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Can We Have Our Harpoons Back Please Sir
by James Dunnigan
April 10, 2013

In the U.S. Navy there have long been disputes between the aviation community (the folks who operate the aircraft carriers), the submarine community, and the surface warfare (all the armed surface ships) community. One of the quieter ones has been about the best way to destroy enemy ships. Back in the 1990s it was sort of agreed that between the nuclear subs and the long range aircraft of American carriers, American surface warships no longer needed long range (over the horizon) anti-ship missiles. So in the late 1990s the U.S. stopped building warships that could fire Harpoon (the U.S. long range anti-ship missile) and took Harpoon off some ships that already had them. This was done largely because so much other gear was being added to the new ships that two Harpoon canisters (each with four missiles) were something that could be removed to prevent weight problems. Each year, as older warships retire, that means fewer American surface ships that can take down an enemy warship at long distance. By the early 2030s there will be none left.

In the meantime, more and more Chinese, North Korean, Russian, and Iranian warships enter service armed with long range missiles. A growing number of American surface warfare officers want an encapsulated version of Harpoon that can be fired from the vertical launch cells that carry all of the missiles on American warships. That already exists and is sold as an export item.

But at the moment the navy brass considers this a non-problem and points out that it is working on a new long range anti-ship missile for surface ships and it should be ready in 10-15 years. Meanwhile, ships have some anti-aircraft missiles that can be fired at enemy ships but only those that can be detected by surface radar (up to about 28 kilometers away). This is sufficient for coastal operations, and if there is threat of a major war (as with China), some U.S. ships could be equipped with encapsulated Harpoons within a few months.

The 546 kg (1,200 pound) Harpoon has a 222 kg (487 pound) warhead and a range of 220 kilometers. It approaches the target low, at about 860 kilometers an hour. GPS gets the missile to the general vicinity of the target and then radar takes over to identify and hit the target. The Harpoon has successful combat experience going back two decades. It can be launched from surface ships, aircraft, submarines, and land based launchers.


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