Air Weapons: Politicians Love It


October 11, 2012: Here's another example of "amateurs study tactics while professionals study logistics." Politicians love cruise missiles, because they provide a quick and easy way to use military power to make a political point. Even submarines carry cruise missiles now, as do most large surface ships. The U.S. Navy has several thousand cruise missiles in ships at sea at any given time. The problem with these "aircraft" is that they are not reusable and a recent study found that in any conflict lasting more than ten days you are much better off (militarily and economically) using smart bombs and missiles carried by an aircraft. These weapons cost less than a tenth of what cruise missiles go for and you can afford to stock more of these weapons carried by reusable aircraft. Cruise missiles cost more than twenty times as much as GPS guided bombs. But cruise missiles can be put into action more quickly than smart bombs launched from an aircraft and do not put aircrew at risk.

An example of this in action took place last year off the coast of Libya. There, on the initial air attack on March 19th, most of the Tomahawk cruise missiles (over a hundred) launched on that day were fired by one ship, the nuclear submarine USS Florida. This was the first time an SSGN (nuclear powered cruise missile submarine) saw combat but not the first time nuclear subs have fired missiles in wartime. U.S. SSNs (nuclear powered attack submarines) have fired Tomahawks several times. This one operation used up most of the SSGNs missiles, meaning it would have to go back to a base in the United States for a reload. With smart bombs and smaller missiles you can fly reloads in and store a lot of this stuff at overseas bases.

This problem has not discouraged enthusiasm for cruise missiles. The USS Florida was one of four Ohio class ballistic missile submarines (SSBN) converted to SSGNs at a cost of $700 million each. The USS Florida and the other three SSGNs entered service over the last six years. Each of these Ohio class boats now carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles and provides space for 66 commandos (usually SEALs) and their equipment.

The idea of converting ballistic missile subs, that would have to be scrapped to fulfill disarmament agreements, has been bouncing around since the 1990s. After September 11, 2001, the idea got some traction. The navy submariners love this one because they lost a lot of their reason for being with the end of the Cold War. The United States had built a powerful nuclear submarine force during the Cold War but with the rapid disappearance of the Soviet navy in the 1990s, there was little reason to keep over a hundred nuclear subs in commission. These boats are expensive, costing over a billion each to build and over a million dollars a week to operate. The four Ohio class SSBN being converted each have at least twenty years of life left in them.

The idea of a sub, armed with 154 highly accurate cruise missiles and capable of rapidly traveling under water (ignoring weather, or observation) at a speed of over 1,200 kilometers a day, to a far off hot spot, had great appeal in the post-Cold War world. The ability to carry a large force of commandos as well was also attractive. In one sub you have your choice of hammer or scalpel. More capable cruise missiles are in the works as well. Whether or not this multi-billion dollar investment will pay off remains to be seen, but it certainly worked off Libya.

And then there’s the new Tomahawk. The RGM-109E Block IV Surface Ship Vertical Launched Tomahawk Land Attack Missile weighs 1.2 ton, is six meters (18 feet) long, has a range of 1,600 kilometers, getting there at a speed of 600-900 kilometers an hour, flying at an altitude of 17-32 meters (50-100 feet), and propelled by a jet engine generating only 600 pounds of thrust. Accuracy is on par with JDAM (10 meters/ 31 feet). The Block IV Tomahawk can be reprogrammed in flight to hit another target and carries a vidcam to allow a missile to check on prospective targets.

But there’s always something new. Last year there was a successful test of the new JMEW (Joint Multi-Effects Warhead System) warhead for the Tomahawk Block IV cruise missile. The new 450 kg (1,000 pound) warhead is designed mainly for penetrating underground bunkers but it will also provide excellent blast effect for less robust targets. Exact penetration was not revealed. JMEW uses laser terminal guidance, enabling it to hit within a few meters (ten feet) of its aiming point. JMEW can also hit moving targets.



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