On 13 February, the Raytheon Company announced that its Standard Missile SM-3 Block IA was fired from the USS Lake Erie and successfully destroyed a medium-range ballistic missile (MRBM) target using tracking data from two Space Tracking and Surveillance System-Demonstrator (STSS-D) satellites in low Earth orbit carrying sensor payloads able to detect infrared and visible light. The MRBM target was launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility. As it rose above the horizon, the target was acquired and tracked by STSS-D. Threat data was then relayed through the Command, Control, Battle Management and Communications (C2BMC) system to the ship. The ship’s crew fired the SM-3 based on STSS track data and before the ship’s radar acquired the target.
”STSS-D’s unique vantage point in space allows the sensor payload to see the threat early in its trajectory and provide launch quality data sooner than nearly any other option,” said Bill Hart, vice president of Space Systems for Raytheon’s Space and Airborne Systems business. “We can give our naval warfighters extra time to analyze and respond, by providing target data before the ship can track the threat. That’s a tremendous advantage.
This test result – the 21st success according to Ratheon is encouraging and adds to the overall programme successes (for the actual missiles there have been 24 intercepts out of 29 attempts). However, it is usually only the test of battle that counts. And sometimes the truth about battle performance only comes out after the public relations team has done its business.
Over praised missile effectiveness
For example, it was only in action that it was found that the US Navy’s anti-aircraft and missile systems (including earlier versions of the Standard Missile) had a tendency to intercept the US Navy’s own “chaff” (foil strip) clouds dispensed to confuse enemy radars and missile systems rather than their own.
Likewise, in the first Gulf war of 1991, the Patriot missile system was claimed by the then U.S. President George H.W. Bush, to have shot down 41 out of 42 Scud-type missiles aimed at. Later, an independent analysis, now generally accepted, found that the missile system had had much less success with missed intercepts and missiles not killing the important part of the target. Due to the high speeds involved, the Patriot missile’s proximity fusing was not fast enough to ignite before the Scud missiles had largely passed resulting in the Scud warhead surviving to explode on Earth. (Note: the accuracy of independent anti-missile strike analysis is not always accepted as happened recently when the effectiveness of Israel’s David’s Sling short range anti-missile system was controversially questioned).
At least post-Gulf War Scud missile effectivness analysis became public domain relatively quickly. After the Falkands war in 1982, an initial glowing report for British Sea Harrier/Sidewinder missiile combination, and ship and land based anti-aircraft missile systems, showed good interception results. An analysis conducted later showed much more mixed results for the anti-aircraft missiles. While the Royal Navy’s Sea Dart* medium range and the Sea Wolf close range missile systems worked well enough - the occassional hang up and having to give way to satellite communications aside - nevertheless, some of the other missiles performed poorly.
This list included an especially woeful performance of the British Army’s modern Rapier missile system against low flying Argentinian fighter bombers. Its poor results (only one aircraft shot down in 60+ attempts) were covered up as the UK missile industry was trying to market them at the time. Part of its problem was that it had no proximity fuse fitted meaning that always had to hit a target to achieve a kill.
Sea Cat missiles were only really scary rather than effective
It was not just the Army’s Rapier that failed to perform in the Falklands War.. The Royal Navy’s 1960s vintage subsonic and difficult to control Sea Cat missile system (Seacat) was deployed as the main missile defence in San Carlos water (“Bomb Alley”) where amphibious landings were taking place mainly because it was not as dependent on radar as other missile systems which could easily be confused by returns from the nearby terrain. However, out of 80 launches, Sea Cat missiles only managed to shoot down one A4 skyhawk aircraft (by a Sea Cat missile fired by HMS Yarmouth), though the venerable radio-controlled missile is also thought to have damaged at least one other attacking jet (Dagger or A4 Skyhawk) and may have even managed to have partially deflect an Exocet sea-skimming missile late in the war (the Seacat was too near the ship to be armed in time but close passage may have deflected the Exocet to hit the hanger of HMS Glamorgan rather than its main structure).
* The Sea Dart later added to its reputation by managing to shoot down an Iraqi Silkworm anti-ship missile aimed at the USS Missouri battleship during the first Gulf War in 1991.
First generation point defence: Trying to guide a Sea Cat missile manually towards a fast manoevring target at a distance, even with the benefit of binoculars, proved too difficult for most. Courtesy: YouTube/UK MOD
While some versions had radar-cueing and tracking with a technical blind fire capability, Sea Cat, for the most part, remained just a sort of rocket-powered radio-controlled aeroplane manually flown by a thumb joystick, the Sea Cat missile had deserved a reputation for being very difficult to fly. This made hits on even non-manoeuvring slow-flying targets difficult to achieve - though a proximity fused explosive warhead helped, as did a minimum height limiter to stop Sea Cat missiles flying into the sea.
Analysis of the Sea Cat’s relative lack of success, especially against fast crossing or receding targets, showed that it would have been more cost-effective to have used more anti-aircraft guns instead in order to create gun World War II “pom-pom” gun style barrages using time-fused and proximity-fused shells (and ideally with tracer shells as well). In fact, the Royal Navy did still field a few World War II class 40mm Bofors (the successor to the 2 pounder Pom-Pom) and some 20mm Oerlikon guns, plus a variety of small arms, which shot down at least two aircraft in total (i.e. more than the much more expensive Sea Cat). Argentinian land forces had even better gun equipment with their (Skyguard) radar-guided twin Oerlikon 35mm guns which accounted for a Sea Harrier and an RAF Harrier being shot down. Unfortunately their effectiveness was not constrained to just ”enemy” aircraft and they also shot down two of their own.
As a result of this air defence gun renaissance, soon after the war, the Royal Navy replaced Sea Cat for last ditch defence and instead re-equipped its ships with extra fast-firing 20mm and 30mm guns, some of which were radar guided (e.g. Goalkeeper, Phalanx etc).
After its Sea Wolf missile system malfunctioned, HMS Broadsword did manage to put up a barrage of sorts using its two 40mm Bofors guns to counter a brace of attacking Argentinian A4 Skyhawk jets. Courtesy: Royal Navy/MOD
What they should have had: guns and heat seakers
Having noted this, Sea Cat gained a reputation during the Falklands war for reliability, and unlike other more modern systems, rarely failed to fire when commanded to do so. Likewise, while its strike rate remained low, it was an effective “scare” weapon when fired at on-coming aircraft. Nevertheless, with the benefit of hindsight, it came obvious that gun defences should have been used instead to shoot down or put-off attacking jets, along with with supersonic infra-red seeking self-guiding missiles such as either the Stinger or Sea Chaparral to shoot them down after they had passed. Such heat-seaking missiles could not have prevented an oncoming attack (all-aspect seeker technology was only just being introduced) but they would at least been able to get the enemy attack jets as they flew away.
It is noticeable that the last operator of the Sea Cat missile, the Indonesian Navy, is now replacing them on their elderly Anglo-Dutch Van Speijk-class frigates with more modern Mistral all-aspect infra-red seeking missiles which are self guided if initially manually aimed from two-round Simbad launchers. Mistral, as an easy-to-operate point defence missile which is not affected by radar clutter issues, itis precisely the sort of missile that would have been ideal to defend the San Carlos landings in 1982 had they been available.
A new missile age to defend against
While the simple short range Mistral missile is a logical and cost-effective choice for the navy of a nation like Indonesia, somewhat surprisingly, alongside them and their near-antique Seacats, Indonesia’s elderly frigates also carry four highly sophisticated Yakhont supersonic anti-ship missiles. The Russian-built Yakhont (like the Brahmos Indian-built copy), is regarded as a state-of-the-art anti-ship missile which has now become a scare-word for Western navies. With a reach of 300km and a supersonic cruise capability, it would be difficult to intercept especially if fired in a multi-missile salvo. Yakhont really needs satellites and/or maritime aircraft targeting updates to be effective when launched to over-the-horizon distances. While Indonesia does not really have a satellite ocean surveillance capability, it is known to be increasing its maritime patrol aircraft fleet. Indonesia, of course, is the nation with the longest coastline in the world.
After Sea Cat, Sea Dart and Sea Wolf (in later vertically launched guise), the Royal Navy now moved on to a new generation of missiles to meet new series of threats. Apart from planning a vertically launched short range missile based on ASRAAM technology called Sea Ceptor to counter sea skimming missiles and aircraft threats, the Royal Navy is already fielding Europe’s equivalent of the SM-3, the Aster 15 and Aster 30 (aka Sea Viper) on board its Type 45 destroyers to specifically counter supersonic anti-ship missiles. The Aster 30 longer range version even has a basic anti-ballistic missile capability and a newer version is planned to further improve on this aspect. It may be wise to do so this given reports that China recently tested its DF-21D “anti-aircraft-carrier” missile against a aircraft carrier-sized target in the Gobi desert. Meanwhile, Argentina is busy re-energising its ballistic missile programme which may yet have an anti-ship application.
Update: In early March, the UK Ministry of Defence announced that it has agreed to allow a Royal Navy Type 45 destroyer demonstrate its Sampson tracking radar in tests conducted in conjunction with the US Missile Defence Agency (MDA) to see how well it can track ballistic missiles. In April, the US Navy successfully shot down a drone aircraft using a directed energy laser beam which is designed to be a last ditch defence against missiles and aircraft.
Post script: The manually-aimed version of the Sea Cat missile system, the GWS-20, armed HMS Plymouth. This Rothesay-class frigate is the last survivor of the Royal Navy ships which fought in the Falklands War and was a sister of HMS Yarmouth which did actually manage to shoot down a A4 Skyhawk using a Sea Cat missile during the conflict. Sadly, HMS Plymouth now looks set to be scrapped after being a museum ship in Birkenhead, Liverpool.