US Army finds a new use for old missiles – sinking ships

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It used to be the case that the US took its air and sea supremacy for granted, able to both defend itself against any possible threat and project power wherever it wanted. It seems, though, that some in the military are beginning to worry that a growing power is threatening this state of affairs – China.

This was told military expert Sam Bocetta, a writer at Gun News Daily.

According to the military expert, over the past 20 years, China has been steadily building up its defences against potential US hostility. To this end, it has built up a vast array of different weapon systems designed to effectively counter a US carrier strike group. These weapons include land-based missiles, a new generation of strike aircraft, and an expanded submarine fleet.

These weapons are designed primarily for defense, of course – it is not likely that China will attack to US anytime soon. The major worry appears to be that, what with the recent Chinese meddling in the South China Sea, the US might decide to intervene.

The Response

Though they have been somewhat slow to recognize the problem, it now appears that the US military are responding to this build up. But rather than go through the long, expensive process of commissioning an entirely new weapon, they have taken a novel approach and re-purposed an older one.

Back in 2016, the Pentagon announced that the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS) would be re-purposed. This is a missile normally fired from a truck at ground targets, but after in the upgrade it will be pointed at the sea, and given a new guidance system, allowing it to track and hit moving targets at a range of up to 186 miles.

This is an admirable step, of course. We are becoming used to stories of the military spending years on commissioning new weapons systems, and spending hundreds of millions of dollars on them, only to find that they do not work, or have been made obsolete in the decade it took them to become operational. Re-purposing an old weapon like this shows a refreshing pragmatism on behalf of a military not known for this quality.

A New Approach

Re-purposing the missile also makes sense from a tactical point of view. The missile system has been used extensively in Iraq and Afghanistan, and has a proven record of success there. It is especially prized for its ability to hit moving targets right out to the edge of its operational range, a fact that should not be surprising given that this range has been artificially reduced to conform to the Intermediate Range Nuclear Forces Treaty.

The “new” weapon marks something of a shift in emphasis on behalf of the US Navy. Anti-ship defenses have not really been thought about since the 1960s. Whilst large coastal guns still played a role in WW2, the rapidly increasing range of aircraft and ship-based artillery meant that they became obsolete shortly after the war. And in any case, during the Cold War the enemy was Russia, and so sea warfare was forgotten about.

For many years, the US was essentially unchallenged on the sea, but this is a situation that has changed in recent times. As China develops, it has spent vast sums of money on its Navy, and now has the world’s largest conventional ballistic missile force. It has also developed two types of missile specifically designed to take down US Navy warships, and by 2020 will have the second-largest blue water navy in the world.

Killing Ships With Trucks

This build-up has led some in the US military to worry that they are lagging behind. Currently, the primary anti-ship weapon used by the US is the Harpoon missile, developed a few decades back and definitely showing its age. It operates by skimming low across the surface of the sea, and recent advantages in radar technology mean that its exhaust trail can be easily seen.
In contrast, the new weapon system is ballistic – it climbs to an enormous height under its own power, and then drops toward the target. This makes it much harder to detect, as does its speed. When on-target, it can reach speed of up to Mach 3.

Firing an anti-ship missile from a truck might sound a little counter-intuitive, but killing ships in this way has great advantages. First of all, of course, a truck is much harder to detect than a huge warship. Trucks can be hidden away, and moved after every shot, making them essentially undetectable to enemy ships.

In addition, there are none of the supply problems that blight ship-based weapons. A ship has to carry all the missiles it needs, and can only get more by docking at a port and making itself vulnerable. Trucks, of course, can easily pick up more missiles whenever they need to.

And this re-purposing of the ATACMS appears to be just the start of the move toward mobile anti-ship weaponry. A RAND report from back in 2013 concluded that land-based missile systems were the way forward in limiting the ability of China to project sea power against the US. In this context, the US military is expected to develop new land-based anti-ship missile system in the near future.

A Replacement For Carrier Groups?

The new system could also have direct consequences for current US military strategy. Being a re-purposing of an existing weapon system, it could be ready to go within a few months, and may make carrier strike groups obsolete.

Remember the patrol that was recently sailing around the South China Sea? Well, whilst huge carrier groups like this are certainly impressive, they have a number of problems. They can only be in one place at a time, of course, but also they are pretty easy to hit. They might make an impressive statement, but might be worse than useless if tensions were to escalate and China actually attacked them.

Instead, by giving a fleet of anti-ship rocket trucks to US allies in the Pacific, China might think twice about messing with its neighbours.


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