Essay: Changing the Anti-Ship Cruise Missile Paradigm

May 26, 2015 8:03 AM - Updated: May 26, 2015 1:35 PM
A Harpoon missile is launched from the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG-67) during a live-fire exercise on Sept. 15, 2014. US Navy Photo
A Harpoon missile is launched from the Ticonderoga-class guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh (CG-67) during a live-fire exercise on Sept. 15, 2014. US Navy Photo

During the Third Taiwan Strait Crisis (1995–96), United States naval dominance was demonstrated through the deployment of two carrier battle groups as a show of force within 100 miles of the Chinese mainland. Then-Secretary of Defense William Perry could state that while the Chinese “are a great military power, the premier—the strongest—military power in the Western Pacific is the United States.”

Since then, there has been a steady encroachment on the U.S. Navy’s maritime dominance through the development of technologically advanced and increasingly effective anti- ship cruise missiles (ASCM). While American forces have been focused on irregular warfare operations over the past decade, potential adversaries have forged ahead upgrading their naval offensive firepower.

Now a variety of longer-range and highly lethal missiles are fielded or in development for a number of navies, including those of China, India and Russia. China especially “views long range anti-ship cruise missiles as a key weapon . . . and is developing multiple advanced types”.

The proliferation of those weapons may be at a point where American naval forces could be significantly outgunned in a future surface engagement. The potential effect is considerable, conceivably preempting the ability of U.S. naval surface forces to fulfill a core mission of sea control or engage in other operations.

At a recent congressional hearing Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Jon Greenert bluntly stated “[the] Navy remains challenged in this (anti-surface warfare) mission area due to both capability and capacity shortfalls.”

In response, and what can be viewed as a call to arms, the surface navy’s senior leadership has laid out a path to “reclaim dominance in the maritime domain with a shift to the offensive.” Focused on the restoration of the striking power of the U.S. surface fleet, the demand for action encompasses effective weapon capabilities, innovative employment concepts, and indeed, a new operational mindset to support that fundamental change. Responding to the urgency of the situation and with an eye toward the budget environment, the admirals propose to reach the objective in large part by optimizing the current force and that of the immediate future.

Thus the Navy needs to look no further than the current shipboard weapon load-out for a potentially effective and affordable anti-surface warfare (ASuW) option.

That weapon is the Raytheon Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) Block IV missile, modernized and adapted for the maritime strike mission (henceforth referred to as Block IV MOD).

Expanding the Target Set

A Tomahawk cruise missile hits a moving maritime target Jan. 27 after being launched from the USS Kidd (DDG-100) near San Nicolas Island in California. US Navy Photo
A Tomahawk cruise missile hits a moving maritime target Jan. 27 after being launched from the USS Kidd (DDG-100) near San Nicolas Island in California. US Navy Photo

The Tomahawk Block IV missile is the latest variant in a steady progression of capability; incorporating mission planning, navigation and guidance, and command and control upgrades designed to improve weapon responsiveness and target flexibility. Launching from ranges out to 1,000 miles and armed with a 1,000-pound warhead, the Block IV is the Navy’s “kick down the door” weapon, attacking well defended high-value land targets.

Modernization of several key missile components is necessary in order to leverage Tomahawk’s inherent features, and effectively engage ships at sea. Extended range provides the shooter an operational sanctuary, but also requires over the horizon support through secure and effective communication links. The fact that combatants can move at up to 30 knots drives the need for onboard sensors to effectively “close the deal” against the intended target.

The complex operational environment that is the maritime battle space requires the ability to distinguish between warships and non-combatants, and effectively operate in the midst of sophisticated countermeasures. Thus the need for enhancements in system communication and data links, the addition of an advanced electronics system, and the incorporation of a terminal guidance seeker.

Block IV’s current capability as a “net enabled weapon” features a two-way satellite data link that allows the controller to switch targets during flight to pre-programmed alternate targets or redirect to a new objective. Data link modernization could be achieved through drop in replacement of the current communication links, or using other compatible locations on the missile (the size of the weapon provides ample real estate). High TRL (a level of DOD recognized level of technical maturity) spread spectrum waveforms are available to provide improved anti-jam and low probability of intercept performance.

Other communication modernization features offer the ability to support simultaneous over the horizon and local network communications for weapon control. Those improvements will also enable Block IV MOD to take advantage of significant intelligence surveillance reconnaissance and targeting (ISR&T) investment the Navy has made in platforms (i.e., the MQ-4B Triton and P-8A Poseidon), sensors and communication links.

By leveraging improvements in processing power and advanced sensor technologies, there are alternative and fairly mature terminal guidance seeker solutions available for incorporation in the weapon. Whether imaging infrared, or active millimeter wave radar, they all offer a degree of demonstrated capability against moving targets at sea. All-weather capability, automatic target recognition, simultaneously prosecution of multiple targets, and future growth potential are other features that could be incorporated into the terminal guidance capability, depending on cost and timeline requirements.

An advanced electronics system passively detecting an adversary’s electromagnetic radiations can be a critical enabler for hitting the intended objective. It can provide a correlating source of information for target identification. That may range from the initial detection of a hostile surface action group (SAG) to additional ship type information. In addition, the advanced electronics system may provide supporting target information via electromagnetic emissions in the midst of an adversary’s active countermeasures.

In January of this year, the Navy successfully demonstrated the capability of the Block IV missile striking a moving maritime target. Although achieved in the context of a controlled event, it highlighted the “current capabilities of Tomahawk as a netted weapon . . .” and provides a glimpse of what “could be” with Block IV MOD in the ASuW mission.

Timeline and Cost

However, weapon capability is only part of the equation, and in today’s budgetary environment affordability issues often overshadow it. Major defense acquisition programs across the department continue to experience cost and schedule challenges, exacerbated by a cumbersome and often unresponsive acquisition process. Finally, growing and unforeseen operational demands continue to strain the DOD budget.

Yet despite the budget uncertainty there can be an executable and affordable path to a fielded Block IV MOD capability. The upcoming Block IV recertification process offers a scheduled structure to complete the specific upgrades without unnecessarily removing the weapons from inventory. It is conceivable that 1,200 weapons could be delivered to the Fleet by 2023, with the initial increment being provided as early as 2020.

Block IV is already fully integrated across the current cruiser, destroyer, and fast attack submarine force. The weapon infrastructure is established and supports mission planning, command and control, and multiple levels of logistics, including storage and handling. That means there would be 136 compatible surface and submarine combatants upon Block IV MOD reaching initial operational capability.

Tomahawk cruise missile launched from a MK 41 VLS tube on the USS Farragut (DDG-99) US Navy Photo
Tomahawk cruise missile launched from a MK 41 VLS tube on the USS Farragut (DDG-99) US Navy Photo

Furthermore, the weapon could be carried in any of the 96/122 vertical launch cells on DDG/CG class combatants respectively, and in the 40 cells of the fast attack submarines. Specific weapon loads are scenario dependent, but it would not be atypical for Tomahawks to make up 30 percent of the weapon composition. Such a ratio yields a sizeable number of long range ASuW weapons for a three-ship surface action group, while allowing for other weapons to support further mission tasking (such as anti-air warfare or missile defense).

Upgrades to an established weapon system with a supporting framework will translate into lower development, integration and training costs. The communication improvements and sensor additions are based on technologies that are mature, and in several cases operationally demonstrated. Modernization of the communication and electronics components are partially funded, reducing the additional outlay required. Significant development costs for mission planning, weapons control and logistics, which must be addressed by other weapon options, can be avoided with Block IV MOD. The 2012 Tomahawk Rapid Deployment Capability initiative (a maritime moving-target capability designed to provide a fielded weapon within 42 months), estimated at $180 million in development expenditures, provides a further basis for cost estimation.

Procurement funding would be for modification to existing weapons rather than purchasing new missiles. The costs therefore should be considerably less than those of a new weapon. Assume that weapon modifications are roughly one quarter the cost of a new round. Using the Tomahawk fly away unit cost, $184 million (PB16 Tomahawk procurement funding) could deliver approximately 650 weapons. These rough estimates suggest a sizeable weapon inventory could be available to the Fleet in the 2020+ timeframe, and for conceivably less than $400 million in total expenditures.

The expense of the Block IV MOD could be further offset through foreign military sales to allies and treaty partners. The U.K. Royal Navy’s Trafalgar and Astute-class submarines are Tomahawk capable, and there is possible weapon applicability for its new Type 26 class global combat ship. Italy and Poland are two other potential customers, as they consider weapon load-outs for their Type U212A submarines. Europe’s suddenly volatile security environment, including the emergence of “snap” Russian naval exercises, bolsters the value of Block IV MOD foreign sales beyond that of cost and affordability.

Other options may be hard pressed to provide a comparable capability in the envisioned timeframe, and for the approximate costs. The Navy’s Offensive Anti-Surface Warfare (OASuW) weapon program is one example. OASuW is to provide “. . . an offensive weapon system that can be air, surface and subsurface launched in the maritime battle space environment.”
OASuW Increment I (more commonly known as the Long-Range Anti-Ship missile [LRASM]) is an air-launch design weapon with an expected initial operational capability in late 2019. LRASM is an adaptation of the Air Force Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile Extended Range (JASSM –ER), envisioned to attack heavily defended targets at long range.

LRASM currently is slated to be carried on the F/A-18EF (whose integration requirements are relatively simple in comparison with those of shipboard integration). The program is leveraging an “accelerated acquisition approach with streamlined governance” in order to minimize development time and ensure fielding by 2019. (The defense acquisition community has undertaken various initiatives in order to minimize delays and meet schedule, even so many programs continue to struggle with timeline requirements). Development costs currently total $1.1 billion. Those figures approach $1.3 billion when one factors in the cost of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency demonstration. While LRASM does provide a joint (B-1B compatible) air-launch capability, the surface requirement remains to be satisfied.

Lockheed Martin artist's conception of the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). Lockheed Martin Photo
Lockheed Martin artist’s conception of the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). Lockheed Martin Photo

The Navy has yet to determine the schedule and cost for the OASuW Increment II effort although the Precision Strike Weapons Development Program provides for the initial developmental of a multi mission, multi-platform long range strike capability.[3] The effort as stated is “focused on assessing, maturing and incorporating emergent technologies to determine the best path for the follow-on improved land/maritime strike capability effort.”

If the Navy were to choose to adapt an air-launch design weapon for ship and submarine employment, the path will likely be neither simple nor inexpensive. DARPA has acknowledged the need to address long-lead development tasks, including modifications to the missile airframe, design of the booster separation system, and development of a new hybrid canister to accommodate the weapon. There are a range of other shipboard integration items to be addressed. These include weapons control, mission planning and AEGIS integration as well as multiple levels of testing (IM, development test, and operational test).

The cost and timeline required to incorporate the Tomahawk Block IV onboard the Ticonderogaclass and Arleigh Burke-class ships provides a potential example of what could be required for OASuW shipboard integration. Block IV, although a ship-launch design weapon, was significantly different from the Block III missile, and incurred substantial integration costs ($800M by some estimates) and two years of effort for each ship class. It is not unreasonable to expect expenditures to be even greater if the Navy chooses to adapt an air-launch weapon for shipboard use. Despite leveraging significant past investment, the service could still face the prospect of a billion dollar plus development program into the next decade.

Funding is also required to deliver a sufficient supply of weapons. The Combatant Commanders will want an inventory adequate for a number of deployed combatants from both the surface and submarine force. Presently the U.S. Navy maintains roughly one-third of the Fleet deployed, including some 50 ships in the Pacific area of operations. Current LRASM weapon procurement funding will deliver 138 rounds (88 of which are for the Navy) for $265 million. While that does not necessarily equate to the procurement costs of the Increment II missile, it provides an indication of the potential expenditure required for even a modest inventory of weapons.

The Effects of Long Range Lethality

The Navy should not pursue Block IV MOD just because of cost or timeline. The Navy should develop this weapon option because the potential implications of a 1,000-mile anti-ship cruise missile employed across the Fleet are broad and far reaching.

Tomahawk BLK IV cruise missile. US Navy Photo
Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile. US Navy Photo

Block IV MOD potentially changes the ASCM paradigm at multiple levels. Such a weapon provides the Combatant Commander with a credible, forward-deployed and ready force, without necessarily requiring the presence of a carrier strike group. A surface action group loaded with a complement of these weapons can serve as an effective deterrent, responsive to the multiple maritime flashpoints that characterize the foreseeable security environment. And if a crisis should escalate into a “come as you are fight,” a Block IV MOD equipped force provides a directly available and effectively lethal option. Viewed from the other perspective, the weapon should force a change in the calculus of the opposing force, no longer able to maneuver from the previous level of sanctuary.

Block IV MOD delivers the capability currently missing from the Navy’s ASuW portfolio, a long-range ship-launch weapon balancing the flexibility of naval air power and the access of the submarine force. The surface fleet will once again be able to operate independently against other naval forces when armed with an effective and survivable missile. As in land attack operations, the weapon brings a lethal “kick down the door” capability operating in conjunction with the strike and electronic attack elements of the carrier air wing. There are potential employment concepts to consider with the P-8A Poseidon, whose targeting sensors and weapons carriage are well complemented by the striking power of the Block IV MOD missile. And the weapon is uniquely posed to leverage the fast attack submarine fleet, already forward-deployed in an “anti-access/area denial“ environment, now able to launch from sanctuary against any hostile surface action group.

Finally, Block IV MOD retains its inherent long-range land-strike qualities and provides the joint force commander with a truly multi-mission weapon, simultaneously holding numerous and diverse targets at risk over a broad geographical expanse.


The Fleet initially requested a surface-launch maritime strike weapon to address the emerging anti-ship cruise missile threat nearly 10 years ago. In today’s volatile security environment, the requirement has only increased. Nonetheless, the service could still be a decade away from meeting the challenge. That need not be the case. The January 2015 demonstration provides a glimpse of what Tomahawk could provide in the maritime strike role. As Deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work said, “. . . this is a potential game-changing capability for not a lot of cost.”

It is time for the Navy to act on that potential.

Robert Crumplar

Robert Crumplar has considerable experience in strike and electronic warfare missions from an operational perspective as well as from within the defense and aerospace industry. He is a distinguished graduate of the Naval War College and a former Federal Executive Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Washington, D.C.

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