Weapons: May 27, 2005

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: The Russian SS-N-22/3M80 anti-ship missile, better known as the Sunburn, is a weapon many people are trying to figure out how to defeat. This is not an easy task. The Sunburn flies as low as ten meters above the surface of the ocean at 2,800 kilometers an hour. Stopping the Sunburn is a very necessary task, since a hit from that missile moving at 770 meters a second (as fast as a rifle bullet) is going to make a mess on just about any ship short of an aircraft carrier, even if the Sunburns 660-pound warhead doesnt detonate. So, how does one prevent the Sunburn from ruining their day? There are a variety of methods to keeping the missile from reaching its target. Nearly every ship in the United States Navy carries the Phalanx Close-in-Weapon-System (CIWS). This is a 20-millimeter Gatling gun firing depleted uranium or tungsten rounds to destroy the missile before it hits the ship. With an effective range of just under 1,500 meters, the Phalanx is a marginal weapon against the Sunburn, due to the high speed of the missile (770 meters a second). Even a  destroyed missile could still spray the ship with fragments damaging radars, weapons, and causing casualties. It would not be as bad as a direct hit, but it still would require the ship to undergo repairs.

That said, there are other ways to stop Sunburn. Virtually every warship in the world has jamming systems (electronic countermeasures) and chaff. These systems are designed to decoy the missile. They can work, but sometimes using them is not a good idea. Warships have chaff, but merchant vessels dont and the high-speed of the Sunburn could also place other ships (the carriers and amphibious vessels that would be escorted) at risk. The British cargo ship Atlantic Conveyor was lost (off the Falklands in 1982) in this manner chaff from an escort decoyed an Exocet into the requisitioned merchant vessel. If a Sunburn is incoming, it is better to shoot it down a fair distance away than to count on decoying it away. If the missile is destroyed, it is gone forever.

The United States carries two other point-defense systems: The Rolling Airframe Missile is a variation of the venerable AIM-9 Sidewinder. This system, in a 21-round launcher, and has a range of nine kilometers. This means that it can engage the Sunburn at a safe distance. The other system is the Evolved Sea Sparrow, which is used in packs of four that fit into one cell of the Mk 41 vertical-launch system. This system has a range of over 15 kilometers. Then there is the SM-2 missile, which has a range of 74 to 166.7 kilometers. In essence, for a Sunburn to hit an American warship, it will have to get through at least two and possibly as many as four layers of defenses (SM-2, ESSM, RAM, and Phalanx).

However, the Sunburn does have a weakness. At best, its range is 129 kilometers, and a flight time of under three minutes. For the sunburn to be a threat, the attacking ship needs to get within range. This is going to be very hard to do. The maximum range of U.S. Navy strike aircraft is considerably longer. So is the range of recent versions of the Harpoon (anywhere from 140 to 315 kilometers, depending on the version). The Sunburn that is never launched is a Sunburn that is absolutely no threat at all. The way to stop the Sunburn with the best chance of success is to sink the would-be launching platform. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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