Antiship Missiles Threaten Status Quo

Apr 7, 2011

By Andy Nativi

The debate over China’s new DF-21D antiship ballistic missile and the impact it could have on sea power in the region is reviving concerns over the threat antiship missiles pose—a threat that had faded with the end of the Cold War.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, Western naval strategists have seen little need to continue developing ship-killing missiles. The trend has been to retrofit weapons in service with advanced features. With few instances of antiship missiles being used against naval targets, many commands viewed the threat as remote. Several prominent projects were canceled as a result, including the French Future Antiship Missile program and Italy’s Ulisse long-range missile. This also explains the longevity of the Boeing Harpoon and MBDA’s Exocet, which have added capabilities to existing designs, and the U.S. Navy’s decision to retire the antiship version of Raytheon’s Tomahawk cruise missile.

But the situation is changing, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, where China, India and South Korea are building blue-water navies that will include carrier battle groups. Another concern is the proliferation of advanced antiship missiles, mainly of Russian origin, which are raising doubts about the effectiveness of Western ship defenses.

The DF-21D is actually of less concern—at least for now—than a salvo of Russian-made Club cruise missiles. A massed attack of antiship missiles would give a defender tens of seconds to react when detected on radar, compared with 12 min. for a ballistic missile. This is due to their low sea-skimming attack profile—as little as 2 meters (6.5 ft.) above the waves—and supersonic or high subsonic speed.

Antiship missiles are becoming more dangerous. Many feature advanced radar and infrared (IR) stealth designs, such as Kongsberg’s NSM and Saab’s evolved RBS-15. Modern missiles are wired for “smart” flight with, among other features, improved electronic counter-countermeasure capabilities. Weapons such as the latest Exocet Block 3 from MBDA fly elaborate attack profiles, pulling high g-forces and 3D maneuvers to defeat defensive systems. Other missiles dive at supersonic speed or, like the Club, fly meters above the waves at Mach 2. Supersonic weapons, moreover, don’t need heavy warheads due to the kinetic energy they develop and the incendiary effect of residual fuel.

Modern antiship missiles can be launched from ships, aircraft, coastal batteries or submarines. In some cases a single weapon type is used for all these platforms—for example, the Harpoon or Russian Kh-35 Uran.

As a result of renewed concerns about these weapons and fears that some navies could be outgunned in a confrontation, a number of missiles are under development or being radically upgraded.

There is a business as well as a strategic benefit to having an exportable, modern weapon: The Harpoon has been sold to 30 countries and produced in around 7,300 units, reducing cost.

Following termination of the Harpoon Block 3 program, which would have added a Rockwell Collins data link and improved attack features to the Boeing missile, the Block 2 is the sole heavy weapon in the U.S. antiship missile arsenal. Weighing 690 kg (1,518 lb.) and carrying a 220-kg warhead, Harpoon is turbojet-powered and has a range of 80 nm. It will likely evolve until a replacement comes from the many research programs dealing with high-speed strike missiles or other initiatives, such as the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile project initiated by the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. In this effort, Lockheed Martin is working on an extended-range Joint Air-to-Surface Standoff Missile (Jassm) derivative and a ramjet-powered supersonic missile (see p. 33), which are to fly in demonstrator form in 2013.

In Europe, MBDA’s Exocet MM40 Block 3 is the latest evolution of the Exocet, which dates to the 1970s. The main innovation is replacement of the rocket sustainer engine with a Microturbo TRI-40 turbojet, which solves the issue of the Block 2’s relatively short range. The Block 3 flies more than 100 nm. and benefits from new features such as advanced electronics and a corkscrew attack profile. The electronics are being retrofitted to the Block 2 air-launched AM39 Mod 2 and sub-launched ASM39 Block 2. Mod 2 Exocets carry 160-kg warheads and reach high subsonic speeds. They are in service with 35 countries and have been produced in more than 3,500 units. The Exocet is also an extensively used weapon, with at least 700 fired in action, many in the air-launched variant. MBDA is evaluating further improvements, including a new radar seeker and a data link.

MBDA also offers the Otomat Mk2 Block IV, which has an inertial navigation system (INS) and GPS for intermediate cruise flight, an active seeker and a radio link that allows the missile to be controlled during flight from a ship or helicopter. It has a range of more than 100 nm., weighs 770 kg and is fitted with a semi-armor-piercing 210-kg warhead.

MBDA contributed to the development of Kongsberg’s NSM, which uses the Exocet Block 3 engine. The NSM, which replaces the Penguin missile, has an imaging IR sensor for terminal guidance. The attack radar sensor opens up at ranges beyond 30 mi. An inertial and satellite navigation system is used for the mid-course phase and eventually combines with a data link or radio command. A highly accurate radar or laser altimeter is another standard feature. NSM is light—and so a candidate for helicopter launch—but delivers a heavy punch with a 120-kg warhead at a range exceeding 100 nm.

Saab and Diehl are producing the RBS-15 Mk3 missile, in use by the Swedish, German and Polish navies. With a range of more than 120 nm., the Mk3 is the latest variant of a family of missiles introduced in the 1980s. It weighs 630 kg, flies a sea-skimming profile, maneuvers at more than 8g during final attack and has a warhead of at least 250 kg.

Four companies have taken the lead in development of Russian antiship missiles—Zvezda, Novator, NPO Mashinostroyenia and Raduga.

The Zvezda-Strela Kh-35 Uran (known in the West as the SS-N-25 Switchblade) is jet-powered, weighs 600 kg, has a 143-kg warhead, 70-nm. range (a newer Uranium version doubles the range) and high subsonic speed. It conducts final attack 3-5 meters above the water.

Novator’s Club family includes specialized missiles launched from torpedo tubes and vertical launch systems, making it a popular international weapon. The antiship versions of the SS-N-27 Sizzler are the 3M-54E1 cruise missile, with 160-nm. range and high subsonic speed; and the 3M-54E, which includes a terminal rocket-powered stage that accelerates to Mach 2.9. Each weighs 2 tons, is 9 meters long and carries different warheads. The subsonic version has a 400-kg warhead and 150-nm. range, and the supersonic missile has a 200-kg warhead and 120-nm. range.

NPO’s Moskit (SS-N-22 Sunburn), at 4.2 tons and 9.2 meters long, is a ramjet-powered missile that flies at high altitude at Mach 3, or at a 7-20-meter sea-skimming profile at Mach 2.2. It has a range of 50-120 nm., and carries a 300-kg warhead.

The NPO P-800 Yakhont (SS-N-26 Sapless) is 3 tons, 9.75 meters long, ramjet-powered and reaches Mach 2.8. It can adopt a low-high-low profile, with a cruise altitude of 14,000 meters and final attack profile of 10-15 meters. High-altitude flight yields a 170-nm. range; at low altitude, range is less than 70 nm. The Yakhont has a 250-kg semi-piercing warhead and pulls 20g. It is the basis for the Indian-Russian BrahMos, now entering service.

China’s Cheta missiles are not advanced (the People’s Liberation Army Navy relies to a large extent on Russian missiles). The older C-601/611 missiles of Styx heritage are obsolete. But the newer C-801/802A missiles are 800-kg weapons, turbojet-powered, with 190-kg warheads, 100-nm. range, and loaded with INS and active radar guidance. The C-602 cruise missile is 1,350 kg, carries a 300-kg warhead and has a range of 160 nm. The C-705 cruise missile is 325 kg, has a 130-kg warhead and 80-nm. range.

None of these weapons compares with the best that Russian and Western companies are developing or deploy, but they are cheap and can be sold to countries that have no access to anything better.

Other countries have developed indigenous designs, such as Israel’s IMI Delilah SL, a turbojet missile with a range of more than 140 nm., for ground and air launch.

Taiwan has the Mach 2 HF-3, which has a range of 300 km.

South Korea’s Lig Nex1 C-Star is a turbojet missile with a range exceeding 80 nm.

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