Surface Forces: April 12, 2005

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Anti-ship missiles have become the primary means for attacking surface vessels. This was made very clear in 1967, when Egyptian Komar-class missile boats fired Styx missiles that sank the Israeli destroyer Eliat. Many more anti-ship missiles have been designed and put into service since then. Which of those with a combat record is the best?

The Russian SS-N-2/P-15 Styx was the first missile to prove the concept in actual combat. Four missiles were fired against the Eliat and three hit. The Styx was designed to bypass the formidable anti-aircraft armament on the ships of the era. Five-inch and three-inch guns with variable time or proximity fuses had proven unable to stop Japans slower kamikaze aircraft (in essence, the first anti-ship missiles). In its ultimate incarnation, the SS-N-2C, the Styx had a range of 83 kilometers, a speed of Mach 1.3, and delivered a 1,100-pound high-explosive warhead onto its target. The system has seen service with not only Arab navies, but also India, which used the Styx to sink a Pakistani destroyer and minesweeper, while also using it successfully against targets on land, and to damage another Pakistani destroyer and three tankers. The Styx, though, was quickly countered with electronic devices that spoiled their aim, or set off the warhead prematurely. In 1973, over fifty anti-ship missiles were fired at Israeli forces. None did much damage to speak of. Today, the Styx is still manufactured, since it is simple, reliable, and cheap. But these days, the Styx little more than bait for todays surface-to-air missiles.

The Israelis soon developed their own surface-to-surface missile, the Gabriel. The surface-to-surface Gabriel has a range of 40 kilometers, used radar guidance, and in 1973, became the scourge of the Arab navies, sinking nine vessels. This missile has probably had some of the most extensive combat usage in the world, and has performed well. It has been progressively improved to the point of becoming an air-launched weapon as well, with a range of 60 kilometers.

The French Exocet is probably the most famous of these anti-ship missiles. The original version was short-ranged, able to reach targets 42 kilometers away. It could deliver a 364-pound warhead to its target, and could fly as low as 3 meters above the ocean. This makes it very hard to hit. Exocet is arguably the movie star of anti-ship missiles but for good reason. The Exocet earned its reputation in the Falklands War of 1982, where it sank the modern (at the time) destroyer HMS Sheffield. The missile also sank the merchant ship Atlantic Conveyor in a second attack. Five years later, the Exocet was used in an attack that left the USS Stark badly damaged. What is not known is that the Exocet achieved this record despite at least two of the four hits (one of the hits on Stark and the hit that sank Sheffield) were duds. This missile has performed for the most part against the two best navies in the world (the U.S. Navy and the Royal Navy), sinking two ships and badly damaging a third. It has earned its spurs the hard way.

Finally, the last of the anti-ship missiles that has seen extensive combat is the Harpoon. This is probably the most capable of the anti-ship missiles. Early versions had a range of 110 kilometers. Newer versions push that figure up to 275 kilometers. The early versions of the Harpoon had a 500-pound warhead. The SLAM-ER, a derivative of the Harpoon, can carry an 800-pound warhead. Harpoons first real combat test came during the 1986 Freedom of Navigation exercises in the Gulf of Sidra. The Harpoon sank or heavily damaged three Libyan patrol craft. In 1988, after an Iranian mine hit the Samuel B. Roberts, the Harpoon was tested again during Operation Preying Mantis. An Iranian Harpoon (bought in the 1970s) missed an American vessel, but American Harpoons sank the Iranian frigate Sahand.

Of these missiles, the Harpoon is clearly the most capable. It has the longest range, allowing the ships and aircraft firing it to mostly avoid taking fire from enemy aircraft or missiles, and it has proven to be highly versatile, not only becoming the premiere anti-ship missile in the world, but also a superb-land attack missile (the SLAM and SLAM-ER). Most of its attacks have succeeded, and have not involved duds. The Harpoon has, unlike the Styx, aged like a fine wine. It is going to remain the premiere anti-ship missile for the foreseeable future. Harold C. Hutchison (hchutch@ix.netcom.com)

 


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