Air Defense: February 8, 2004


: The fierce air and sea battles off the Falkland Islands in 1982 have been dominating naval strategy for over 20 years. One of the major lessons learned from that first, and so far only, naval war of the missile age, is the importance of ships equipped with adequate air defense weapons for protecting todays fleets. Whether called a cruiser, destroyer, or frigate, their mission remains the same: defense of a task force from low flying aircraft and sea-skimming missiles.

At the time of the Falklands War, where Britain lost six modern warships to air attack, America already had a head start with its new Aegis cruisers that were just entering service. With the deployment of Aegis, the Navy felt it had the answer to the mass of Soviet cruise missiles aimed at its aircraft carrier battle groups. Aegis SPY-1D is the worlds most advanced air defense radar, and can detect and track up to 100 aerial targets in all weather conditions, at all altitudes and speeds. When combined with the vertical launch system (VLS), which allows greater firepower and simultaneous launch of surface to air missiles, it becomes an awesome weapon of war.

Aegis went to sea with USS Ticonderoga in 1983 and was so successful, plans began for the next air-defense ship with a lighter version of the radar. The Arleigh Burke class destroyers were the first ships to be built with the lessons of the Falklands in mind. Recalling the loss of Britains thin-skinned warships, she was constructed totally of steel, with 70 tons of Kevlar armor placed in sensitive areas. The Mk 41 VLS first introduced on the cruiser Bunker Hill in 1986, can fire 90 missiles in rapid salvoes. Her most advanced feature is the scaled down Aegis system, the SPY-1F. The employment of this lighter radar system has made possible the use of Aegis on smaller, less expensive vessels.

It took an act of Congress, but now the worlds most advanced air defense system will benefit the fleets of US allies. Japan was the first foreign nation to receive Aegis for its warships. These were the large and powerful Kongo class destroyers, four in commission and equipped with the SPY-1D. These excellent and advanced ships recently deployed to the Indian Ocean in support of the War on Terror. The Kongos and Burkes are similar vessels weighing over 9000 tons each. Two European navies recently deployed smaller vessels of frigate size, with the SPY-1F radar. The Spanish Alvaro de Bazan is a 5800-ton ship armed with the new Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM) in a VLS. Norways Nansen is even smaller at 4600 tons, and is also equipped with VLS.

Several other navies are planning Aegis warships, including South Korea and Australia. Australia and Japan want their new ships to be able to shoot down Theater Ballistic Missiles by use of the new Standard SM-3 missile, which will also be carried on American ships. Taiwan was interested in purchasing Aegis for its Navy, but was forced to accept 4 older and less capable Kidd class destroyers.

Canada was impressed enough with the Falklands war to redesign an entire class of warships. Taking the 5000-ton Iroquois class destroyers in hand, they were converted from the primary anti-submarine role into potent air defense and command vessels. This was done by replacing the forward Sea Sparrow missile launcher and the 5-inch main gun with Standard missiles in a VLS. Though not as powerful as an Aegis equipped ship, they are certainly a welcome addition to the fleet. Canada hopes to replace these excellent warships in the next decade with newer vessels, possibly based on its Halifax class frigates.

Great Britain, the immediate benefactor the Falklands lessons, has not been idle in applying them to its navy. After 1982, larger versions of the Sheffield class missile destroyers, and the Broadsword missile frigates were acquired, all with greater protection and improved air search radar. Broadsword class ships come equipped with the short range, but very capable Sea Wolf anti-missile system. Destroyers of the Sheffield class are armed with the tried and true Sea Dart missile, which has the distinction of shooting down a Silkworm cruise missile in the first Gulf War.

The British and French navies are going their own way in deploying a new air defense system at sea. The original Horizon project to build missile ships for the two countries and Italy, has been superseded by separate designs, all using the Principal Anti-Aircraft Missile System, or PAAMS. This system incorporates the French built Aster 15 and Aster 30 missiles backed up with advanced radar. The British version, HMS Daring, includes Dutch designed search radar, and American built Identification Friend or Foe system. Twelve of these powerful 8000 ton ships are planned, the first arriving in 2007.

The Chinese Navy has breathed new life in a Russian Cold War design. Eighteen of the large Sovremenny class destroyers were built for the old Soviet Navy, starting in 1985. Two of these very potent warships, built in answer to Americas Aegis ships, have been acquired by China, with plans for at least 4 more. Sovremenny comes quipped with 48 Shtil surface to air missiles, in deck launchers rather than VLS. Primary armament is the SS-N-7 Sunburn anti-ship missile, a Mach 2.5 weapon, armed with a nuclear or 661 pounds of explosive.

While air defense remains the main role of Western destroyers, Russian and Chinese planners emphasize the anti-surface mission in designing their warships. The Sunburn missile is a great source of concern to the US Navy, causing some to claim there is no defense. -- Mike Burleson




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