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Did Ballistic Missiles Kill the DDG-1000?


Defense News has a good article on the Navy’s decision to end pursuit of the DDG-1000, although much will be familiar to readers of Information Dissemination. The story notes the inability of the DDG-1000 to use the SM-2 and SM-2 Standard missiles, which it apparently could launch but not control. This meant that the DDG-1000 would never have the capacity to carry out area air defense, and thus could not protect a carrier group from cruise missile or ballistic missile attacks. The latter, it appears, loomed as a particularly large concern:

Although a “secret, classified” threat was discussed during the hearing, neither Navy officials nor lawmakers would reveal any details.

One source familiar with the classified briefing said that while anti-ship cruise missiles and other threats were known to exist, “those aren’t the worst.” The new threat, which “didn’t exist a couple years ago,” is a “land-launched ballistic missile that converts to a cruise missile.”

Other sources confirmed that a new, classified missile threat is being briefed at very high levels. One admiral, said another source, was told his ships should simply “stay away. There are no options.”

Information on the new threat remains closely held.

Ballistic missiles are, potentially, very bad news for a carrier battle group. With modern GPS guidance, Chinese ballistic missiles can have a CEP (circular error probability) of 15 meters or less. That means that half of the missiles fired at a particular target will land within 15 meters. A aircraft carrier is roughly 300m by 50m, meaning that any missile fired at a stationary carrier will have a high likelihood of hitting. But of course carriers don’t sit still; they travel at about 30 knots, and can cover a lot of ground in the 15-20 minutes (at least) it would take between location of the carrier and the landing of the missile. This means that, even with high accuracy, ballistic missiles are going to have a very difficult time hitting carriers.

However, the problem is a lot easier to solve if the missile warheads in question have terminal guidance. Terminal guidance would mean that they could alter their flight path upon re-entering the atmosphere, and target the carrier in its new location. And that causes a very serious problem indeed, because while a modern supercarrier might well survive a hit from a conventional ballistic missile, it probably won’t be able to carry out flight operations. The Defense News article indicates that concerns about terminally guided ballistic missiles may have been key in making the DDG-1000 an unattractive bet for the Navy.

If the Chinese have hyper-accurate terminally guided ballistic missiles, then the Navy has a much larger problem than the DDG-1000. Tactical ballistic missile defense is in general a better bet than strategic, because the number of hits actually matters; the system doesn’t have to be perfect to be useful. But as I suggested above, even one hit is likely to make an aircraft carrier useless for combat operations. I am not optimistic that, even with a relatively successful BMD program, a carrier battle group could immunize itself from a dedicated attack with lots of ballistic missiles.

In a 2006 article republished in a recent Naval War College Review, Wang Wei goes into some additional detail regarding ballistic missile attacks on ships at sea.

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