When contemplating tactics in the present, it is natural to look to the past for insight. Recently, many naval strategists, noting the proliferation of cruise missiles, have hypothesized that the modern carrier-centric, air-defense-heavy structure of the US Navy is becoming obsolete. In this vein, the May 2017 issue of Proceedings featured a cover photo of the USS Ronald Reagan with the words “TOO BIG TO SINK.” The accompanying article cites the historically poor combat record of naval air defense systems in the Falklands War as proof that carriers cannot be defended reliably enough to justify the resources dedicated to them. Many other essays mention the Exocet missile attack on the USS Stark during the Iran-Iraq War as further historical evidence that air defense systems are inadequate.
To be sure, reviewing the effectiveness of modern air defenses is indeed necessary. New anti-ship cruise missiles boast impressive features such as terminal sprints and stealthy airframes, and such weapons are manufactured in larger quantities than ever before. However, the Falklands War and Stark incident offer relatively little insight into questions of contemporary tactics, and they certainly do not prove a vulnerability in modern air defenses. To illustrate this, some background on the events in question is necessary.
Exocets terrorize the Royal Navy
The Falklands War, which erupted in 1982 after Argentina’s capture of the disputed Falklands Islands of the South Atlantic, is often used as a case study in naval tactics. Though an obscure conflict, the Falklands War featured the only large-scale naval action between two modern militaries since World War II. Naval forces generally prefer to stay as far from the fight as possible, using long-range missiles, guns, and planes to influence events on the ground. In the Falklands War, however, a battle was inevitable — the UK could not land their force and retake the islands without getting close to the islands and fending off Argentine attacks in the process.
By the 1980s, the Royal Navy had declined significantly from its imperial height but was still a formidable force; 127 ships (including many requisitioned merchant vessels) were brought to retake the Falklands. Argentina’s best weapon against this armada was the Exocet missile, a subsonic, sea-skimming antiship missile manufactured by France and sold to Argentina in relatively small quantities. Still in use today, the Exocet was cutting edge at the time. To deliver their Exocets, the Argentineans had a fleet of Super Étenard attack aircraft also acquired from France.
The Argentines found their first victory against the Type 42 destroyer HMS Sheffield, which was on patrol as part of an anti-submarine picket force. After an Argentine airborne early warning aircraft spotted the formation, two Super Étenards flew a low-altitude attack, popping up every so often to scan for targets. Another Type 42, HMS Glasgow, spotted the Super Étenards and warned Sheffield. However, by that time, the Étenards were already quite close. They launched their Exocets, which were airborne for less than a minute before striking HMS Sheffield. By the time she was hit, her radar had just finished categorizing the target and had not even begun to ready the Sea Dart missile system for engagement.
There is also some debate as to whether the commanding officers were taking the Exocet threat with due caution, as Sheffield’s crew failed to man their action stations or launch chaff despite the Étenards being spotted by Glasgow; this was probably due to a large number of false alarms the previous few days. However, even if Sheffield’s crew had been more vigilant, chaff and hard maneuvering probably would have been their only hope, as Sheffield’s radar was ill-suited to defense against small cruise missiles (more on that later). In any case, one Exocet hit Sheffield and tore a large hole in her hull, knocking out many critical systems in the machine room and starting a fire which subsequently raged out of control. Sheffield was evacuated, with the loss of twenty lives, and proceeded to sink while under tow.
Sheffield was the first Royal Navy vessel to be sunk since World War II, and the Argentines still had more Exocets in their inventory. SS Atlantic Conveyor, a commercial ferry converted for wartime use, was the next vessel to be struck. Unlike Sheffield, which could have conceivably defended itself with maneuvering and chaff, Atlantic Conveyor’s large radar signature, slow speed, and lack of armament meant it was essentially doomed. Two missiles hit, claiming 12 lives and causing the ship to sink while under tow.
The last ship to be struck by an Exocet was HMS Glamorgan, an obsolete County-class destroyer. The Argentines conducted the attack using an improvised land-based launcher with missiles removed from a surface combatant. After two failures, a third Exocet was launched and obtained a lock. Glamorgan was actually able to track the missile, likely due to the sub-optimal launching arrangement, but her Sea Cat and Sea Slug surface-to-air missiles were useless against this type of target. Instead of intercepting, Glamorgan executed an aggressive maneuver which caused the Exocet to glance off the destroyer’s deck and explode. Since the damage was well above the waterline, Glamorgan was able to leave the area under her own power. The thirteen sailors killed in the incident received a sea burial.
Despite these losses, the UK would go on to win the war and retake the islands.
Exocets strike USS Stark
During the Iran-Iraq War, Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate USS Stark was spotted by an Iraqi aircraft armed with two Exocets. To this day, there is debate as to whether this plane was an Iraqi Mirage F.1, which would have barely been able to fly with such a loadout, or a modified Dassault Falcon 50 business jet. In any case, the aircraft was picked up by an E-3 Sentry aircraft and then Stark’s own radar, but Captain Brindel, the commanding officer, ignored conventional air defense doctrine and did not request identification until it was too late. The aircraft closed to about 20 miles, fired two Exocets, then withdrew. Brindel suspected an attack and asked his crew if the Phalanx close-in weapons system (CIWS) was ready. However, there was a misinterpretation — while Brindel was asking if the Phalanx was ready for combat, his crew thought he was asking if it was operational, to which they replied affirmatively. The Phalanx was actually in standby mode, waiting for cueing from the combat system. That never came, because Stark’s radars and sensors failed to pick up the incoming Exocets until a lookout spotted them visually. Both missiles hit, although one failed to detonate, and 37 American sailors were killed.
What has changed?
It is tempting to view the Exocet’s combat history and conclude that air defenses are helpless against the threat of cruise missiles. However, there are a few important differences between modern naval defenses and the systems used in the aforementioned incidents.
Exocets wreaked havoc because of their small radar signature and low-altitude flight path. The Type 42’s radar at the time, the Type 965, lacked moving target identification, a signal processing technique that allows radars to distinguish between low-flying objects such as an Exocet and the radar waves reflected by the sea. Thus, it is altogether unsurprising that Sheffield’s crew was helpless against the sea-skimming attacks flown by Argentine pilots. In the Stark’s case, it was mainly human errors that resulted in the hits; an investigation into the incident noted a series of egregious procedure violations, including the CIWS not being in active mode, the chaff launchers not being armed, computer consoles not being manned, and fire control radars never being activated despite the Iraqi aircraft locking onto Stark with its own fire control radar. It concludes by stating that Stark’s combat systems had the capability to deal with the threat had they been correctly operated.
Modern sensors stand a much better chance against anti-ship missiles thanks largely to advances in solid-state electronics. Phased array air defense radars, now standard for air defense ships, have significantly improved resolution and power, increasing their ability to detect targets with small signatures at greater ranges. Plus, advances in computing power and signal processing mean that features like moving target identification and clutter rejection are standard.
In addition, networking equipment allows assets such as the E-2 Hawkeye or the F-35 to detect cruise missiles and send the information to warships. In some cases, air defense missiles aboard a warship can even be launched and guided using targeting data collected by a sensor hundreds of miles away. All these advances significantly reduce the likelihood that a missile will evade detection until it is too late, as occurred with the Exocet’s victories.
Not only have sensors improved, the missile launching systems used by modern air defense ships are also optimized to intercept cruise missiles. The Standard and Sea Cat missiles aboard Stark and Sheffield were arm-launched, resulting in dead zones, longer reaction times, and reloads between each firing. Modern anti-air missiles are launched from vertical cells, improving reaction times, allowing for ripple fire, and eliminating the need to aim prior to engagement. Plus, the air defense missiles themselves have significantly enhanced guidance systems and superior maneuvering capabilities relative to their predecessors.
As a result, modern air defense ships are significantly more capable than their predecessors. These improvements have been demonstrated out not only in tests, in which surface-to-air missiles such as the Standard Missile-2 have defeated cruise missile targets, but also in combat. During October 2016, American Arleigh Burke-class destroyer USS Mason was attacked by C-802 cruise missiles on three separate occasions but managed to defeat each attack. The C-802 is a small, stealthy, sea-skimming missile similar to the Exocet, yet USS Mason’s sensors detected the threat well in advance on all three occasions and countermeasures were deployed successfully.
And yet, modern anti-ship cruise missiles have also progressed by leaps and bounds since the Falklands War. While the Exocet and other similar missiles (such as the Harpoon) are still common in Western navies, other powers such as India, China, and Russia have been innovating rapidly. The Russo-Indian BrahMos missile, which travels at near-sea altitudes and reaches blistering speeds up to Mach 3.0, presents an unprecedented challenge to ship defenses. Other types are deadly by virtue of sheer proliferation; China has a formidable fleet of submarines and fast attack craft designed to launch massed attacks with relatively cheap missiles, potentially overwhelming a defender.
World Wars I and II were separated by less than 30 years, and yet naval tactics in the latter differed vastly from the former. In an era of rapid technological advancement, one must be careful when extrapolating the past to the present. It has been 30 years since the Stark attack and more than 30 since the Falklands War; both air defense systems and anti-ship missiles have evolved substantially since. Thus, it is inadvisable to use these incidents as “proof” that modern air defenses are vulnerable. Rather, analysts should view the Exocet’s success with perspective and focus on addressing the air defense challenges of the future.