Recently there was a guest article published on CIMSEC – which is worth a read – written by R. Adm. Thomas S. Rowden, United States (US) Navy, who discussed the future of surface warfare from a US perspective. Not only is it thought provoking, it serves to highlight the fact that while the US Navy may not be as strong at surface warfare as it once was, at least it is having the conversation about how to change that – which the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) European nations do not seem to be doing.
This presents a problem because most of the anti-surface capability that Western nations are now fielding is theoretical; the capability they field is not only untested in real combat, but for most nations it is singular capability fielded from often a single platform type. There are of course exceptions to this, but even they are sometimes exceptions only on paper. Britain, for example, has the Harpoon Surface-to-Surface Missiles (SSM) on some of its surface ships (entered service 1977), Spearfish torpedoes on its submarines (entered service 1988) and, whilst at the moment having no fixed wing aircraft (the HMS Queen Elizabeth may be launching this year, but it will take time for her to work up, and currently there are no fixed wing fighters to fly from it) from which to fire Anti-Surface Missiles (ASuM), it does have Lynx helicopters armed with the Sea Skua (entered service 1975); the replacement for which is a joint British-French programme started in 2014. The others have been upgraded over time, but they are fundamentally still the same systems conceived in a very different time to take on a threat that has evolved, whilst it was assumed to be stationary.
With the fall of Soviet Russia the world was supposed to be safer. There were going to be no more threats at sea; navies could concentrate on maritime security and supporting land operations. Unfortunately for the NATO allies the rest of the world, including Russian (formerly the Soviet Union), did not agree with that idea. This has meant that while great strides have been made by Western nations in missile technology (and unmanned aviation, an area which seems to both fuel, and draw from, the developments of missiles) this has largely not been applied by them to ASuMs and SSMs. In comparison Russia, India, China and nations close to them have started to field a whole new generation of these weapons. For example, India and Russia combined to produce, what is believed to be, the world’s fastest cruise missile (Mach 3) – the BrahMos SSM. It only entered service in 2006, and yet Russia and India are already working on its successor – the hypersonic (Mach 7) BrahMos-II.
As well as this, the Chinese have a smörgåsbord collection of weapons, and are developing a habit of surprising the world with new systems on a regular basis – possibly to try to prove themselves a major power in a technological way, but also just as likely so as to emphasise their capabilities in this area as a combined coercion/deterrence strategy. Unfortunately, the theoretically equivalent Western programmes are either at the earliest stages of development or distant pipe dreams at the moment; a situation made worse by the rate the surface threat is evolving.
As stated above, it is no longer the Cold War – when it was just the Soviet Union that was the threat (although Russia is re-arming and its navy is benefiting from this) – so nations can no longer afford to just look at other nations as the threat. Although nations certainly cannot be discounted as threats because flash points are still there, and leaderships can change so quickly. Whilst warships are becoming stronger and stealthier – something which goes for weapon systems as well – there are increasing numbers of systems that enable cruise missiles to be launched from containers on merchant ships. This means that a quicker and more flexible response will most likely be needed to deal with future threats; unfortunately the available responses are still very much rooted in past requirements.