US Navy Girds for Sea Control
Image Credit: US Navy

US Navy Girds for Sea Control

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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.

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