Here's What You Need to Know: Land-based missile batteries can threaten ships dozens or even hundreds of miles away.
(This article first appeared in 2018.)
On July 12, 2018, the USS Racine met her grisly fate.
The 522-foot long tank landing ship was struck by four different types of guided missiles, one of which triggered a massive explosion that sent shards of debris spraying across the sea and ripped open part of her hull, exposing the inner decks. Finally, a Mark 48 torpedo struck the forty-six-year-old vessel beneath the waterline and nearly snapped off her bow. An hour later, the five-thousand-ton ship sank to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean fifty-five miles north of Hawaii.
At least four different military services participated in the Racine’s ritual sacrifice on the altar of the Pacific Rim (or RIMPAC) exercise known as SINKEX. Participants included P-8 Poseidon patrol planes of the Australian Navy, Type 12 surface-to-surface missile batteries of the Japanese Self Defense Ground Force, the U.S. Navy Los Angeles-class submarine Olympia, and artillerymen and helicopter pilots from the U.S. Army.
Yes, you read that last part right.
An Army AH-64E Apache Guardian attack helicopter flew within range using a remote-controlled MQ-1C Gray Eagle drone (a unique capability of the Guardian), located the Racine and shared targeting data across Link 16 datalinks to two artillery units.
One battery fired Norwegian-built Naval Strike Missiles from a Palletized Loading System 10x10 truck sixty-three miles away. The ship was attacked by six rockets from a HIMARS multiple-rocket system of the 17th Field Artillery Brigade on Kauai, Hawaii. You can see the missile launches and the destruction of the Racine in this video.
But why on earth is the land warfare branch practicing sinking ships?
Pacific War Redux
The United States and China are locked in a security competition for the foreseeable future, so the Pentagon is re-gearing for great-power conflict—and deploying a slew of new buzzwords to explain how it will go about it.
Beijing claims huge swathes of the South China Sea as territorial waters, and is establishing a network of military bases with friendly governments to envelope potential rivals such as India and Australia. Therefore, a U.S.-China clash would likely concern ships, missiles and airplanes, and perhaps a side order of special and amphibious forces—and not so much tank and mechanized infantry brigades. After all, per the famous quote, “Never get involved in a land war in Asia.”
So the Army is looking to remain relevant through a doctrine called Multi-Domain Battle which see integrating Army operations with the Navy and Air Force in air, sea and cyber domains.
Regarding artillery, some see potential in a modern incarnation of the defunct the Coast Artillery Corps, which protected U.S. bases and harbors from attack with large guns. It was finally disbanded in 1950 as technological advances rendered fixed, short-range coastal defenses obsolete.
Today, land-based missile batteries can threaten ships dozens or even hundreds of miles away. However, unlike Japan or Sweden, the United States is unlikely to have hostile surface warships operating within range of its coastline. However, some theorists propose the Pentagon could forward deploy a sort of “expeditionary coast artillery” force to island flashpoints in the Pacific.
This would be borrowing a page from Beijing’s playbook. The PLA Navy has built a web of small military bases on tiny disputed islands in the contested waters of the South China Sea—or even on artificial islands built with dredged up soil. These bases are hosting anti-ship and anti-aircraft missile batteries that could theoretically threaten large “bubbles” of territory around them—a strategy known as anti-access/area denial (A2/AD). Thus the Marine Corps already has a concept for countering these bases with its own Expeditionary Advance Bases on islands of the Western Pacific.
HIMARS to the Rescue?
The Army’s multiple-rocket launchers were originally intended to unleash extraordinarily deadly and indiscriminate barrages over a large area using cluster munitions. However, recently the Marine Corps and Army have begun launching individual M31 GPS-guided rockets that offer similar precisions to a guided missile.
The platform of choice for recent operations in Afghanistan, Syria and Iraq has been the lighter, air-transportable M142 HIMARS truck-based system, which weighs twelve tons and can carry six standard 227-millimeter rockets or a single larger ATACMS missile, which can hit targets up to 190 miles away.
Such munitions may be accurate enough to potentially hit a ship, as the SINKEX exercise highlighted, but GPS-guidance alone will not suffice to hit a moving target, so the rockets may require upgrading with a seeker or use of laser guidance by a third party. Indeed, there are some doubts as to whether HIMARS at RIMPAC actually demonstrated the range and accuracy to hit the Racine. The Army is reportedly seeking upgraded ATACMS missiles with seekers to hit moving targets.
Not only could HIMARS be deployed to island bases, they could even be fired off the decks of Navy ships. HIMARS from the 11th Marine Regiment tested this concept in the 2017 Dawn Blitz exercise, (you can see the launch in this video) shooting M31rockets to strike a target forty-three miles away from the deck of the USS Anchorage, a Landing Platform Dock. This capability is particularly intriguing because many LPDs entirely lack missiles to engage surface targets themselves.
While this capability is primarily intended for bombardment of shore targets, Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller spoke of his interest in outfitting leathernecks with anti-ship missiles in 2016.
This initiative is encouraged by the Marine’s experience of the Battle of Guadalcanal during World War II. The day after the 1st Marine Division landed on the Solomon Islands in August 1942, the Navy covering force suffered a devastating defeat in the Battle of Savo Island and was forced to withdraw. The disembarked Marines were left exposed for weeks without their naval support, their base at Henderson Field subject to nightly bombardments by Japanese battleships.
The Marines plan for their anti-ship weapons to be integrated with the Navy’s air and surface assets via a new technology called “Cooperative Engagement.” Thus, Marine missiles—both on and off ships—could contribute to the Navy’s new “distributed lethality” doctrine of networking sensor data together while spreading out firepower across more platforms.
Deadly Cargo Palettes
Several years ago, Russia demonstrated how it could use cargo containers as launch pads for Klub cruise missiles. This would make the weapon easy to transport—or even employ from a ship—while concealing it from detection and pre-emptive strikes.
The United States has seized on the idea with its “palettized” missile-launch container, which could also be fired from a ship—or even plopped down onto a proposed floating platform.
In the SINKEX exercise, the Army demonstrated the system using newly acquired Naval Strike Missiles. The subsonic cruise missiles can skim low over the sea or terrain to hit sea or land targets up to 115 miles away, combining a GPS and an infrared-seekers for guidance.
This kind of improvised solution using available technology seems preferable to the Pentagon’s notorious predilection for overly-tailored and expensive solutions to capability gaps. The affordable NSM currently seems to be the munition of choice, the Army and Marines may also be interested in adapting the higher-capability LR-ASM, or upgraded versions of the older Tomahawk or Harpoon
The deployment of the AH-64E Guardian at RIMPAC also highlighted the use of aviation assets in non-traditional maritime roles. The Army has already experimented with using ship-deployed Apaches in a naval strike role, though longer-term sea deployment would likely require ruggedizing the choppers. Even the Air Force has tested deploying assets such as B-52 bombers and A-10 Thunderbolts in maritime patrol and naval strike roles, despite these being designed for very different missions.
Thus, the Army and Marine Corps’s growing anti-ship capabilities show a willingness to adapt weapons systems originally designed for a Cold War slugfest in twentieth-century Europe to meet the changing security environment of the Pacific in the twenty-first century.
Sébastien Roblin holds a master’s degree in conflict resolution from Georgetown University and served as a university instructor for the Peace Corps in China. He has also worked in education, editing, and refugee resettlement in France and the United States. He currently writes on security and military history for War Is Boring.
This article first appeared in 2018.
Image: U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Jonathan Valdes Montijo