This Is How the Carriers Will Die

Monday, August 10th, 2009

Gary Brecher, the War Nerd, has been saying for a long time that aircraft carriers are just history’s most expensive floating targets, and that they were doomed:

But now I can tell you exactly how they’re going to die. I’ve just read one of the most shocking stories in years. It comes from the US Naval Institute, not exactly an alarmist or anti-Navy source. And what it says is that the US carrier group is scrap metal.

The Chinese military has developed a ballistic missile, Dong Feng 21, specifically designed to kill US aircraft carriers: “Because the missile employs a complex guidance system, low radar signature and a maneuverability that makes its flight path unpredictable, the odds that it can evade tracking systems to reach its target are increased. It is estimated that the missile can travel at mach 10 and reach its maximum range of 2000km in less than 12 minutes.” That’s the US Naval Institute talking, remember. They’re understating the case when they say that, with speed, satellite guidance and maneuverability like that, “the odds that it can evade tracking systems to reach its target are increased.”

You know why that’s an understatement? Because of a short little sentence I found farther on in the article—and before you read that sentence, I want all you trusting Pentagon groupies to promise me that you’ll think hard about what it implies. Here’s the sentence: “Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.”

“Well, they must have thought of that already,” you might think. “They must have some defense in mind.”

When you start talking like that, just slap yourself and remember all the other military traditions that kept going long after anybody with sense knew they were finito.

The most obvious example is European heavy cavalry trotting into longbow fire again and again. Crecy demonstrated that knightly charges were suicide against the longbow in 1346. But the French aristocracy had so much invested in prancing around on their damn steeds that it took another demonstration, at Agincourt in 1415 to even start to get them thinking about it. I’m no math wiz but I think that 1415 minus 1346 — yup, that’s 69 years between catastrophes. Lessons learned? None.

These dodos always have one thing in common: whether it’s knights charging with lances on very expensive horses or top gun brats like McCain zooming onto carrier decks in history’s most expensive aircraft, you’ll always find that the worst, most over-funded services are always the ones where the rich kids go to show their stuff. Seriously: why are there aircraft carriers? For asses like John McCain to crash on. Why do they keep getting funded long after they’ve been shown up? The same reason knights were galloping around pretending that the longbow hadn’t turned half their friends into pincushions: because it was a way of life for the richest and dumbest people in the country and they weren’t about to let it go.

The US Navy, Brecher says, will be stuck with its own Harpoon:

Y’all remember the Harpoon, the US Navy’s first dedicated anti-ship guided surface to surface missile, right? Good ol’ AGM-84? A fine weapon by all accounts. You’ll remember it entered service in 1977.
Well, instead of just paging through Jane’s and drooling over the Harpoon’s range and 221-kg warhead (don’t bother lying, I spent years doing that stuff myself and I know), think about what that weapons means in terms of this key sentence from my last story: “Ships currently have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.” Now put that together with the fact that the Harpoon, way back in the Disco Era, had a cool little feature called “pop-up.” And what it meant is that the Harpoon itself worked as a ballistic missile. So even in our own inventory, we’ve had a weapon lying around for decades that could have taken out all our carriers.

What “pop-up” means is — well, it’s actually kind of cool and for once I can talk my old fave, hardware, without feeling like a tool. So anyway, the Harpoon has an interesting trajectory. It’s fired from vertical or diagonal tubes on the deck or the hold of surface ships, but there are other models that can be launched from aircraft or even subs. If you’ve seen video of a harpoon launch, you see it zoom up from the tube, then slide down to fly level, just above the waves, so’s to avoid enemy radar.

But once the Harpoon’s own radar has spotted the target, does it keep flying level to slam into the side of the ship? Nope. I’ll quote from the owner’s manual: “Once a target has been located and the seeker locked…the missile climbs rapidly to about 1800m before diving on the target (”pop-up maneuver”).”

In other words, the Harpoon does a last-minute transformation from wave-skimmer to ballistic missile. If you diagrammed its flight path, seen from the side, You’d get a capital “P” lying on its back, with the loop of the “P” being the pop-up maneuver.

The reason the Harpoon was designed to hit the target from above rather than the side is simple: a ships defenses are configured to stop planes (and missiles, even though they don’t work against missiles and everybody knows it) coming in diagonally or horizontally. To repeat that sentence again — and I’m going to keep repeating it till everybody realizes what it means — ”ships currently [just like in 1977 when the Harpoon entered service] have no defense against a ballistic missile attack.”

So we have the Navy’s own weapons system testifying against it: way back in Carter’s time the Navy bought a weapon that was designed to hit ships like a ballistic missile, yet now, forty years later, USN ships have no defense against ballistic missiles.

It gets worse. The Navy didn’t even want the Harpoon at all. It was only adopted because after seeing Soviet-made anti-ship missiles destroy the Israeli destroyer Eilat in 1967, a few of the more honest R&D guys at the Pentagon forced the Navy to shop for their own model. The Navy — remember, they’re just like the French heavy cavalry brass of the late 14th century, trying real hard not to think about the real world — didn’t like the idea of anti-ship missiles at all. They were the equivalent of the longbow: unmanned, longrange, un-chivalrous weapons, and you couldn’t drink with them at the officer’s club.

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