By Konstandinos Nizamis*
Klaouzevits, had warned us almost two centuries ago, war is a chameleon, it changes its form constantly, hiding his phase and transforming from one type to another.
The latest transformation in the naval warfare took place in the World War II and introduced itself with an infamous act. The Japanese attack, in Pearl Harbor. The Japanese navy tried to win the war by sinking the entire US Pacific fleet, using not the big guns of its battleships, but the airplanes of its carriers. So, it was in the Pacific, where sea warfare as we understand it in the last 70 years, developed and formulated. Big carriers, loaded with airplanes, were seeking the enemy in the vast Pacific Ocean and they were launching them, to destroy him. In that war, enemy sailormen never saw each other. The carriers were launching their planes hundreds of miles away from the enemy forces. The battles were fought in the skies near and above the carriers. The actual fighting was taking place between enemy pilots who were trying to shoot down each other and between bomber pilots and the air defense capabilities of the carries and the other ships. In stark contrast the sea battles in the Atlantic were more of a traditional type and the last great battles between warships had taken place there, like the hunt and sinking of battleship Bismark.
The importance and the invincibility of the combined maritime and air power proved its value many times over during the cold war. USA carrier groups with the ability to project power everywhere in the world, the monstrous firepower and flexibility of their airplanes, secured the sea lines of communications, protected American interests all over the world and contributed to a great degree to the final victory over the USSR. Those magnificent and marvelous ships seems that they are about to meet an able opponent. The new weapon system that are promising to change once again the phase of sea warfare actually is a combination of an already existing technology and of one that is developing fast. The first technology, is the missile technology already mature and easy to master. The second technology is about flying at extremely high speed (hypersonic speed- that is in excess of mach 5 and up to mach 20). Flying a controllable vehicle in that speed sets a series of technical problems that are not solved yet. Probably the major problem is to create a jet engine that could work in that conditions.
To be accurate, supersonic antiship missiles are in service for many decades now with the once Soviet Navy and now its successor Russian Navy. Their development and adoption is due to qualitative and numerical inferiority of the Soviet naval forces in the cold war. USSR had to find a credible, cheap and easy way to negate the American threat, of course not globally but in the littoral areas of the Soviet empire. The soviet engineers came up with the use of supersonic missiles launched from a variety of platforms (planes, ships, land launchers). The first Russian cruise missile AS-1 was actually a modified MIG-15 in an antiship role. The development, production and use of supersonic missiles remains a vital and central Russian strategy today with the latest 3M82 / Kh-41 Moskit / SS-N-22 Sunburn and P-800 / 3M55 / Kh-61 Yakhont / Brahmos / SS-N-26 Stallion missiles.
Additionally, Russia became a major supplier of supersonic missiles both to China and India and the main partner of both countries in developing their own systems, providing the necessary technology and knowhow.China adopted and copied Russian supersonic missiles for much the same reason that made them indispensable to the Soviet war machine. PLA for decades lacked the appropriate naval power to defend and control its nearby seas. The latest member in the countries that built and operate supersonic missile is India which produces in cooperation with Russia the Brahmos missile. The Brahmos use a combination of a conventional missile for the first stage of its flight and a ramjet engine for the final approach to target. It has a cruising speed of Mach 2.8 (3,400 km/h) and a 290 km range and it can it can fly from an altitude of 15 km to mere meters above the waves.In contrast, and in full compliance with the paradoxal logic of strategy, as Luttwak another strategist claims, US and NATO choose to develop an efficient and capable air defense and not to engage in a competition in developing supersonic missiles of its own. Recognizing the grave danger to the fleet and especially to the most valued ships of all, the carriers, hurried up to beef up the air defenses especially in the antimissile field.The most prominent example is the combination of the F-14 Tomcat, a billion dollar airframe and the Phoenix missile, solely designed and built to engage and kill air breathing threats long before they reach the American flattops. The above combination is not the only defensive measure but one of many. Other systems including CIWS Phalanx, antimissile missiles, electronic counter measures etc., were developed in a more or less expected effort to protect Americas most valuable asset. Therefore West even at this time hasn’t got any supersonic missile equivalent to the Russian ones.
Eventually the cold war ended, leaving US as the only superpower in the world. Alas, new threats emerged like terrorism and new rivals appeared in the horizon like China. In response to the new security environment, new ideas about new weapons and the different use of old ones came up. The common theme and the main idea behind the new concepts, was one physical element, essential in warfare, namely speed. Speed regarded by American agencies as the new stealth, providing the necessary superiority to friendly forces. Superfast missiles compress the time defenders have to react to an attack and to successfully engage it and if used in large numbers can saturate the air Defence systems and defeat at low cost even an expensive and powerful carrier battle group.Among the first ideas, was the retrofitting of old nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles and arming them with conventional war heads. That way, they could be used against an array of targets without provoking a nuclear response. The idea quickly abandoned because of the obvious disadvantages. Once a ballistic missile is launched the enemy has no way of knowing what kind of warhead is carrying, thus a nuclear war may start due to an ambiguous act. Moreover a ballistic missile launched to strike a terrorist cave in Afghanistan, or Africa would follow the same ballistic path that could be used to target Chinese or Russian cities, provoking a nuclear response. US Congress taken into account these ambiguities and uncertainties stopped the development of the project, despite the many attempts by military planners to obtain approval of their plans and adequate funding.The plan was part of a program—in slow development since the 1990s, and now quickly coalescing in military circles—called Prompt Global Strike.On the other side of Pacific Ocean though, such qualms never appeared. China’s PLA probably copying the American concept developed the very same weapon that US Congress banned. China converted an intermediate nuclear ballistic missile into an antiship missile named Dong Feng 21D. This ballistic missile is launched toward space and arcing back to earth at speeds of about Mach 10 with a reported range of about 1,500 km. China, developed this missile as a “carrier killer”, an easy, effective and cheap way to challenge Americas naval supremacy in the Pacific Ocean, denying access to East China Sea to American vessels and ultimately leaving Chinese forces unopposed to secure the capitulation of the other Asian states and eventually regional hegemony.
So far, we have talked about already existing technologies, albeit in a new role. All the weapons are either modified ballistic missiles with conventional warheads or supersonic cruise missiles with speeds up to 3 or 4 Mach’s, nothing exotic and nothing new.The really interesting, revolutionary, new and game changing technology is hypersonic flight that enables vehicles to fly at speeds in excess of Mach 5 and up to Mach 20. These hypersonic vehicles are not missiles. Missiles carry their own fuel and oxidizer, a feature that permits them to operate in thin air upper atmosphere and outer space, but limits their flight profile and uses. In contrast, hypersonic vehicles are airbreathing vehicles that are using atmosphere’s oxygen just like turbofan and turbojet engines. Such vehicles,could travel at missile speed but will have the maneuverability and agility of an aircraft, making easier to avoid defenses, to change course en route to target and all that in a more economical way.
Where is the catch? Those wonderful capabilities demand the development of a new kind of engine that can operate reliably in those high speeds. Existing turbojet and turbofans engines can operate at speeds of about Mach2. Ramjets (jet engines without spinning blades like turbofan or turbojets but with specially designed inlets capable of slowing and compressing the airstream), can operate in higher speeds of about 3 to 4 Mach’s. Hypersonic vehicles operating at speeds above Mach5 require the development of scramjets (supersonic combustion ramjets) engines, capable of igniting and maintain combustion in a stream of supersonic air. Technology hasn’t provide a credible answer yet to this challenge. To make matter worse ramjets and scramjets cannot start flying on their own; they must be accelerated by a carrier aircraft or a first stage missile.The first successful flight test of a scramjet vehicle took place in the 1990’s by a group of Russian, French and American scientists, though it’s not quite clear if supersonic combustion was achieved in those tests. More recently, Russia and India are reportedly working together to produce a scramjet version of Brahmos missile. As for China beyond the DF-21D project that we have already mentioned, there are reports that is testing its own hypersonic vehicle. The Qian Xuesen National Engineering Science Experiment Base is one the centers that research and development about hypersonic technology take place. Recently, according to American and Chinese media, China tested an hypersonic vehicle that reached Mach 10 speed, above its territory. American media designated it as WU-14.Despite all that China, India and even Russia are still far away of their target to build a credible, reliable, operational ready, hypersonic vehicle.
Interestingly enough – or maybe not- the country that has the most advanced and more numerous such programs is USA. To begin with there is the X-51A Waverider, that was tested last summer, over the Pacific Ocean and is produced by a consortium composed of USAF, Boeing, DARPA, NASA, Pratt and Whitney, Rocketdyne and the USAF Research Laboratory’s Propulsion Directorate. The test ended after a malfunction resulted in the destruction of the vehicle. Of course the X-51A, it’s not the only program developed under the prompt global strike iniative, the Pentagon supports and funds DARPA’s Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 and Army’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon. And we’re not finished yet; another promising project is based on one of the Cold War legends, the famous SR-71 “Blackbird” spy plane. SR-71 had a revolutionary combo machine “J-58” consisted of a turbojet mounted inside a ramjet. That combination enables the SR-71 to start flying on its own and to go supersonic in high altitude. This project named SR-72 potentially would fly at Mach 5 and besides reconnaissance missions it would be capable of carrying and deliver air to ground munitions. Those munitions will have their own hypersonic features and Lockheed’s Skunk Work laboratories which are responsible for those hypersonic programs are calling them “High Speed Strike Weapon”, essentially an hypersonic missile that would be suitable for use by future bombers and fighter aircrafts. Lockheed believes that in the future “speed will be the new stealth”, meaning that if you’ re flying extremely fast the enemy will not have the time to detect you and shoot you down.
Furthermore DARPA recently announced the launch of yet another one hypersonic experimental program. It is called Experimental Spaceplane (XS-1) and according to DARPA its purpose is to develop a reusable unmanned vehicle with costs, operation and reliability similar to a traditional aircraft yet capable to ascend to suborbital altitudes to deploy satellites into Low Earth Orbit. Despite the many advantages that hypersonic systems would have in future battle space we should not get too excited. The needed technology is still in its infancy and we’re probably many years away from their operational deployment. Furthermore the paradoxal logic of strategy is working even before those systems became operational, producing the antidotes that will provide the necessary means, mainly for a carrier battle group to counter a swarm attack by supersonic missiles.
Those technologies in contrast to supersonic missiles are for the most part already developed and ready to be tested in operational deployments. Among them the most promising is the laser guns that would be used to counter asymmetrical threats such as drones, speed boats,missiles and so on. The laser guns with their ability to fire fast, accurate and continuously without the fear of running out of ammunition are already installed in US navy ships. Other systems include electromagnetic rail guns and revolving missile launchers. Those weapons are also being developed but the US armed forces, an astounding fact that exemplifies their resolve not only to hold but to expand their superiority over their potential competitors.To conclude, Pacific Ocean once more is becoming the workshop of a new type of warfare. Warriors of both sides will never see each other in those wars but will depend on systems fast, lethal and accurate to destroy the enemy in mere minutes or even seconds. Additionally despite the strengthening of potential competitors, USA still is the most powerful, sophisticated and intelligent actor in the area. Furthermore, although anti access and area denial capabilities are an important element of maritime strategy, still the real and paramount ability of a navy, the only one that will ensure victory is to confront the enemy navy in the sea and defeat it.
About the author:
*Konstandinos Nizamis is Senior Military Analyst (Mediterranean Observatory – International Relations Institute of Athens)
This article was published by Modern Diplomacy.