How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 2: Firepower

Read Pt. 1 on Combat Training.

By Dmitry Filipoff

The Navy’s tactical ignorance is built into its arsenal. Currently some of the Navy’s most important weapons development programs are not just evolutionary, but revolutionary in the possibilities they open up. This is not due to innovation, but instead many of these noteworthy and foundational capabilities are finally arriving decades after the technologies were first proven, many close to half a century ago. Many of these most crucial weapons are already in the hands of great power competitors such as Russia and China who have had decades of opportunity to train and refine tactics with them.

Offensive Firepower

“…no captain can do very wrong if he places his ship alongside that of the enemy.” –Horatio Nelson

One of U.S. Navy’s gravest errors in handicapping its own development was neglecting the development of long-range offensive firepower in the age of missile warfare. What made the anti-ship missile a revolution in naval warfare was its ability to deliver a powerful pulse of firepower comparable to that of an attacking wave of carrier aircraft through a combination of high speed, large warhead size, and salvo fires.

In spite of this by 1971 the Soviet Union managed to field 11 different types of anti-ship missiles before the U.S. had yet to field one.1 Today numerous surface ships, submarines, and heavy bombers in the Russian and Chinese navies carry long-range anti-ship missiles, many with supersonic speed and ranges as great as over 200 miles. It was not until 1977 that the U.S. Navy would field its first anti-ship missile, the Harpoon, which remains its primary anti-surface weapon to this day. Weapons with triple the range and speed of the Harpoon missile already existed in numbers 50 years ago.2 

Select Soviet anti-ship missiles and their date of introduction, all preceding Harpoon. (Source: Declassified CIA Soviet Naval Cruise Missile Force: Development and Operational Employment, 1971)

The Harpoon is a slow, subsonic missile and extremely short-ranged at around 70 nautical miles.3 The Harpoon also isn’t equipped by most of the U.S. Navy’s destroyers. It is only found on less than half of the Navy’s destroyers despite there being little difference in the design of the ships that carry them and those that do not.4* 

The submarine force took Harpoon out of its inventory entirely in 1997 which shaved tens of miles off its surface strike range and limited itself to only close-range torpedo engagements. Now the submarine force is thinking about bringing Harpoon back some 20 years later.

Harpoon failed to take advantage of arguably the most important attributes large naval platforms bring to the fight – capacity and staying power. The surface fleet ships that do carry Harpoon only carry eight, a small sum. This is in spite of the fact that all U.S. Navy large surface warships have around 100 vertical launch cells for missiles and where Harpoon is much smaller than launch cell-compatible missiles like Tomahawk.

Because Harpoon is incompatible with its launch cells the Navy bolts the missiles on top of the deck in a most uneconomic fashion. This limits the maximum anti-ship salvo U.S. Navy surface warships can deliver to only an eight-missile salvo with extremely short range and subsonic speed. The Navy certainly expects its own ships to be able to easily swat down such a salvo. Harpoon must be fired via torpedo tubes for submarines, but shooting missiles through torpedo tubes can also only produce small salvos compared to a submarine’s launch cells.6

PACIFIC OCEAN (Feb. 18, 2008) Note the four Harpoon missile launchers in the background and the 64 vertical launch cells in the foreground. Original caption: Seaman Robert Paterson, of Norgo, Cal., stands watch next to the aft vertical launch missile platform on the fantail while underway on the guided-missile cruiser USS Lake Erie (CG 70). (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Michael Hight) 

The Navy did come close to effectively fielding a long-range anti-ship weapon. However, the Navy never truly integrated it by only procuring a small quantity and eventually taking it out of the inventory entirely.

At first the Tomahawk missile program pursued a weapon with two different capabilities. An anti-ship Tomahawk missile was first tested six months after the land attack version in 1976.7 The anti-ship Tomahawk incorporated the same active radar seeker and guidance technology from the Harpoon missile, but offered far better range and a larger payload.However, by 1995 it appears only about 600 anti-ship Tomahawks were produced, roughly a tenth of the size of the Harpoon inventory.9 The only surface ships that could have carried more than a handful of deck-mounted anti-ship Tomahawks during the Cold War were cruisers that were exclusively focused on protecting capital ships via the defensive anti-air mission. Once the Cold War ended the U.S. Navy got rid of its only long-range anti-surface weapon by remaking the anti-ship Tomahawk missile inventory into the land-attack version.10

Ill-conceived arguments were put forward to justify taking these weapons out, such as how the Navy could not likely target the missile to the maximum extent of its range and the Navy’s current anti-ship missile seekers would be ill-suited to congested waters featuring a mixture of hostiles and non-combatants.11 However far the Navy could target Tomahawk was going to be far better than what it was getting with Harpoon. The Navy certainly accepted a 200-mile anti-ship missile threat from Soviet forces. And if NATO had gone to war against the Soviet Navy it still could have fought in congested waters such as the Mediterranean and Baltic Seas.

A comparison of U.S. and Chinese Navy (PLAN) warships and the range of their respective anti-ship firepower. (Via China’s Near Seas Combat Capabilities, China Maritime Studies Institute, Naval War College)

Still, the Tomahawk makes for a relatively poor anti-ship missile. It is subsonic and lacks aerodynamic features that allow for dynamic terminal maneuvering and where both drawbacks will lower its survivability. More missiles would have to be fired per salvo to achieve a similar effect offered by the more modern missiles coming to the fleet like the Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) and Standard Missile (SM)-6.

Tomahawk’s best feature is its long range of hundreds of miles which would allow a dispersed force to aggregate their fires into concentrated salvos via networking.12 However, both slow speed and long range increase the dependence of the missile on in-flight retargeting updates and creates a more burdensome kill chain. It is also questionable to use such a large warhead when modern missile seekers using passive sensors can attempt to pinpoint their strikes on ships. If a missile can confidently choose to hit a ship in the magazine or in other spaces that guarantee a mission kill then missile design can more readily trade warhead size for extra range and speed.

The Navy is once again pursuing this capability. An anti-ship Tomahawk missile will be coming back to the fleet in 2022, 40 years after a Tomahawk first sunk a ship in testing.13 

Defensive Firepower 

“Anything can be saturated. Aegis can be saturated.”–Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer (ret.)

One of the most fundamental trends of military capability is that of reinforcing the kill chain, or the process by which targets are found by sensors and then fired upon with weapons. This process requires certain levels of information from simple detection to targeting-quality data. A key challenge is in keeping the kill chain resilient and freshly updated once the weapon is fired and travels a distance to its target. In response to being detected or coming under fire a target can change its behavior and launch decoys which can require new targeting inputs. Arguably one of the most information intensive fights among the warfare areas is the anti-air mission where sustained radar energy must steadily illuminate speedy aerial targets over great distances in order to guide a missile toward a hit.

The difficulty of steadily illuminating a dynamic aerial target can be somewhat mitigated by putting a radar seeker into the missile itself, a capability known as active radar seeking. This adds resilience to the kill chain and gives the missile some degree of independence from external illumination sources such as the radar of a ship or aircraft. Usually active radar seeking is engaged in the terminal phase of the engagement given the relatively small size of the onboard seeker.

Missiles that are totally dependent on outside sources for illumination operate under semi-active homing. The Navy realized the potential of combining both semi-active and active radar homing when it fielded the Phoenix missile through the F-14 Tomcat that was the mainstay of the fleet’s air-to-air capability during its service life. The Phoenix missile could travel 100 miles and engage active radar seeking in the final moments to see the engagement through. The fundamental principle of building resilience into the kill chain by adding an active seeker into the payload itself is also reflected in the many torpedoes that have an active homing capability and in the Aster anti-air missile that is widely used by European navies today.

A Fighter Squadron 211 (VF-211) F-14B Tomcat aircraft banks into a turn during a flight out of Naval Air Station, Miramar, Calif. The aircraft is carrying six AIM-54 Phoenix missiles. (Wikimedia Commons)

Aircraft, through adjusting altitude and maneuver, are clearly not as inhibited as warships in illuminating their targets for anti-air engagements. If it made sense to put active radar seekers in anti-air missiles used by aircraft then it should make even more sense for a ship which must contend with the horizon and cannot maneuver in three dimensions like aviation. If an aerial target dives in reaction to being sensed and engaged then an attacking missile could use its active radar seeker to chase the target below the horizon limitation of its illuminating ship in a bid to independently finish the engagement. Such a capability adds extra depth to a ship’s ability to defend itself below the radar horizon and at altitude.

The Navy fielded active radar seekers over 40 years ago in the Phoenix air-to-air missile it procured by the thousands.14 The story is different for the surface fleet. In spite of this simple but important enhancement almost all of the Navy’s surface-to-air missiles do not have active radar seeking technology.

The missiles that are the mainstay of the fleet’s defensive arsenal such as Standard Missile (SM) and the Evolved SeaSparrow Missile (ESSM) are only equipped with semi-active radar homing, and where this form of homing has tactical handicaps. Semi-active homing works by having an external source illuminate a target with its radar. The radar reflections are picked up by the missile, which then finds its way to the target with the assistance of mid-course guidance from the external radar. Because a ship is limited by the horizon, if a target dives deep enough, the ship will no longer be able to illuminate it with its radar to see the engagement through. 

Semi-active vs. active radar seeking homing. (Source: Guest Editor’s Introduction: Homing Missile Guidance and Control by Neil Palumbo, JHU APL Technical Digest)

Land-based surface-to-air missiles are not as inhibited by semi-active homing in spite of the same horizon limitation because they work in tandem with other anti-air systems. An aircraft diving low to avoid illumination over land places itself at risk of being engaged by shorter range anti-air weapons that do not reveal themselves through radar emissions. This tactic worked to great effect over Vietnam as radar-guided surface-to-air missile batteries forced American warplanes to drop altitude and fly within range of gun-based anti-air systems which ended up shooting down more aircraft than missiles.15 There is no similar effect at sea because capability is concentrated on warships.

To an extent Sailors already know the Standard Missile is handicapped by its guidance capability. The Standard Missile has an anti-surface mode, but of dubious effectiveness. Its range is less than 20 miles in this mode because that is only as far as the ship’s radar can target it close to the surface and to the limit of the horizon.16

An annual Defense Department report from 1975 highlighted this issue when it sought to develop an anti-ship version of the Standard Missile:

“The STANDARD SSM program was initiated in 1971 to provide an interim anti-ship missile capability until the HARPOON could be developed and deployed. The STANDARD SSM is operational in two versions, with a third now in development…The third version, Active STANDARD with a radar seeker…will have a range capability beyond the ship radar horizon. The range of the STANDARD semi-active missile is limited to the range of the ship’s radar, since the missile’s target must be illuminated by a ship radar. The STANDARD ARM and Active STANDARD, equipped with an anti-radiation homing capability and an active terminal seeker, respectively, eliminate the need for illumination of the target by a ship radar and thus permit engagement of targets beyond the ship radar horizon.”17

In the end the original Active Standard SSM never made it into the fleet though the same basic idea and capability would be replicated decades later. Despite many variants produced across nearly 50 years of service active radar seeking did not come to the Standard Missile family of weapons until SM-6 arrived in 2013. Even so, SM-6 does not have a unique seeker but takes its active radar seeker from the widely equipped AMRAAM air-to-air missile that entered service in 1991.18 SM-6 introduced an anti-ship capability in 2016, similar in concept to what was already deemed desirable many years ago in the form of the Active Standard SSM.19 SM-6 now bears the odd distinction of being both the Navy’s first long-range active radar seeking surface-to-air missile, and its first supersonic anti-ship missile.

In explaining the benefit of SM-6 the Navy once again described the value of similar technology 40 years later:

“The introduction (emphasis added) of active-seeker technology to air defense in the Surface Force reduces the Aegis Weapon System’s reliance on illuminators. It also provides improved performance against stream raids and targets employing advanced characteristics such as enhanced maneuverability, low-radar cross-section, improved kinematics, and advanced electronic countermeasures.”20 

However, SM-6 will be fielded in relatively small numbers because it is extremely expensive and is not meant to replace the more widely equipped SM-2.21 Active radar homing will also not come to the Evolved SeaSparrow Missile, the Navy’s main short-ranged defensive anti-air missile, until the Block 2 upgrade hits the fleet in 2020.22 The Navy is already pursuing a more common Standard Missile variant equipped with an active radar seeker, the SM-2 Block IIIC.23 The missile is being pushed through the Navy’s Maritime Accelerated Capability Office in a bid to shorten the acquisition timeline and hopefully get it into the fleet within three years.24 

However, according to the Navy’s 2017 program guide the Standard Missile variants that do not have active radar seekers “will be the heart of the SM-2 inventory for the next 20 years.”25 

The Heavy Bomber

“We think we can destroy it; it is our business to attack it, and it is up to you to judge whether we can do it or not. Give the air a chance to develop and demonstrate what it can do!”Billy Mitchell in 1921 urging Congress to support bombing warships with planes in testing.

When combat is joined between missile-armed fleets the maneuver of individual warships will matter little in the near term because of the large disparity between ship speed and missile speed. Upon engaging in fleet combat a commander’s most flexible means to respond to risk and opportunity in timely fashion will be through speedy aviation. Despite its single-minded focus on using aviation to sink ships at range the Navy never effectively incorporated the use of heavy bombers.

Heavy bombers can feature very long endurance and range, far superior to that of carrier aircraft. Bombers also have large carrying capacity that allows them to mount a level of offensive firepower comparable to that of a warship. Because long-range anti-ship firepower usually outranges anti-air firepower by a steep margin heavy bombers can have a powerful ability to fire effectively first against warships.

Both Russia and China field heavy bombers with long-range anti-ship firepower, and where heavy bombers were at the leading edge of Soviet anti-ship capabilities throughout most of the Cold War. Soviet-era Backfire bombers can travel over 1500 miles, are capable of supersonic speed, and can fire multiple Mach 3 missiles that have hundreds of miles of range. Large Backfire bomber raids have been expected to be a principle tactic for countering American carrier groups far from Russia for decades.26

Russian Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire bomber. (Wikimedia Commons)

Similar platforms exist within the U.S. military, but heavy bombers belong to the Air Force. It appears the Air Force bought very few Harpoon missiles with less than 100 in its inventory by the mid-90s.27  The full adoption of an anti-ship role for heavy bombers may have also been hindered by a combination of inter-service rivalry between the Navy and the Air Force as well as differing priorities in their contingency planning.

Soon one of the most powerful anti-ship platforms in the American arsenal will not even belong to the U.S. Navy. The platform that will first receive the first truly modern and widespread anti-ship missile of the U.S., LRASM, will not be a Navy asset but the Air Force’s B-1 bomber. These bombers will be able to carry 24 of these powerful weapons, packing over 15 times the anti-ship firepower of a Harpoon-equipped U.S. surface warship.28 These planes will make for an extremely powerful asset when combined with their thousands of miles of range.29 This year the U.S. will finally have a heavy bomber with credible long-range anti-ship firepower, but after the Soviets pioneered the same capability half a century ago.30 

An Air Force B-1B Lancer drops a Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM) during a 2013 flight test from Dyess Air Force Base in Texas to Point Mugu Sea Test Range off the coast of southern California. (DARPA photo)


Of the Navy’s errors in arming the fleet none can compare to failing to effectively bring its offensive firepower into the age of missile warfare. Only now is it on the verge of doing so with launch cell-compatible missiles like LRASM and the Maritime Strike Tomahawk that are just a couple years away from hitting the fleet. Finally the Navy will have widespread anti-ship firepower that can hit at over 100 miles. This wholesome introduction of long-range anti-ship missiles comes over half a century after the Soviets proved it was possible.31

But this recent introduction of long-range anti-ship firepower will not be the Navy’s first attempt. Up until now much of the Navy’s story of fielding anti-ship missiles consists of developing weapons long after they were first possible, then not fielding them in effective numbers, subsequently removing them from the inventory, only to then try and reintroduce them decades later. The Navy lagged long enough to where today there are 400-ton Chinese missile boats that carry more long-range anti-ship firepower than 9,500-ton, billion-dollar American cruisers and destroyers that have around 100 launch cells.32 

Chinese Navy Type 022 (Houbei Class) Fast Attack Missile Craft (China Military Review)

Why was the Navy stuck with only the short-ranged Harpoon for so long, and why were competitors able to design so many more anti-ship missiles with greater lethality in the meantime?

The answer may lie with doctrine. The aircraft carrier has remained the centerpiece of U.S. Navy anti-ship doctrine since WWII. Harpoon probably became the Navy’s first anti-ship missile and remained its primary anti-ship tool for over 40 years because it appears Harpoon was one of the first anti-ship missiles small enough to fit onto multirole aircraft, such as those flown from aircraft carriers.33 By comparison, airborne anti-ship firepower for the Soviets mostly took the form of enormous missiles that could only be carried by large bombers. The very short range of Harpoon was made up for by the long reach of aviation that could travel hundreds of miles and strike targets well before they could get within range to unleash their own anti-ship firepower.

The small size necessary to equip carrier aircraft with Harpoon was a major limiting factor for missile capability with respect to range, speed, and size. Ship-launched missiles can take on far greater proportions such as Tomahawk or the early-Cold War era Talos anti-air missile that weighed over four times as much as Harpoon.34 But by not bothering to effectively field an anti-ship missile that was compatible with the thousands of launch cells across the fleet the Navy was unable to capitalize on core advantages warships bring to the fight – staying power and deep capacity.

It is questionable to subscribe to a doctrine that deprives the surface fleet, the submarine force, and the heavy bomber arm of long-range anti-ship firepower. Russia and China have not made this mistake. With respect to anti-ship firepower in the age of missile warfare not only did the Navy bet the aircraft carrier would reign supreme, but that it could stand alone. While the reach and size of the carrier air wing could compensate for Harpoon’s shortcomings the rest of the fleet was stuck with a small, slow, short-ranged missile kept aboard in very low quantities. The U.S. Navy, so completely blinded by absolute faith in the supremacy of a single platform, failed to effectively field the premier offensive weapon of a new age of warfare.

Part 3 will focus on Tactics and Doctrine.

Dmitry Filipoff is CIMSEC’s Director of Online Content. Contact him at

*Correction: Harpoon is equipped by a majority of the U.S. Navy large surface combatants unlike as was originally worded. Harpoon is found on a minority of U.S. Navy destroyers.


1. Soviet Naval Cruise Missile Force: Development and Operational Employment, CIA, December 1971

2. Soviet Naval Cruise Missile Force: Development and Operational Employment, CIA, December 1971

3. United States Navy Fact File: Harpoon

4. Alan Cummings, “A Thousand Splendid Guns: Chinese ASCMs in Competitive Control,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Autumn 2016.

5. Megan Eckstein, “VIDEO: Navy May Bring Back Harpoon Missiles on Attack Subs After Successful SINKEX; RIMPAC Also Highlights Ground-to-Ship Strike Capability,” U.S. Naval Institute News, July 30, 2018.

Excerpt: “That shot marked the first time a Harpoon had been fired from a U.S. submarine in more than 20 years, and Commander of U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Submarine Force Rear Adm. Daryl Caudle said he expects that the cruise missile will be added back into the SSN’s regular armament.”

6. Sam LaGrone, “U.S. Navy Considering Adding Anti-Ship Missiles Back to Submarine Force,” U.S. Naval Institute News, October 21, 2015.

Excerpt: “The U.S. submarine fleet did use the UGM-84A Harpoon anti-ship missile but that Harpoon variant was retired in 1997.”

Los Angeles-class and Virginia-class submarines have four torpedo tubes, Seawolf-class (only three boats in class) have eight torpedo subes. See: United States Navy Fact File: Attack Submarines – SSN

7. Captain Philip Signor, USNR, “Cruise Missiles for the U.S. Navy: An Exemplar of Innovation in a Military Organization,” Naval War College, June 1994.

8. Joseph C. Schissler and John P. Gibson, “The Origin and History of the Global Engagement Department,” Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest, Volume 29, Number 2 (2010)

9. General Accounting Office, “Precision Guided Munitions in Inventory, Production, and Development,” June 1995.

10. For anti-ship Tomahawk remove of service: Joseph C. Schissler and John P. Gibson, “The Origin and History of the Global Engagement Department,” Johns Hopkins APL Technical Digest, Volume 29, Number 2 (2010)

For remanufacture plans: Department of the Navy FY 2005 Budget Estimates

Note: Vertical launch cells that could fire Tomahawk missiles were fairly rare in the U.S. Navy until only after the Cold War, and where Tomahawk was also kept in deck-mounted launchers for many ships. Vertical launch cells became more common when Spruance-class destroyers were modified to accomodate launch cells in the 90s, and the concurrent introduction of the Arleigh Burke-class destroyers.

11. Argument on beyond ability to target Tomahawk: Norman Polmar and Thomas Allen, “Naval Weapon of Choice, U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, February 2016.

Argument on congested waters: General Accounting Office, “Cruise Missiles: Proven Capability Should Affect Aircraft and Force Structure Requirements,” April 1995.

12. Rear Admiral Walter M. Locke, USN (ret.),“Tomahawk Tactics, The Midway Connection,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 1992.

13. For 1982 test date: E. H. Corirow, G. K. Smith, A. A. Barboux, “The Joint Cruise Missiles Project: An Acquisition History, Appendixes,” RAND, August 1982.

For 2022 Initial Operating Capability: Justin Katz, “DOT&E: Navy lacks anti-ship Tomahawk missile plans beyond IOC,” Inside Defense, February 7, 2018.

14. Forecast International, “AIM-54A/C/C+ Phoenix,”

15. General William W. Momyer, USAF, Air Power in Three Wars: World War II, Korea, Vietnam, 1978.

16. Alan Cummings, “A Thousand Splendid Guns: Chinese ASCMs in Competitive Control,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Autumn 2016.

17. Annual Defense Department Report FY 1975.

18. U.S. Navy Program Guide 2017

19. Remarks by Secretary Carter to Sailors Pierside in Naval Base San Diego, California. February 3, 2016.

20. U.S. Navy Program Guide 2017

21. On planned SM-6 inventory: Department of Defense Fiscal Year (FY) 2019 Budget Estimates February 2018, Justification Book Volume 1 of 1 Weapons Procurement, Navy.

On Not replacing: Sydney Freedberg, “Non-Standard: Navy SM-6 Kills Cruise Missiles Deep Inland,” Breaking Defense, August 19, 2014.

22. For seeking capabilities between ESSM blocks: FY17 Navy Programs, Ship Self-Defense for LHA-6.

First active radar seeker test: PEO IWS Public Affairs, “NATO Seasparrow conducts successful flight test of ESSM Block 2,” July 5, 2018.

For 2020 IOC date: Statement Before the Subcommittee on Seapower and Projection Forces of the House Armed Services Committee, May 24, 2017.

23. Richard Scott, “NAVSEA advances SM-2 Block IIIC active upgrade plan,” IHS Janes, December 8, 2017.

24. Justin Katz, “Raytheon developing upgraded SM-2 exclusively for United States,” Inside Defense, January 12, 2018.

Statement Of The Honorable James F. Geurts Assistant Secretary Of The Navy Research, Development And Acquisition Before The T Senate Armed Services Committee On Department Of Defense Acquisition Enterprise And Associated Reforms, December 7, 2017.

25. U.S. Navy Program Guide 2017

26. For Backfire bomber performance characteristics:

Federation of American Scientists, “Tu-22M BACKFIRE (TUPOLEV),”

Dr. Carlo Kopp, “Tupolev Tu-22M3 Backfire C Bomber – Missile Carrier,” Air Power Australia, July 2007.  

For expected wartime use of Backfire bomber see: National Intelligence Estimate, WARSAW PACT Forces Opposite NATO, January 1979.

27. General Accounting Office, “Precision Guided Munitions in Inventory, Production, and Development,” June 1995.  

28. The figure of 15 times greater is derived using strike-mile metric, see: Alan Cummings, “A Thousand Splendid Guns: Chinese ASCMs in Competitive Control,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Autumn 2016.

29. Oriana Pawlyk, “B-1 Crews Prep for Anti-Surface Warfare in Latest LRASM Tests,”, January 3, 2018.

U.S. Air Force B1 Fact Sheet,

30. National Intelligence Estimate, WARSAW PACT Forces Opposite NATO, January 1979.

31. For Maritime Strike Tomahawk: Sam LaGrone, “Navy, Raytheon Close to Finalizing Maritime Strike Tomahawk Missile Deal,” U.S. Naval Institute News, August 16, 2017.

For LRASM: Sydney Freedberg, “Navy Warships Get New Heavy Missile: 2,500-Lb LRASM,” Breaking Defense, July 26, 2017.

For early Soviet Anti-ship missile history: Soviet Naval Cruise Missile Force: Development and Operational Employment, CIA, December 1971

32. Firepower comparison using strike-mile metric: Alan Cummings, “A Thousand Splendid Guns: Chinese ASCMs in Competitive Control,” U.S. Naval War College Review, Autumn 2016.

33. Navy has an multi-role fighter-mounted weapon known as SLAM-ER that has superior range to Harpoon and is capable of engaging ships. However, it is much more rare than Harpoon. See inventory: Forecast International, AGM-84E SLAM, March 2011.

34. For Talos missile dimensions see: Frank A. Dean, “The Unified Talos,” JHU APL Technical Digest Volume 3, Number 2, 1982.

Despite their enormous size the Navy had cruisers that could carry over 100 Talos missiles through highly advanced missile launch systems and magazines. These shields also carried dozens of shorter-ranged anti-air missiles. See: Elmer D. Robinson, “The Talos Ship System,” JHU APL Technical Digest, Volume 3, Number 2, 1982.

References for Part 1 on Combat Training 

1. Forward…From the Sea, U.S. Department of the Navy, 1994. 

2. Naval Studies Board, “Responding to Capability Surprise: A Strategy for U.S. Forces,” 2013. 

3. Captain Dale C. Rielage, USN, “An Open Letter to the U.S. Navy from Red,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, June 2017. 

4. For more on the Millenium Challenge exercise see: Micah Zenko, “Millenium Challenge: The Real Story of a Corrupted Military Exercise and Its Legacy,” War on the Rocks, November 5, 2015.

Excerpt from official Millenium Challenge Report: “As the exercise progressed, the OPFOR free-play was eventually constrained to the point where the end state was scripted. This scripting ensured a Blue operational victory and established conditions in the exercise for transition operations.” 

5. Admiral Scott Swift, “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2018. 

6. For novelty of SMWDC reference: Vice Admiral Thomas H. Copeman III, “Tactical Paradigm Shift,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2014.


“It may be hard to believe, but the U.S. Navy, widely recognized as the greatest Fleet the world has ever known, lacks an organization tasked with development, training, and assessment of the full scope of tactics for the warfare community on which it was founded 238 years ago—surface warfare. This is going to change.”

Rear Admiral John Wade, “Red Sea Combat Generates High Velocity Learning,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September 2017.


“In the years preceding the establishment of the Warfighting Development Centers, the surface warfare community did not have a single organization that could cull lessons from combat and then coordinate the effort to achieve high-velocity learning not only in the fleet and school houses, but also across the engineering and acquisition communities. In June 2015, the establishment of the Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center (SMWDC) closed this gap.”

For TOPGUN analogy see: “SMWDC Surface Warfare Officers’ Top Gun (Top SWO)” from Naval Surface Force U.S. Pacific Fleet 

7. Sdyney Freedberg, “Top Gun for Warships: SWATT,” Breaking Defense, January 16, 2018.

8. Admiral Scott Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018. 

9. Admiral Scott Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018. 

Excerpt on timing: “After two years and more than six iterations, the reestablished Fleet Problem has never before been discussed in public. In that context, it is fair to ask why we decided to discuss the concept at this point.”

10. Admiral Scott Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018. 

11. Megan Eckstein, “Fight to Hawaii: How the U.S. Navy is Training Carrier Strike Groups for Future War,” U.S. Naval Institute News, March 22, 2018.

12. A caveat to this is that NTC training shifted to counterinsurgency operations and remained there for several years before shifting more toward high-end/hybrid warfare around 2012-2014.

For National Training Center reference:

Colonel John D. Rosenberger, “Reaching Our Army’s Full Combat Potential in the 21st Century: Insights from the National Training Center’s Opposing Force,” Institute of Land Warfare, February 1999,

Major John F. Antal, “OPFOR: Prerequisite to Victory,” Institute of Land Warfare, May 1993.

Sydney Freedberg, “All Active Combat Brigades Trained vs. New Russian Tactics: FORSCOM,” Breaking Defense, October 17, 2017. 

Interesting caveat from above: ““Before, in the ’80s and ’90s, it was very rote,” Abrams said. “You would get there on this day and on Friday, you would do a road march out, and you’d get an order for an attack, and you would go attack. And then, four hours after the attack was done, you’d do an After Action Review, you’d get another order, and you’d get ready do something else. It was all very lockstep.”

Dennis Steele, “Training for Decisive Action, “Old-School without Rotations Going Back in Time,'” Army Magazine, February 2013. 

For Red Flag Reference:

Brian Daniel Laslie, “Red Flag: How the Rise of “Realistic Training” After Vietnam Changed the Air Force’s Way of War, 1975-1999,”;sequence=1

414th Combat Squadron Training “Red Flag,” July 2012.

13. Lt. Col. Bradford T. Duplessis, “Our Readiness Problem: Brigade Combat Team Lethality,” Armor, Fall 2017.

14. Megan Eckstein, “Warfighting Development Centers, Better Virtual Tools Give Fleet Training a Boost,” U.S. Naval Institute News, February 23, 2017,

15. William S. Bradley, “The Training Mandate,” Marine Corps Gazette, October 1990. 

16. For “Die in Place” references see:

Staff, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, “Opposing Force TTP,” Marine Corps Gazette, August 2016.

Sgt. Luke G. Cardelli, “MAGTF Integrated Exercise (MIX-16),” Marine Corps Gazette, November 2017.

17. Megan Eckstein, “Warfighting Development Centers, Better Virtual Tools Give Fleet Training a Boost,” U.S. Naval Institute News, February 23, 2017,

18. Megan Eckstein, “New Advanced Surface Navy Training Seeks to Fill Critical Gaps,” U.S. Naval Institute News, March 7, 2017.

19. Megan Eckstein, “With Navy Struggling to Balance Training, Maintenance, Deployment Needs, Service Looking at Data Analysis to Warn of Readiness Problems,” U.S. Naval Institute News, November 13, 2017.

20. Government Accountability Office, “Military Readiness: Progress and Challenges in Implementing the Navy’s Optimized Fleet Response Plan,” May 2, 2016.

21. To get an idea of certification requirements see:

Roland J. Yardley, et. Al, “Use of Simulation in Training for U.S. Surface Force,” RAND, 2003. (See pg. 41)

COMNAVAIRFORINST 3500.20B, Aircraft Carrier Training and Readiness Manual, February 14, 2008,


22. Lieutenant Jeff Vandenegel, “A Zero-Sum Game,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings Professional Notes, October 2015.

23. Megan Eckstein, “Navy Wants More Complex Sub-on-Sub Warfare Training,” U.S. Naval Institute News, October 27, 2016.

24. Lieutenant Erik A.H. Sand, “Performance Over Process,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, October 2014.

25. Office of Naval Intelligence, “The PLA Navy: New Capabilities and Missions for the 21st Century, 2015.

26. Office of Naval Intelligence, “China’s Navy,” 2007.

27. Admiral Scott Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018. 

28. On timing see: Admiral Scott Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018. 

Excerpt: “A year prior, Pacific Fleet had formed a Red team, the Pacific Naval Aggressor Team (PNAT), to support wargaming.”

For more see: Captain Dale Rielage, “Wargaming Must Get Red Right,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, January 2017.

29. Admiral Scott Swift, “A Fleet Must Be Able to Fight,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2018. 

30. Captain Dale Rielage, “Chinese Navy Trains and Takes Risks,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, May 2016.

31. Admiral Scott Swift, “Fleet Problems Offer Opportunities,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2018. 

32. Andrew Erickson and Ken Allen, “China’s Navy Gets a New Helmsman (Part 2) Remaining Uncertainties,” Jamestown Foundation, March 14, 2017.

33. For amount of ships devoted to interwar period Fleet Problems see: Albert Nofi, To Train the Fleet for War: The U.S. Navy Fleet Problems, 1923-1940.

Excerpt: “Virtually every one of the fleet problems involved a majority of the battleships, carriers, and destroyers in commission, and, as still considered “in commission.” Fleet Problem XI (1930) involved the fewest ships, only about 24 percent of the fleet, but came only a month after Fleet Problem X, which had involved nearly a third of the fleet; as some ships did not take part in both problems, the actual overall rate of participation was more than a third of vessels officially in commission. During the 1930s, Fleet Problems XIII (1932) through XX (1939) all involved about half or more of the fleet, peaking at 69 percent in Fleet Problem XVII (1936).”

34. Lieutenant Brendan Cordial, “Too Many SWOs Per Ship,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, March 2017.

35. To get a sense of Cold War-era exercising standards and activity see the book Oceans Ventured (2018) by Reagan-era Navy Secretary John Lehman. The book is mainly about Navy exercises in the 1980s.

36. This is in reference to decision-making on employing the ship’s weapons and sensors, how to “fight the ship.” It is not in reference to things like damage control and medical assistance in which enlisted Sailors would play a prominent role.

37. On nature of exercising realism and artificialities see: Frederick Thompson, “Did We Learn Anything from that Exercise? Could We?” Naval War College Review, July-August 1982.

Featured Image: The battleship USS IOWA (BB-61) launches a Harpoon anti-ship cruise missile during Fleet Exercise 2-86 (National Archives Catalog)

4 thoughts on “How the Fleet Forgot to Fight, Pt. 2: Firepower”

  1. The author should give more weight to carrier born attack aircraft armed with long range ASCMs. Granted, the payload and range of carrier borne aircraft are less than long range land based heavy bombers, but four squadrons of attack craft (typical air wing) on a CVN can deliver upwards of 240 air launched ASCMs, and the range with aerial refueling is effectively unlimited.

    The fact is that surface ships are not very good platforms for anti-shipping warfare, and this has been true since the early days of World War Two when carrier aircraft destroyed entire fleets of heavy battleships and opposing carriers, along with destroyers and cruisers too.

    Air wings can deliver a huge salvo of ASCMs, return to the carrier, refuel and reload, and deliver another huge salvo within hours … while surface ships can deliver only a small salvo, and then take weeks to steam back to port, refuel and reload, and then steam back to deliver a second salvo. The air wing can literally deliver dozens of salvos in the timeframe it takes for surface warships to deliver two.

    Aircraft automatically also have far better and longer ranged sensors than surface warships, with respect to sensing surface targets.

    Also, the author gives too much weight to supersonic ASCMs, and not enough weight to stealthy, smart, highly precise subsonic ASCMs like our new Naval Strike Missile and LRASM. These missiles are far more survivable than supersonic missiles, which can still easily be shot down by current shipboard missile defenses.

    Our Navy did not forget how to fight.

    1. Thanks Duane. From what I can tell F-18s can pack about four Harpoon and two LRASM so I think the overall throw weight is a bit less than 240 ASCMs for an air wing’s strike fighters. I’m no WWII history buff so I might be wrong on this, but my impression is that the squadrons did not have multiple cycles of returning to the carrier to rearm, refuel, and sortie out again during the carrier-on-carrier battles. So when the combat dynamic consists of fast and powerful waves of firepower (such as carrier aircraft and missile salvo) washing over slow ships, much of the battle could already be decided in a short enough of timeframe that even carrier aviation’s advantage when it comes to reloading could be negated. So if the timeframe of decisive tactical results is that short then warships may prove better. A trio of destroyers could launch more ASCMs within a short timeframe than all the strike fighters in a carrier’s air wing.

      I completely agree with aircraft having a sensing advantage over warships. I envision them working together where aircraft would have to cue warship fires.

      I didn’t go into depth in the more modern missiles here, but I agree that LRASM and NSM are extremely capable, especially with regard to their seekers. For survivability while subsonic missiles have more flexible maneuvering my argument is predicated on the idea that having less time to be sensed and shot down is a greater advantage. I’m figuring that ASCM capability will trend toward faster missiles, and it appears some hypersonic ones are even in the works.

      1. Thank you, Dmitry.

        The mix of missiles used on attack aircraft will vary, and we are just now beginning to outfit aircraft with the latest generation of ASCMs. LRASM are on the heavy side at about 2,200 pounds each without booster (i.e..,for air launches), while NSMs are relatively lightweight at about 900 pounds each. A F-35C can carry two NSMs in the internal bay and at least four missiles, perhaps more, on the external hard points, with a total weapons load of 18.5K at max loadout. A Super Hornet should be able to carry at least two LRASM on the inboard hard points and then at least four more NSMs on the more outboard hard points.

        F-35B models will be a bit more limited than the C model, i.e., to carrying ASCMs only on the external hard points, since NSMs will not fit in the B’s shorter internal weapons bay.

        Carrying external long range ASCMs on the F-35C or B will have no practical impact on their stealthiness, since the missiles can be launched from such long distances (150 nm for NSM, and 350 nm for LRASM). The attack aircraft would likely fly a high-low mission profile, dropping down to lower altitudes beyond range of enemy radar just prior to launch, and easily evading the longest ranged surface ship radars.

        And don’t forget long range ASCMs launched from land bases, as our Marines are already doing (they recently completed a successful test fire of NSM at a surface target from a ground launcher in Hawaii). As the missile ranges are continuing to be extended, there will likely soon be nowhere within the first island chain in West Pac or the SCS that will be safe from allied land-based ASCMs .. and ditto in eastern and northern Europe, the Med, and the Persian Gulf.

        The Surface Warfare community should be very, very worried about the new age of long range ASCMs. There will literally be no practical sea theater that will be safe from ASCMs. Sure, they can steam around in the middle of the Pacific Ocean (although still within range of transcontinental heavy bombers), but there is nothing there to protect. Navies are all about sinking and protecting ships that have to travel to and from land … ships don’t sail around in circles in the middle of the ocean, going from nowhere to nowhere.

        1. Great points all around. Perhaps I could have also included a section in this article on land-based ASCMs since that is something competitors have also had for quite some time but not the U.S. That’ll be a really critical thing to get right.

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