Why America's Nuclear Aircraft Carriers Need a Mission Adjustment

Why America's Nuclear Aircraft Carriers Need a Mission Adjustment

Has the U.S. Navy allowed itself to be lulled into a false sense of security by all these years of dealing with second or third-rate naval threats?

This of course was an artificial conflation of two entirely different systems. What is loosely called the “Kalibr,” is actually a family of 3M-54 missiles with both land attack and ASM variants, including reduced-performance export variants. The land-attack variant is reported to have a range of about 1,500 miles and uses an inertial guidance system combined with the Glonass Russian satellite navigation system to deliver a 990-pound warhead. They are subsonic and although they can have a terrain-following mode, their en-route altitude is around 150–500 feet making them susceptible to modern air defenses. This was the variant used against targets in Syria. The ASM variant is different. It carries a 440-pound warhead over distances of between 150 and four hundred miles. It, too, is subsonic, but flies at a sea-skimming altitude of around fifteen feet, making it very hard to detect even for modern shipborne radars. It is reported to be able to perform evasive maneuvers in the terminal phase and one variant at least had a rocket-propelled warhead that separates and accelerates to Mach 2.9 in the final stages of its flight. The other main family of ASCMs are the P-800 Oniks, a dedicated ASM with a wholly supersonic flight profile. Oniks carries a 250-pound warhead over distances of up to 370 miles (reduced, if in sea-skimming mode) and can travel at around Mach 2.5. Significantly, Oniks can share the same, eight-shaft Universal VLS with Kalibr and therefore, theoretically at least, can be fielded by the same small, corvette-sized platforms, although the targeting will necessarily be a joint effort with other, more sophisticated sensors.

What should be noted here though is that, in order to mount a credible ASCM threat, the launch platform for either missile will have to close to within approximately four hundred miles of its intended target. Therefore, even with the reduced ranges of the modern air wing, there should be significant opportunity for a well-handled carrier-group to intercept the launching ship before any missiles are released. The key, of course, will be an ability to detect the defending ships at long range and an ability to overcome their air defenses.

Launch Platforms and Air Defenses

The Admiral Gorshkov class frigates represent the only type of modern, ocean-going warships projected to enter the Russian navy in the near future. When the first ship of the class was laid down in 2006, some reports suggested that the number built might eventually be as high as fifteen. While those numbers have likely been curtailed significantly, this class, or ships very like them are expected to become the mainstay of the new Russian fleet. Fully 4,500 tons in displacement, the ships have two eight-shaft vertical launch systems compatible with both Kalibr and Oniks missiles. They also have a modern air defense capability, the “Poliment-Redut complex” which is based around a naval version of the S-350 Vityaz medium range missile, capable of engaging low-flying targets. Of the four ships so far laid down, only one, the Admiral Gorshkov, is undergoing sea trials. The rest are awaiting replacements for their propulsion plants which were originally ordered from a Ukrainian supplier and had not been completed prior to the introduction of the arms embargo in 2014. Russian engine maker UEC-Saturn has been commissioned to design new engines for the ships, but these will likely not be available before 2018.

Apart from the main engines, there have been numerous other teething troubles. Admiral Gorshkov has demonstrated issues with the integration of its weapons systems and sensor arrays, as well as with individual weapon systems themselves, including the Poliment-Redut complex. At the same time, the inability of subcontractors to supply component parts on schedule has led to cascading delays in construction. It is likely that these problems, which remain unresolved ten years after the construction of the lead ship started, will surface repeatedly with the remaining ships of the class. This sort of thing raises doubt in Russia’s overall ability to produce modern blue water warships.

As a direct result of these delays, and to fill an emerging gap in its surface fleet, the navy has ordered six smaller and simpler frigates, based on the older Krivak design and its Indian Talwar development. At four thousand tons full displacement, the Admiral Grigorovich has an endurance and seaworthiness comparable with the Gorshkov class. Significantly however they only carry a single, eight-shaft, vertical launch system and their air defenses are based on an older Shtil-1 medium-range complex, the navalized version of the Buk M1-2, whose capability to engage multiple low-flying targets is inferior to the Redut complexes. Two of the Grigorovich class have been commissioned, one is finishing sea trials, and three others are waiting for engines, as with the Gorshkov’s.

It is unlikely that the long-term rearmament program will find the funds to order the troublesome Gorshkov class beyond the four currently under construction, while the Grigorovich class is likely to remain limited to just six ships. However, if all the frigates of both classes now under construction are completed, the navy will have 112 launch tubes for modern ASMs on ten platforms with adequate air defenses. Adequate however, does not mean optimal. Should these frigates face an adversary capable of overcoming their medium range air defenses while staying outside the range of their ASMs, their role will be limited at best.

Elsewhere the old, heavy missile cruiser Piotr Velikiy will soon join its sister ship, Admiral Nakhimov at the Sevmash shipyard for major upgrades. Both ships, at twenty-eight thousand tons displacement and with nuclear-propulsion plants, are old, Soviet-era, Kirov class, heavy missile cruisers, laid down in the early to mid-1980’s. They are expected to receive a new armament of ten eight-shaft vertical-launch systems for ASMs, likely compatible with both Kalibr and P-800 Oniks missiles. More importantly, their air defenses will be upgraded to the navalized version of the S-400 Triumpf missile complex, the latest anti-aircraft weapon in the Russian arsenal. If the claims of ranges of up to 150 miles and an ability to engage multiple low-flying targets hold true, the new system will make the old cruisers the best-protected ships in the Russian navy. Meanwhile, the sole remaining aircraft carrier Admiral Kuznetsov, another Soviet-era ship, is also being upgraded, to include the installation of Kalibr/Oniks missile launchers. When these upgrades are completed, the navy will have added more than 160 cruise missile launchers to its strength. More importantly, each firing unit will be protected by strong air defenses.

Way Ahead for the U.S. Navy

While the surface ship ASM threat has grown significantly over the last two decades, it is not insurmountable. The situation is certainly no worse than it was during the Cold War in the 1970s, and back then, the U.S. Navy was able to counter the Soviet missile threat by using a combination of both technological overmatch and aggressive doctrine. Even if today’s Russian systems achieve their promised performance, they will undoubtedly be hampered by a lack of launching platform numbers and this can offer opportunities. For example, even if both heavy cruisers are refitted, which is still by no means certain, this would likely give the Russians a maximum of two, deployable ASM groups, consisting of one heavy missile cruiser and two frigate escorts each. In these situations, historical parallels would indicate that only one of these groups would likely be operational at any one time, with the other either refitting or undergoing training. This amounts to a maximum of around one hundred missile tubes per group. While still a formidable threat, the opportunity for separate axis coordinated attacks is necessarily limited, since the air defense needs will likely keep the ships fairly close to one another. This greatly simplifies the problem for the United States in both locating and countering such a group.

On the material front, the United States has a variety of systems under development to mitigate specific threats and these will likely improve with time. New cyber and counter-space capabilities may enable the degradation of space-based ISR and over-the-horizon targeting, while technical counters are undoubtedly underway in order to defeat the individual missile sensors themselves. This is one approach, but it needs to be recognized that it is invariably easier to neutralize a given ASM threat by dealing with the launch platform at range—and before it has launched any missiles—than it is to defend against the incoming missiles themselves. To this end, the long-awaited LRASM and a revival of the anti-ship variant of the Tomahawk will go a long way to improve the fleet’s offensive reach.

However, given that procurement is often beyond service control, are there any immediate, organizational and institutional measures that the U.S. Navy might take now, in order to set the service on the right path for the future? We believe the answer to that question is “yes.” In fact, in many ways the greatest rewards come ultimately from the institutional changes that a service makes in support of any new technology it may receive. One need only consider the 1930s adoption of BlitzKrieg by Nazi Germany as a classic example of this. In this light, the recently released, unclassified version of the “Littoral Operations in Contested Environments (LOCE)” represents an encouraging and valuable first step, recognizing as it does that the long-range ASM threat has made effective sea denial far more likely. Significantly however, its focus is limited to shore-based systems, and the need to clear these with marines before power projection can begin in earnest. This is only a part of the problem.