Tag Archives: kill chain

Breaking the Anti-Ship Missile Kill Chain

By Dick Mosier

With the fielding of increasingly capable anti-ship missiles, the centerpiece of the next conflict with a near-peer maritime power will be warfare to deny the adversary the intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance and target acquisition information required for successful anti-ship missile attack on surface combatants and capital ships. Land, air, surface ship, and submarine launched anti-ship missiles are and will increasingly be the dominant threat to surface navy operations. Ballistic anti-ship missile systems such as the Chinese Dong Feng 21 (DF21D) and Dong Feng 26 (DF26); hypersonic anti-ship missiles such as the Russian 3M22 Zircon (NATO SS-N-33); and, anti-ship cruise missiles leveraging artificial intelligence for threat avoidance and target acquisition dramatically increase the threat and severely challenge the anti-ship missile defense capabilities of the surface navy.

The trend favors the offense. The longstanding and current investments in fleet kinetic and electronic defense against incoming launch platform or inbound anti-ship missiles will remain necessary but increasingly insufficient. A sea-skimming, Mach 6, ZIRCON anti-ship missile, breaking the radar horizon at 15nm from a surface target, would impact the ship in approximately 15 seconds. With these short reaction times the likelihood of a navy surface ship detecting and destroying the incoming missile is low.  

One way to offset this dramatically increased threat is to counter the adversary’s intelligence, surveillance, reconnaissance (ISR) and target acquisition (TA) capabilities. Even the most sophisticated anti-ship missile systems are dependent on a chain of events starting with intelligence to support the targeting decision process, followed by reconnaissance and surveillance to find the target, and ending with weapons effects on the target. It includes the communications and data links for the transfer of information along the kill chain and the command and control decisionmakers. The attack will be unsuccessful if any of the links in this anti-ship missile kill chain are broken.  

The concept of a kill chain is well established in the U.S. military as evident in terms such as Sensor-to-Shooter; Observe, Orient, Decide, Act (OODA); and Find, Fix, Track, Target, Engage, and Assess (F2T2EA). Though similar in concept, the kill chain for anti-ship missile attack against moving maritime targets requires a detailed decomposition to identify the links in the chain of events that must be completed for attack success. The following is a representation of a notional anti-ship missile kill chain.

The links in the kill chain that reference “observables” all depend on own force/own ship offering visual, infrared, acoustic, RF (radar, communications, data links) observables that can be exploited by the adversary to complete the kill chain. In addition to technical observables, the operations of the force/own ship offer observables such as course, speed, and formation from which to deduce that the entities are military and that entities being screened by a formation might be the highest value. Many of the observables that can be exploited by the enemy to acquire this information can be controlled or manipulated to degrade links in the enemy’s anti-ship kill chain.

In response to the rapidly evolving threat, the Navy needs a strategy that officially recognizes the requirement and places high priority on breaking the anti-ship missile kill chain. There are several elements to the execution of this strategy. First, it requires very detailed intelligence on the end-to-end kill chain for each type of anti-ship missile, identifying, locating, and assessing the technical characteristics and performance of each link in the chain. Second, it requires operational intelligence on how a potential adversary actually uses or trains to operate the kill chain for each type of missile. Third, it requires analysis of the observables offered by U.S. Navy combatants that could inform an adversary’s kill chain. Having knowledge of all three elements, the analysis can be performed to identify both material and non-material alternatives; and assess their effectiveness, technical and operational feasibility, probability of success, and costs.

Breaking the anti-ship missile kill chain requires a response that integrates a variety of national, theater, and Navy information-related activities executed ashore and afloat. Composite Warfare Commanders and their supporting Information Operations Warfare Commanders will be required to have detailed knowledge of adversary ISR and TA systems and their capabilities. They will require situational awareness sufficient to determine whether the force is within enemy detection range, and assess whether the adversary has located and identified the force. This assessment drives the decision of if and when to transition from denying observables to active electronic and kinetic defense when it is tactically advantageous.

It will also require creation of a new warfighter career path focused on countering enemy ISR and TA and breaking the anti-ship missile kill chain. This career path would be technically challenging, requiring personnel educated in the physics of the various types of sensing, such as satellite reconnaissance, Over-The-Horizon Radar (OTH-R), Inverse Synthetic Aperture Radar (ISAR), time difference of arrival (TDOA), frequency difference of arrival (FDOA), imaging and non-imaging IR, and acoustic systems. The knowledge of physics at work in the acoustic, atmospheric, and ionospheric environments and in the various types of sensing systems has to be followed by knowledge of how various techniques are employed by adversaries along individual steps of the kill chain when hunting surface ships and aircraft. This foundation of knowledge forms the basis for the conceptualization and testing of new concepts, formulation of new requirements, the fielding of new systems, the development of doctrine and tactics, and manning of the fleet with ready warfighters.

In summary, the fielding of ballistic and hypersonic anti-ship missiles by Russia and the China constitutes an alarming increase in the threat to U.S. Navy surface ships. It demands a strong, focused, offsetting response aimed at defeating these new weapons by breaking their respective anti-ship missile kill chains. This strategy will be successful only if it is treated as a major new direction for the U.S. Navy, with sustained high-level support, strong organization, and innovative leadership.  

Dick Mosier is a recently retired defense contractor systems engineer; Naval Flight Officer; OPNAV N2 civilian analyst; SES 4 responsible for oversight of tactical intelligence systems and leadership of major defense analyses on UAVs, Signals Intelligence, and C4ISR.  His interest is in improving the effectiveness of U.S. Navy tactical operations, with a particular focus on organizational seams, a particularly lucrative venue for the identification of long-standing issues and dramatic improvement. The article represents the author’s views and is not necessarily the position of the Department of Defense or the United States Navy. 

Featured Image: Sputnik/ Ildus Gilyazutdinov

Death From Above

Kill Chain

Andrew Cockburn. Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins. Henry Holt Publishers. 307pp. $28.00.

It’s not often that a book review coincides with current events. Books, particularly nonfiction, are usually written and published months, if not years after an event has occurred. That’s because good nonfiction is written in retrospect: writers have spent some time absorbing their subject, researching and analyzing the facts; authors are hesitant to be rash in judgment or thought.

However, there are exceptions. Some pieces of nonfiction, particularly journalists’ works, are appropriate now — not later. Andrew Cockburn’s new book, Kill Chain: The Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, is one of them.  Cockburn’s book is timely.  In just the past few weeks there has been a flood of reporting from media outlets stating that a drone strike killed an American and an Italian hostage when targeting a group of Al-Qaeda members operating near the Afghanistan-Pakistan border.

Suddenly, questions about drone strikes, the debate about targeted killing, and the transparency of the drone program are on the front page of print and online news media worldwide.

Yes, timely indeed.

Although Cockburn’s book cover is plastered with silhouettes of unmanned aerial vehicles — with what appears to be the X-47B, Predator, Global Hawk, and Fire Scout, among others — he is making a larger argument.  Cockburn it seems, is arguing that all technology is suspect.  It’s not simply unmanned aerial vehicles, but it’s the idea that human beings are continuously so bold as to come up with technological solutions that will win our wars.   History, however, tells us a much different story.

Cockburn, then, starts his book with an interesting tale.

In 1966 the Vietnam War was not going well.  Secretary McNamara, a man who was fond of scientific solutions to difficult problems, turned his attention to “The Jasons.”  The Jasons, Cockburn says, were a small group of scientists and scholars, many of whom would go on to become Nobel Prize winners. These were also some of the same men — Carl Kaysen, Richard Garwin, George Kistiakowski — that were part of the Manhattan Project some twenty years earlier.

The Jasons tried to do what Rolling Thunder could not — they tried to figure out a way to defeat North Vietnam’s ability to use the Ho Chi Minh trail — to cut off their supply routes.  They ended up deploying small sensors along the trail that could, presumably, pick up the noise, vibration, and in some cases, the ammonia of someone urinating, all in an attempt to locate men and machines moving goods to the South.  Then, if they could hear them and find them, U.S. commanders could task air strikes against the communists on the trail.  It didn’t take long, Cockburn says, for the North Vietnamese to find a work-around.  How long?  It took one week.  Cockburn notes that all the North Vietnamese had to do was to use cows and trucks, often running over an area of the trail multiple times to create a diversion while the real logistical effort was moved elsewhere.  So simple and so effective — and relatively inexpensive.  However, Cockburn says the cost of the electronic barrier for the U.S. was around six billion dollars.

This formula is repeated throughout the rest of the book.  That is 1) There is a military problem 2) Someone always tries to find a technological solution, and then 3) Spends a lot of money only to find out the U.S. has made the problem worse.

Now fast forward almost sixty-years to the age of drones, and Cockburn introduces us to Rex Rivolo, an analyst at the Institute of Defense Analysis.  It’s 2007 and improvised explosive devices are a major problem; they are killing and maiming hundreds of U.S. troops in Iraq.  Asked to analyze the networks behind the IEDs, Rivolo, Cockburn says, discovers that targeted killings of these networks  lead to more attacks, not fewer.  This is because someone more aggressive fills the place of the leader who was recently killed.  Rivolo would return to D.C., even getting the ear of the Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, telling him that attacking high- value targets was not the right strategy — the IED networks and individuals setting them off were more autonomous then was initially thought.  Going after the senior guy, Rivolo noted, was not the answer.  But, as Cockburn says, nothing changed. Now people simply refer to the continous cycle of targeting and killing  high-value targets as “mowing the grass.”

The idea of killing  senior leaders or HVTs is not new, it’s been around for a long time (think Caesar).  Cockburn, then, brings up one of the more interesting “what if’s” that military officers — or any student of military history — likes to debate.  That is, what if someone had killed Hitler before the end of the war?  Would the war have ended?  Or would he have become a martyr and someone worse or someone better have taken his place?  Cockburn tells us about British Lieutenant Colonel Robert Thornley, who argued during WWII that, no, the Fuhrer should not be killed.  Thornley noted, that if Hitler was killed, his death would likely make him a martyr for national socialism.  And that Hitler was often a man that “override completely the soundest military appreciation and thereby helped the Allied cause tremendously.”  Therefore, the thinking went, we should let Hitler live and dig his own grave.

However, the problem with this debate is that context matters.  Was it Germany in 1933? 1938? Or 1944? It matters because while Cockburn does not differentiate between the killing of a leader of a state and the leader of a terrorist network, they are indeed different systems that have different levers of power and legitimacy.

He is on firmer ground when he rightly notes how difficult it is for anyone to predict systemic effects when targeting a network.  He reiterates these difficulties throughout the book.  The most historical compelling case is WWII and the strategic bombing campaign.  All one has to do is pick up the WWII U.S. Strategic Bombing Survey and read the fine work done by John K. Galbraith, Paul Nitze, and others.  Disrupting or destroying networks from the air — in this case, Germany’s economy — was incredibly difficult.  In many cases, assumptions of German capabilities or weaknesses were far from correct.  And as Cockburn notes, the term “effects based operations,” namely, operations that are military and nonmilitary that can disrupt complex systems while minimizing risk, was a term that was outlawed in 2008 by General Mattis while the head of Joint Forces Command.

Ultimately, the debate over drones — who should control them, what should they be used for, should the U.S. target particular individuals — will continue.  It’s an important topic.  There are, however, a few shortcomings in this book.  One of the biggest questions that goes unanswered is this: If the U.S. should not strike identified enemies or high-value targets…then what?  Do nothing? Allow a Hitler to simply remain in power?  Is this not a form of moral ignorance?

The questions military planners and policy makers should ask is this:  Do we understand the character of this war?  And are these the right tools we should use to win this war?  We should not blame a drone — or any other type of tech for that matter — for bad strategies, poor operational planning, and gooned up tactics.

Drones are the future.  But we should read Cockburn’s book as a cautionary tale.  We should disabuse ourselves of the illusion that future technologies will be our savior.  And finally, we should not let those illusions crowd out the very difficult task  of understanding our adversaries and the enduring nature of war.

Andrew Cockburn’s book is worth reading.  But have your pencil ready — you’ll want to  argue with him in the margins.

Lieutenant Commander Christopher Nelson, USN, is a naval intelligence officer and recent graduate of the U.S. Naval War College and the Navy’s operational planning school, the Maritime Advanced Warfighting School in Newport, RI.  LCDR Nelson is also CIMSEC’s book review editor and is looking for readers interested in reviewing books for CIMSEC.  You can contact him at books@cimsec.org.  The views above are the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the US Navy or the US Department of Defense.