Can the Navy Catch Up To Russia and China's Firepower Advantage?

October 1, 2018 Topic: Security Region: Asia Blog Brand: The Buzz Tags: ChinaAmericaU.S. NavyRussiaFirepower

Can the Navy Catch Up To Russia and China's Firepower Advantage?

The U.S. Navy, so completely blinded by absolute faith in the supremacy of a single platform, failed to effectively field the premier offensive weapon of a new age of warfare.

The Navy’s tactical ignorance is built into its arsenal. Currently some of the Navy’s most important weapons development programs are not just evolutionary, but revolutionary in the possibilities they open up. This is not due to innovation, but instead many of these noteworthy and foundational capabilities are finally arriving decades after the technologies were first proven, many close to half a century ago. Many of these most crucial weapons are already in the hands of great power competitors such as Russia and China who have had decades of opportunity to train and refine tactics with them.

Offensive Firepower

“…no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” –Horatio Nelson

One of U.S. Navy’s gravest errors in handicapping its own development was neglecting the development of long-range offensive firepower in the age of missile warfare. What made the anti-ship missile a revolution in naval warfare was its ability to deliver a powerful pulse of firepower comparable to that of an attacking wave of carrier aircraft through a combination of high speed, large warhead size, and salvo fires.

In spite of this by 1971 the Soviet Union managed to field 11 different types of anti-ship missiles before the U.S. had yet to field one. Today numerous surface ships, submarines, and heavy bombers in the Russian and Chinese navies carry long-range anti-ship missiles, many with supersonic speed and ranges as great as over 200 miles. It was not until 1977 that the U.S. Navy would field its first anti-ship missile, the Harpoon, which remains its primary anti-surface weapon to this day. Weapons with triple the range and speed of the Harpoon missile already existed in numbers 50 years ago.


The Harpoon is a slow, subsonic missile and extremely short-ranged at around 70 nautical miles. The Harpoon also isn’t equipped by most of the U.S. Navy’s destroyers. It is only found on less than half of the Navy’s destroyers despite there being little difference in the design of the ships that carry them and those that do not.

The submarine force took Harpoon out of its inventory entirely in 1997 which shaved tens of miles off its surface strike range and limited itself to only close-range torpedo engagements. Now the submarine force is thinking about bringing Harpoon back some 20 years later.

Harpoon failed to take advantage of arguably the most important attributes large naval platforms bring to the fight – capacity and staying power. The surface fleet ships that do carry Harpoon only carry eight, a small sum. This is in spite of the fact that all U.S. Navy large surface warships have around 100 vertical launch cells for missiles and where Harpoon is much smaller than launch cell-compatible missiles like Tomahawk.

Because Harpoon is incompatible with its launch cells the Navy bolts the missiles on top of the deck in a most uneconomic fashion. This limits the maximum anti-ship salvo U.S. Navy surface warships can deliver to only an eight-missile salvo with extremely short range and subsonic speed. The Navy certainly expects its own ships to be able to easily swat down such a salvo. Harpoon must be fired via torpedo tubes for submarines, but shooting missiles through torpedo tubes can also only produce small salvos compared to a submarine’s launch cells.

The Navy did come close to effectively fielding a long-range anti-ship weapon. However, the Navy never truly integrated it by only procuring a small quantity and eventually taking it out of the inventory entirely.

At first the Tomahawk missile program pursued a weapon with two different capabilities. An anti-ship Tomahawk missile was first tested six months after the land attack version in 1976. The anti-ship Tomahawk incorporated the same active radar seeker and guidance technology from the Harpoon missile, but offered far better range and a larger payload. However, by 1995 it appears only about 600 anti-ship Tomahawks were produced , roughly a tenth of the size of the Harpoon inventory. The only surface ships that could have carried more than a handful of deck-mounted anti-ship Tomahawks during the Cold War were cruisers that were exclusively focused on protecting capital ships via the defensive anti-air mission. Once the Cold War ended the U.S. Navy got rid of its only long-range anti-surface weapon by remaking the anti-ship Tomahawk missile inventory into the land-attack version.

Ill-conceived arguments were put forward to justify taking these weapons out, such as how the Navy could not likely target the missile to the maximum extent of its range and the Navy’s current anti-ship missile seekers would be ill-suited to congested waters featuring a mixture of hostiles and non-combatants. However far the Navy could target Tomahawk was going to be far better than what it was getting with Harpoon. The Navy certainly accepted a 200-mile anti-ship missile threat from Soviet forces. And if NATO had gone to war against the Soviet Navy it still could have fought in congested waters such as the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas.