After decades of rapid innovation, the end of the Cold War and the subsequent Global War on Terror all but halted anti-ship missile development in the West. A focus on land operations in the Middle East and Central Asia sent Western navies struggling for relevance.
As a result, navies adopted an emphasis towards supporting land forces and operating in the littoral zone. For the most part, ship to ship warfare was reduced to a 9,000-ton destroyer confronting a 2-ton pirate skiff.
As rising tensions with China and Russia make clear: ship-to-ship naval warfare is back. And with it, the need to reach out and sink enemy ships.
A new generation of anti-ship missiles (ASMs) are on the horizon. Stealthy, supersonic and autonomous, these missiles are adept at evading defenses and hunting individual ships. Let’s look at some of the more interesting ASMs, both deployed and in development.
Named after the Brahmaputra and Moscow Rivers, the Brahmos anti-ship missile is a joint Indian-Russian program. Developed through the 1990s and early 2000s, Brahmos is one of the few anti-ship missiles built during this time. It is currently in service with the Indian Armed Forces.
Brahmos is the fastest low-altitude missile in the world. The missile has two stages: the first, consisting of a solid-fuel rocket, accelerates Brahmos to supersonic speeds. The second stage, a liquid-fueled ramjet, accelerates it to Mach 2.8. The missile reportedly flies as low 10 meters above wavetops, making it what’s known as a “sea skimmer”. It has a range of about 290 kilometers.
The missile is extremely versatile, capable of being carried by surface ships, land-based anti-ship missile batteries, and aircraft such as the Indian Air Force’s Su-30MK1 . The air-launched version has a longer range of 500 kilometers. A submarine-based version is under consideration but has not been developed due to lack of interest.
Brahmos packs a considerable punch: land and ship-based versions are armed with a 200 kilogram warhead, while the aircraft version has a 300 kilogram warhead. Even without a warhead, at Mach 2.8 Brahmos would impart tremendous kinetic energy on its target.
Brahmos uses its high speed, stealthy design, and sea-skimming capability to evade enemy air defenses. The missile’s speed of Mach 2.8 translates to 952 meters per second. Assuming the defender’s radar is mounted at a height of 20 meters, Brahmos will be detected at a range of 27 kilometers . This leaves the defender with just 28 seconds to track, illuminate and shoot down Brahmos before it impacts the ship.
The U.S. Navy needs a new anti-ship missile. The current missile, Harpoon, was introduced in 1977. One of the best ASMs of the Cold War, Harpoon has aged into a mediocre missile unable to incorporate the latest technological advances.
The Long-Range Anti-Ship Missile, or LRASM, is a leading candidate to replace it. LRASM is a variant of the U.S. Air Force’s JASSM-ER cruise missile and shares many of its design features. Built by Lockheed Martin, JASSM-ER is jam-resistant and stealthy, with a range of 500 miles. JASSM-ER is designed to autonomously detect and attack targets based on an uploaded profile. It can deliver a 1,000 pound penetrating warhead to within three meters of the target, and is capable of being carried by most U.S. Air Force strike aircraft.
LRASM takes a different tack from missiles such as Brahmos. Instead of achieving high Mach numbers to make the missile more survivable against air defense threats, the subsonic LRASM uses stealth and autonomous decision-making to evade shipboard defenses. LRASM will identify high value targets on its own and home in on them.
LRASM should be expected to have a range similar to JASSM-ER. Compared to the existing Harpoon’s 67 miles, LRASM’s estimated 500 mile range will considerably enlarge the engagement range of the U.S. Navy’s air and ship platforms.
Unlike Harpoon, LRASM fits in both the Mk. 41 vertical launch system silos of the Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Burke destroyers and the Mk. 57 silos on the new Zumwalt-class destroyers. This will allow individual ships to carry many more anti-ship missiles than ever before, although this will impact the number of other missiles, such as the SM-6 surface-to-air missile and ASROC anti-submarine rockets, in the ship’s overall inventory.
Club (3M-54E1 anti-ship variant)
An anti-ship missile used by the Russian Navy, Club is actually a family of weapons sharing the same airframe. It is a versatile weapons system with variants capable of anti-ship (3M-54E1), land attack, and anti-submarine missions. Club has been exported to Algeria, China, and India.
There are four versions. Club-S is designed to be launched from 533mm torpedo tubes, a standard diameter for submarines worldwide. Club-N is designed to be launched from surface ships, Club M is launched from land, and Club K is fired from camouflaged shipping containers.
Club has a solid-fueled first stage , which clears the missile of the launcher and boosts it to cruising altitude. After the first stage burns out, the missile’s turbofan engine kicks in. The latest anti-ship version, 3M-54E1, is directed to the target by an active radar seeker, GLONASS global positioning system targeting, and internal navigation systems. The 3M-54E1’s warhead weighs 881 pounds.