The Sunburn Missile - The weapon that could defeat the US in the Gulf
The Sunburn Missile - The weapon that could defeat the US in the Gulf
Iran: A Bridge too Far?
The weapon that could defeat the US in the Gulf
A word to the reader: The following paper is so shocking that, after preparing the initial draft, I didn’t want to believe it myself, and resolved to disprove it with more research. However, I only succeeded in turning up more evidence in support of my thesis. And I repeated this cycle of discovery and denial several more times before finally deciding to go with the article. I believe that a serious writer must follow the trail of evidence, no matter where it leads, and report back. So here is my story. Don’t be surprised if it causes you to squirm. Its purpose is not to make predictions –– history makes fools of those who claim to know the future –– but simply to describe the peril that awaits us in the Persian Gulf. By awakening to the extent of that danger, perhaps we can still find a way to save our nation and the world from disaster. If we are very lucky, we might even create an alternative future that holds some promise of resolving the monumental conflicts of our time. MG
Iran: A Bridge too Far?
by Mark Gaffney
10/26/04 "ICH" -- Last July, they dubbed it operation Summer Pulse: a simultaneous mustering of US Naval forces, world wide, that was unprecedented. According to the Navy, it was the first exercise of its new Fleet Response Plan (FRP), the purpose of which was to enable the Navy to respond quickly to an international crisis. The Navy wanted to show its increased force readiness, that is, its capacity to rapidly move combat power to any global hot spot. Never in the history of the US Navy had so many carrier battle groups been involved in a single operation. Even the US fleet massed in the Gulf and eastern Mediterranean during operation Desert Storm in 1991, and in the recent invasion of Iraq, never exceeded six battle groups. But last July and August there were seven of them on the move, each battle group consisting of a Nimitz-class aircraft carrier with its full complement of 7-8 supporting ships, and 70 or more assorted aircraft. Most of the activity, according to various reports, was in the Pacific, where the fleet participated in joint exercises with the Taiwanese navy.
But why so much naval power underway at the same time? What potential world crisis could possibly require more battle groups than were deployed during the recent invasion of Iraq? In past years, when the US has seen fit to “show the flag” or flex its naval muscle, one or two carrier groups have sufficed. Why this global show of power?
The news headlines about the joint-maneuvers in the South China Sea read: “Saber Rattling Unnerves China”, and: “Huge Show of Force Worries Chinese.” But the reality was quite different, and, as we shall see, has grave ramifications for the continuing US military presence in the Persian Gulf; because operation Summer Pulse reflected a high-level Pentagon decision that an unprecedented show of strength was needed to counter what is viewed as a growing threat –– in the particular case of China, because of Peking’s newest Sovremenny-class destroyers recently acquired from Russia.
“Nonsense!” you are probably thinking. That’s impossible. How could a few picayune destroyers threaten the US Pacific fleet?”
Here is where the story thickens: Summer Pulse amounted to a tacit acknowledgement, obvious to anyone paying attention, that the United States has been eclipsed in an important area of military technology, and that this qualitative edge is now being wielded by others, including the Chinese; because those otherwise very ordinary destroyers were, in fact, launching platforms for Russian-made 3M-82 Moskit anti-ship cruise missiles (NATO designation: SS-N-22 Sunburn), a weapon for which the US Navy currently has no defense. Here I am not suggesting that the US status of lone world Superpower has been surpassed. I am simply saying that a new global balance of power is emerging, in which other individual states may, on occasion, achieve “an asymmetric advantage” over the US. And this, in my view, explains the immense scale of Summer Pulse. The US show last summer of overwhelming strength was calculated to send a message.
The Sunburn Missile
I was shocked when I learned the facts about these Russian-made cruise missiles. The problem is that so many of us suffer from two common misperceptions. The first follows from our assumption that Russia is militarily weak, as a result of the breakup of the old Soviet system. Actually, this is accurate, but it does not reflect the complexities. Although the Russian navy continues to rust in port, and the Russian army is in disarray, in certain key areas Russian technology is actually superior to our own. And nowhere is this truer than in the vital area of anti-ship cruise missile technology, where the Russians hold at least a ten-year lead over the US. The second misperception has to do with our complacency in general about missiles-as-weapons –– probably attributable to the pathetic performance of Saddam Hussein’s Scuds during the first Gulf war: a dangerous illusion that I will now attempt to rectify.
Many years ago, Soviet planners gave up trying to match the US Navy ship for ship, gun for gun, and dollar for dollar. The Soviets simply could not compete with the high levels of US spending required to build up and maintain a huge naval armada. They shrewdly adopted an alternative approach based on strategic defense. They searched for weaknesses, and sought relatively inexpensive ways to exploit those weaknesses. The Soviets succeeded: by developing several supersonic anti-ship missiles, one of which, the SS-N-22 Sunburn, has been called “the most lethal missile in the world today.”
After the collapse of the Soviet Union the old military establishment fell upon hard times. But in the late1990s Moscow awakened to the under-utilized potential of its missile technology to generate desperately needed foreign exchange. A decision was made to resuscitate selected programs, and, very soon, Russian missile technology became a hot export commodity. Today, Russian missiles are a growth industry generating much-needed cash for Russia, with many billions in combined sales to India, China, Viet Nam, Cuba, and also Iran. In the near future this dissemination of advanced technology is likely to present serious challenges to the US. Some have even warned that the US Navy’s largest ships, the massive carriers, have now become floating death traps, and should for this reason be mothballed.
The Sunburn missile has never seen use in combat, to my knowledge, which probably explains why its fearsome capabilities are not more widely recognized. Other cruise missiles have been used, of course, on several occasions, and with devastating results. During the Falklands War, French-made Exocet missiles, fired from Argentine fighters, sunk the HMS Sheffield and another ship. And, in 1987, during the Iran-Iraq war, the USS Stark was nearly cut in half by a pair of Exocets while on patrol in the Persian Gulf. On that occasion US Aegis radar picked up the incoming Iraqi fighter (a French-made Mirage), and tracked its approach to within 50 miles. The radar also “saw” the Iraqi plane turn about and return to its base. But radar never detected the pilot launch his weapons. The sea-skimming Exocets came smoking in under radar and were only sighted by human eyes moments before they ripped into the Stark, crippling the ship and killing 37 US sailors.
The 1987 surprise attack on the Stark exemplifies the dangers posed by anti-ship cruise missiles. And the dangers are much more serious in the case of the Sunburn, whose specs leave the sub-sonic Exocet in the dust. Not only is the Sunburn much larger and faster, it has far greater range and a superior guidance system. Those who have witnessed its performance trials invariably come away stunned. According to one report, when the Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani visited Moscow in October 2001 he requested a test firing of the Sunburn, which the Russians were only too happy to arrange. So impressed was Ali Shamkhani that he placed an order for an undisclosed number of the missiles.
The Sunburn can deliver a 200-kiloton nuclear payload, or: a 750-pound conventional warhead, within a range of 100 miles, more than twice the range of the Exocet. The Sunburn combines a Mach 2.1 speed (two times the speed of sound) with a flight pattern that hugs the deck and includes “violent end maneuvers” to elude enemy defenses. The missile was specifically designed to defeat the US Aegis radar defense system. Should a US Navy Phalanx point defense somehow manage to detect an incoming Sunburn missile, the system has only seconds to calculate a fire solution –– not enough time to take out the intruding missile. The US Phalanx defense employs a six-barreled gun that fires 3,000 depleted-uranium rounds a minute, but the gun must have precise coordinates to destroy an intruder “just in time.”
The Sunburn’s combined supersonic speed and payload size produce tremendous kinetic energy on impact, with devastating consequences for ship and crew. A single one of these missiles can sink a large warship, yet costs considerably less than a fighter jet. Although the Navy has been phasing out the older Phalanx defense system, its replacement, known as the Rolling Action Missile (RAM) has never been tested against the weapon it seems destined to one day face in combat.
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