The United States Navy is the largest and most advanced navy in the world, fielding everything from aircraft carriers and maritime patrol aircraft to submarines, destroyers and unmanned helicopters.
So when your editor asks you to choose the Navy’s five most lethal weapons systems, your most difficult challenge is trying to narrow it down to just five selections. For this article I bypassed the larger platforms such as the aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships. To be sure, those are actually the most lethal weapons in the Navy’s arsenal, however, everybody knows them, and, as big platforms, they are actually the sum of many smaller ones.
Instead, I wanted to highlight platforms that were outstanding in some particular way, with an emphasis on the biggest bang for the buck. I also wanted to spread out the selection; it’s easy to merely include surface ships and submarines, ignoring aircraft and certain missions.
Before proceeding, it’s worth noting that the Navy is currently on the cusp of a technological revolution, with new ships, fighters, radars, lasers, railguns and unmanned systems on the horizon. In ten years, a repeat of this list may look very different.
Arleigh Burke-class Guided Missile Destroyer:
Named after the legendary World War II admiral, the Arleigh Burke class destroyers are some of the most balanced, capable ships fielded by any modern navy. The Burke class is the backbone of the fleet, with some 62 vessels comprising over a fifth of all the ships in the Navy.
The heart of the Burke’s combat systems is in its Aegis radar system, which is capable of directing a variety of air defense missiles against incoming targets. Aegis can coordinate the defense of an entire naval surface group, and with the new Cooperative Engagement Capability the Burkes can fire on targets at extended ranges using targeting data from platforms such as the E-2D Hawkeye.
The Burke class is also capable of launching Evolved Sea Sparrow air defense missiles against short and medium range targets, and SM-2 and SM-6 missiles against long-range aerial targets. Many destroyers also have a ballistic missile defense capability, and can launch SM-3 missiles specialized for engagement of ballistic missiles.
For anti-submarine warfare, the class has a built-in SQQ-89 sonar system, with a towed sonar system scheduled for future upgrades. The ship mounts six Mk.46 anti-submarine torpedoes. The ship’s embarked MH-60R anti-submarine helicopters provide long-range anti-submarine capability, although only later versions of the Burke class were built with hangars.
For a modern ship, the Burke class is heavily armed with conventional guns. A 5-inch, 127-millimeter gun is mounted on the bow, capable of anti-ship, shore bombardment, and even a limited anti-air role. Two 25 mm guns and four .50 caliber machine guns were added after the suicide attack on the USS Cole in 1999. Finally, each ship has two Phalanx 1B close-in weapon systems designed to shoot down incoming missiles, but capable of firing on helicopters, UAVs, and small boats as well.
One area where the Burke class comes up short is in its ability to engage enemy ships. The ships are anemic in their anti-ship capability, with only older vessels even fielding 8 aging Harpoon anti-ship missiles. This has been by design, as no credible surface threat has existed and the Navy has concentrated on the Global War on Terror mission. Missiles such as the Norwegian Naval Strike Missile and the Lockheed Martin Long Range Anti-Ship Missile are in development and hold great promise as a future anti-ship missiles of the fleet.
The ships will likely be the longest class in production ever fielded by the U.S. Navy; Arleigh Burke herself was commissioned in 1991, and production is expected to continue for another fifteen years. That would mean nearly 40 years of near-continuous production for a single type of destroyer.
EA-18G Growler Electronic Attack Aircraft:
Based on the successful F/A-18F Super Hornet, the EA-18 Growler is an electronic warfare aircraft with the performance of a fighter. Unlike its predecessor the EA-6B Prowler, the Growler is capable of being used more aggressively, pacing high performance fighter bombers on dangerous missions.
The Growler is basically a two seat Super Hornet, with 90 percent commonality in some features between the two planes. The Super Hornet’s internal M61 gun is deleted to accommodate an AN/ALQ-227 communications jamming system, and AN/ALQ-99 radar jamming pods are fitted to the plane’s weapons stations.
Growler has three key capabilities. Firstly, it can conduct Suppression of Enemy Air Defense missions in support of drones or UAVs. Growler can jam communications and enemy radars on the ground and actively attack radars with anti-radar HARM missiles.
Second, Growler can conduct stand-off and escort jamming, against air defenses on the ground, enemy airborne early warning platforms and enemy fighters. Growler can keep up with fighters conducting a counter-air sweep and keep enemy radars and communications scrambled. Third, Growler is also capable of what is called “Non-Traditional Electronic Attack,” a somewhat mysterious capability which supposedly allows it to “integrate with ground defenses.”
In addition to those capabilities, Growler can also self-protect, allowing fighters that would otherwise escort it to be used elsewhere. Growler is as fast and maneuverable as a F/A-18F, and can carry AMRAAM air to air missiles for defensive use. Despite its electronic warfare designation, it is still is equipped with an APG-79 multi-mode AESA radar and a Helmet-Mounted Cueing System for air to air combat.
Virginia-class Attack Submarine:
One of the most successful weapons programs of the post-Cold War period, the Virginia class attack submarine combines one of the most advanced nuclear attack submarines with an affordable shipbuilding program. At least 33 units are planned.
Each Virginia class is 377 feet long and 34 feet in diameter and weighs 7,800 tons submerged. Each has 12 vertical launch tubes for Tomahawk missiles., as well as four 533mm torpedo tubes capable of launching Mk 48 ADCAP homing torpedoes, mines, and torpedo tube-launched unmanned underwater vehicles. Subs of the class are also equipped with lockout chambers for divers and can carry SEAL mini submarines.
In addition to their attack mission, Virginia submarines are also useful surveillance platforms. Each has an extensive sonar suite with bulb, sail and chin sonars covering the front hemisphere, sonar arrays on the flanks, and a towed array to detect objects in the sub’s wake. The ship is equipped with Electronic Support Measures sensors for detection of enemy signals and optronic sensors. These sensors can be augmented with data from UUVs and special forces. Intelligence can then be relayed to the surface and beyond via high-rate data transmitters.
The Virginia class is also a success from a cost perspective. The Seawolf-class that preceded it was a financial disaster—29 submarines were planned but the first three ships averaged $4.4 billion each and plans for further submarines were terminated.
The Virginias, on the other hand, have come in at an average of just under $2 billion each. Even better, by 2011 they were being delivered early and under budget. USS Mississippi was commissioned a year early and $60 million under budget. In May, the U.S. Navy ordered ten submarines from General Dynamics Electric Boat and Huntington Ingalls for $17.6 billion, making the per-unit cost a bargain at $1.76 billion. Under the agreement each shipyard would churn out a submarine a year for five years, ensuring that two submarines would join the fleet annually.
Ohio-Class Cruise Missile Submarine:
The four guided-missile submarines (SSGNs) of the Ohio-class: Ohio, Michigan, Florida, and Georgia — are four of the most heavily armed ships in the world. Each is equipped with 154 cruise missiles and can carry up to four platoons of Navy SEALs.
Originally constructed as ballistic missile submarines, each submarine carried 24 nuclear tipped D-5 Trident submarine-launched ballistic missiles. Under the terms of the START II treaty the United States was left with four excess ballistic missile submarine hulls. Rather than decommission them, the U.S. Navy paid $4 billion to convert them to carry conventionally-armed Tomahawk land attack cruise missiles.
Twenty two of the Trident missile silos were converted to each hold seven Tomahawk missiles. The result is a stealthy cruise missile platform capable of firing 154 Tomahawk missiles, a unique capability that greatly increases the US Navy’s firepower.
The precise loadout of each submarine is classified but includes some mixture of Block III Tomahawk and Block IV Tomahawk missiles. Tomahawk Block III/C has a single 1,000 lb conventional warhead and a range of 1,000 miles. Block III/D has a payload of 166 cluster bomblets and a range of 800 miles. Each missile features multiple navigation methods and can guide itself to target by Inertial Navigation System, Terrain Contour Matching, Digital Scene Matching Area Correlator and GPS.
Tomahawk Block IV/E adds the capability for each missile to conduct reconnaissance, bomb damage assessment and retargeting. The missile can send back an image of the battle area in order, loiter while new target data is drawn up, and then substitute a new target for the old one. The missile is also significantly cheaper than previous Tomahawks.
The remaining two Trident launchers were converted for use by Navy SEALs, and feature lockout chambers for exiting the submarine underwater. The Ohio-class SSGNs can each carry 66 SEAL commandos as well as embark a combination of two midget submarines or Dry Dock Shelters.
The Ohio submarines fired their first missiles in anger on March 19th, 2011 during Operation Odyssey Dawn. USS Florida fired 93 Tomahawks against Libyan military targets. In the future, the cruise missile submarines could be used as mother-ships for Unmanned Underwater Vehicles (UUVs.)
It may seem strange for an aging amphibious transport dock to be on this list, and indeed a week ago it would not have made the cut The 43-year-old USS Ponce, launched in July 1971, served for years as a transport for U.S. Marines. Now it’s an Afloat Forward Staging Base, and the first ship in the US Navy operationally armed with a laser weapon.
Wednesday, the U.S. Navy revealed that the Laser Weapon System, or LaWS is now an operational weapons system. The laser system is cleared to be fired in combat.
The laser system is designed to target unmanned aerial vehicles, slow moving helicopters, and fast patrol craft. In a video released by the Navy on YouTube, the laser detonates a RPG-7 anti-tank rocket, burned out the engine of a small boat, and shot down a small unmanned aerial vehicle. The process appears to take a fraction of a second.
The U.S. Navy claims that, per the Geneva Convention the laser will not be used to target individual humans. It’s safe to say, however, that detonating explosive devices, fuel, or causing catastrophic damage to a vehicle could have lethal consequences for the crew.
No details exist on the range of the LaWS, or how many shots it can fire in an engagement. The laser light does not appear visible to the naked eye. The system appears to be aimed by a shipboard operator using a modified video game controller.
In a world of high cost weapons systems, one of the most remarkable things about LaWS is the cost. LaWS costs only 69 cents per shot, with apparently only one shot needed to disable a small boat. The Griffin missile, which the U.S. Navy had also considered using against small boats, costs $99,000 each. RAM, the point defense system that might otherwise engage UAVs, costs well over $250,000 per missile. LaWS even compares favorably with the 20mm cannon round fired by the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System. While we don’t know how much the entire LaWS system actually costs, these per shot numbers are encouraging.
LaWS is a 30 kilowatt laser system. The U.S. Navy plans to test more powerful 100 to 150 kilowatt systems within the next two years.
Kyle Mizokami is a writer based in San Francisco who has appeared in The Diplomat, Foreign Policy, War is Boring and The Daily Beast. In 2009 he cofounded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
Image: Flickr/Official U.S. Navy/CC by 2.0