Dodging the Bullet
Are the Navy’s ship defenses against cruise missiles sufficient?
By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor
In three years, the U.S. Navy will field two upgrades
of existing surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to counter aerial threats — especially anti-ship cruise missiles (ASMs) — to its ships. The SAMs will bolster the
layered defense Navy ships use against ASMs.
This layered defense includes so-called hard-kill
and soft-kill capabilities. Hard kills result from the
impact of explosive or kinetic weapons such as missiles and guns. Soft kills are induced by electronic jamming of the ASM’s seeker, obscuring the target or
decoying the ASM away.
ASMs, along with mines and submarine-launched
torpedoes, are major threats to warships. Since 1967,
when an Egyptian missile boat sank the Israeli destroyer Eilat with a Soviet-built Styx missile, there have
been 241 ASM attacks worldwide, according to George
Smith, a defense consultant with American Defense
International, quoting data released from a classified
U.K. concept document originated to support development of an integrated electronic warfare suite, the
Maritime Integrated Defensive Aids Suite.
Of the 241 attacks, 113 were successful, said Smith,
whose firm represents the German firm Rheinmetall,
which builds soft-kill systems. Of the 128 defeated attacks,
127 were thwarted by soft-kill systems and tactics. The
sole ASM destroyed by a hard-kill
system in combat was an Iraqi
Silkworm missile downed in 1991
during Operation Desert Storm by a
SAM launched by the U.K. Royal
Navy destroyer HMS Gloucester.
The most recent attacks by ASMs,
launched in 2006 by Hezbollah forces in Lebanon, severely damaged
the Israeli corvette Hanit and sank a
Cambodian-flagged merchant ship
in the Mediterranean.
Most current ASMs, such as the
Exocet, Harpoon, Silkworm and
Sunburn, are radar-guided, using
technology familiar to developers of countermeasures.
“In the future, anti-ship threats are going to be even
more sophisticated,” Smith said. Equipped with Global
Positioning System [receivers], electro-optical guidance,
infrared, radars, lasers, millimeter wave [seekers] and
combinations thereof, “the threat is getting worse.”
Faced with the threat of large-scale Soviet ASMs
during the Cold War, and the proliferation of ASMs
since then, the U.S. Navy has developed a solid appreciation of the challenges in defending surface ships.
“The main challenges can be seen in the cornerstones that are used in the design of our systems,” said
Katie Roberts, spokeswoman for the Navy’s program
executive officer for integrated warfare systems.
These cornerstones, she said, are:
■ Firepower — the ability to negate multiple inbound
■ Reaction time — the ability to quickly launch an
interceptor missile against a threat.
■ Availability — ensuring systems are useable at all
■ Coverage — the capability to address a threat from
■ Resistance to the environment and electronic attack,
The Navy uses a layered defense of missiles and countermeasures to defeat cruise missiles.
■ Anti-ship missiles with sophisticated seekers challenge countermeasures.
■ Soft-kill systems have a better record of success, but are not
■ Even effective ship defenses can be overwhelmed by numbers of missiles.