The U.S. Navy had planned well for World War II. The only thing they had not expected was the Kamikaze attacks. The Japanese developed the idea of sending suicide aircraft against American ships because they had no other way of making a dent in the U.S. fleet. In the Summer of 1944 the Japanese formed "Special Attack Units." Plenty of pilots volunteered to fly their bomb laden aircraft right into American ships. In effect, the Japanese had invented the cruise missile, for that's how the Japanese suicide bombers operated. Come in low, under the radar, and head right for enemy warships. In some ways, the Kamikaze were superior to modern cruise missiles, as the Kamikaze pilots could take evasive action against anti-aircraft fire and enemy fighters, and were not fooled by electronic warfare or deceptions. In the last three months of 1944, the U.S. fleet off the Philippines was attacked by 378 Kamikaze bombers (escorted by several hundred fighters, of which 102 were lost). All the Kamikaze were shot down, or hit an American ship. The U.S. losses were heavy, with 16 ships sunk (two escort carriers, three destroyers, one mine layer, plus ten smaller vessels) and another 87 damaged (including 21 carriers, five battleships, ten cruisers, 23 destroyers and six smaller warships). Thousands of sailors were killed or injured. The next big use of Kamikaze was March-June 1945, during the Okinawa Campaign. The Japanese had 1,900 aircraft attacking 587 ships, of which 320 were warships. Each attack averaged 150 aircraft. One had as many as 350 warplanes. Vigorous defensive measures shot down 93 percent of the Kamikazes. Even so, eighteen percent of the ships hit were sunk or put out of action.
It's been over half a century since anyone has really taken a shot at the U.S. navy. What happens if someone tries it today? Actually, the U.S. Navy could be in for a bad time. Worse, the damage would be done using a World War II Japanese tactic the American fleet had never developed an antidote for.
Ten years later, electronic pilots were developed to replace human ones. The Soviet Union introduced its P-15 (Styx) anti-ship missile in the mid 1950s. Not much was thought of this, as it was basically an obsolete MiG-15 fighter with an autopilot. That disdain changed to fear when the Egyptians used a Styx to sink an Israeli destroyer during the 1967 war. Over the next five years the cruise missile was used a number of times, severely damaging or sinking over a dozen ships. The Western navies took notice, and by the early 1970s, the US Harpoon and the French Exocet were in service. During the 1973 Arab-Israeli War, Israel demonstrated that the cruise missile could be stopped cold with electronic warfare. In addition, special short range automatic cannon systems were developed to stop missiles that get through everything else. But during the 1980s, four British and US ships were badly shot up by Exocet missiles.
The Russians took note of all this, and in the 1980s introduced new tactics and new missiles so they could use high speed Kamikaze attacks on American carrier groups. The idea was to use over a hundred fast moving cruise missiles to overwhelm U.S. defenses. This concept never got put to the test. But the Russians were thinking that what worked for the Japanese Kamikazes would work for their cruise missiles. Their 3M45 ("Shipwreck") missile weighs five tons, has a range of 450 kilometers and moves along at high speed (a kilometer per second.) The 3M80 ("Sunburn") weighs three tons, has a range of up to 300 kilometers and moves along at 700 meters a second. One version of the 3M80 can be fired from torpedo tubes, while there's another version of the 3M80 for aircraft use. Both 3M45 and 3M80 can be fired from land based launchers. Both 3M45 and 3M80 come in low, just high enough to clear the waves. Russia offers both missiles for export. China has bought the 3M80.
Russia is no longer a potential threat to U.S. warships, China is. In addition to the 3M80, China designed and built many cruise missiles of it's own. The HY (Silkworm) series was based on the Russian P-15. Hundreds are mounted on shore based launchers, ships and aircraft. Silkworm is slow, moving along at about 250 meters a second and has a range of about a hundred kilometers. China makes much of bought or stolen technology and has developed it's own version of the 3M80 (although 20 percent slower and with a range of only 50 kilometers) and the French Exocet (40 kilometer range.)
If you are China, and you are facing a potential battle with the U.S. Navy, what do you do? An American admiral's worst nightmare is a simultaneous by several hundred long range cruise missiles. These would be launched from ships, subs, aircraft and land based launchers. This was what the Russians were planning in the 1980s, and no one has yet come up with an effective defense. Worse yet, the Chinese are well aware of this Russian tactic. While the Russians no longer worry about sinking American carriers, China does. And so does the U.S. Navy. America has bought many Russian anti-ship missiles in an effort to work out an effective defense. The navy is also building high speed target drones to test different defensive techniques.
As has happened so often in the past, the navy has known about the "cruise missile overload" threat for some time, but has been unable to do anything about it. There are too many unknowns. The Chinese can install new guidance systems in their missiles, or use unexpected tactics (missiles coming in at different angles and altitudes). U.S. Phoenix missiles, Aegis radars and satellite reconnaissance may not be enough to save the carriers if they venture into a hostile Taiwan straits. No one wants to talk about it because no one cam put a positive spin on it. So those hot rod, wave hugging, Russian cruise missiles remain a dirty little secret of naval warfare.