su-33, would have a hard time taking off with the heavy antiship cruise missile, plus a full tank of gas to travel beyond its allowable range. The ski-jump feature is what keep the Shi Lang a second tier carrier, since it is too short to launch a fully loaded aircraft. Not to mention is the total lack of airborne warning aircraft like the US’s Advanced Hawkeye. Within the 1500 km range, the Carl Vinson will eat the Shi Lang for lunch… and then dine on the rest of the fleet.

Leonard R.
August 29, 2011 at 01:28

The Chinese ASBM missile should be a ‘one-shot & out’ scenario, as another poster here pointed out.

One US ship should be worth more than every city in China. If China attacks the United States, the US should respond with overwhelming force. What is the Seventh Fleet for if its going to allow its ships to be sunk by Chinese missiles?

I don’t think all of these Chinese weapons will pan out. I’d be worried if the Japanese, Koreans or Taiwanese were developing them. But the PRC has a governance & command mindset that is deeply flawed.

Concerning the video, we already know the PRC is training its soldiers to kill American troops in uniform on a video game. That is an official PLA training tool. It is or was used every day. So the idea of a video depicting the PRC attacking an American ship is not implausible. In fact, it’s realistic. Who is the ASBM aimed at anyway?

August 29, 2011 at 00:07

I’m pretty sure its just a recorded video of a computer game called Lock On: Modern Air Combat so anyone who thinks its a ‘high quality production’ is a moron.

John Chan
August 28, 2011 at 21:05

You should not be getting too upset about the USA’s poor performance in the video. The video was produced by one-sided wishful thinking just like all the anti-China bloggers here bragging USA and its lackeys’ military capabilities that are disconnected from the reality.

Need to correct your poor understanding about the refit Chinese has done on the Varyag. Originally Varyag was steam turbine powered in Ukraine. But Ukrainians removed all internal equipment before selling it to China. Nobody knows what propulsion system China put into the carrier during the refit; rumours said it was nuclear powered in order to achieve the speed above 30kts. Besides diesel engines with such huge power are too bulky and too noisy for warships.

Duke Chan
August 28, 2011 at 19:04

The Varyag likes a old sheep, just waiting to be eaten…alive by the USS CV if the war broke out! Anyone can dream so the Chinese.

August 28, 2011 at 15:55

After watching the video, one cannot help but wonder if whoever produced it had any clear understanding of what a U.S. CBG can do.

On that thought, one wonders if he/she understood what the much debated capabilities of the new Chinese aircraft carrier. Afterall, the Varyag is a slow, diesel-powered vessel with limited number of aircrafts to perform various tasks required by a typical aircraft carrier.

August 28, 2011 at 13:02

If you had any doubt about what the Chinese Navy intends to do – check out this very high-end 3D animation of the Varyag and its J-15s attacking USS Carl Vinson.

August 28, 2011 at 12:11

It’s a ZERO-SUM World out there – welcome to the 21st century

BANG – The starter gun goes off for ARMS RACE ASIA

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