The Problem With Proliferation: Cruise Missile Edition

March 2011.   The still of the pre-dawn darkness is only slightly disturbed by the passage of a container ship.   Like the many thousands of others like her plying the ocean’s ways, this one’s cargo is neatly stacked on the deck — ISO shipping containers in a multitude of colors and shippers markings.   As the fog bank thickens, a radar scope is closely scrutinized on the bridge.   Out here, off the shipping lanes no other merchant traffic is expected and, it would appear, neither were there any signs of fishing craft or more troubling, naval or coast guard ships.   Earlier in the night a code had been passed via an internet podcast and confirmed via a secure webpage.   Soon, very soon, part of the ship’s cargo would complete the long journey begun in Sverdlovsk.

Up forward, locks are removed on two of the containers and a pair of shadowy figures enter each container.   A series of muffled noises from the interior of the boxes is rapidly followed by their tops falling to one side and a brace of four tubes quickly rise to the vertical.   A minute or two passes and the quiet is shattered by a series of   explosions.   From each tube a long, slender figure emerges atop a cloud of gases.   Bright flames suddenly appear and the forms race off to the far horizon, away from the sun, still hours away from rising.

NAVSTA Norfolk has been home to US naval aviation ever since Eugene Ely   first flew his fragile, kite-like aircraft off a makeshift platform mounted on the anchored USS Birmingham.   From her roadsted, flattops of the Essex, Midway, Forrestal, Enterprise and now the Nimitz class sortied to distant spots on the globe to carry out the missions assigned — presence, deterrence, and when necessary, the fury unleashed from their decks and the holds of their escorts reinforced the determination of a free people to remain free.

On this early morning, Pier 12 is brightly lit in floodlights as the two Nimitz-class carriers, USS Harry S Truman (CVN 75) and USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 72) complete preparations for an emergency sortie on the tide.   Both had pulled into Norfolk one day prior with their full airwing complement on board to take on one final round of provisions and the remainder of their embarked airwing personnel and equipment.   Tensions have dramatically risen in the Gulf over the past few weeks following Iran’s declaration of nuclear capability.   There had been no detonation, and some were saying it was just a boast – that the Iranians were still years away from really having the capability for even a couple of weapons.   Still, Israel had attempted a long-range strike only to recall it when the US threatened to expose the mission.   A show of force was in order and to reinforce the two carrier presence in the Gulf (Eisenhower and Washington were already there) the Vinson was being turned back from a Hong Kong port visit and TR with Truman would join her outside the Straits of Hormuz.

After launch, the boosters on the eight 3M54TE1 missiles quickly burnout, fall off and quieter turbojets take over.   Guided by GPS coordinates they sped along at little over 50 ft above the ocean’s surface, their terminal homing radar units quiet for now.   Back on the container ship, a new course is plotted, away from the launch scene. As the ship steadies up on an easterly heading, a series of explosions rip through her keel and below the waterline.   The ship breaks in two, the stern section quickly sliding beneath the waves.   As containers break free and plunge into the sea, the bow slowly rolls over and begins a long slow descent to the bottom.   An oil slick, some debris and a few containers supported by trapped pockets of air are all that is left.   There are no life boats.

Farther to the west, in the operations center of NORTHCOM/NORAD a watch officer notes a disturbance and places a report.

“Watch supe, DSP1.   I have a multiple IR event, western Atlantic off the North Carolina coast.   Position 36-21 north by 74-24 west.”

“OK…initial analysis?”

“It looks like a possible series of explosions, but there isn’t anything else – whatever it was happened fast.”

“Roger – initiating conference call”   Reaching for the intercom panel, punches up a series of buttons.

“All stations, NMCC, this is NORTHCOM watch with a multiple IR event report.   At 0807Z DSP1 reported a multiple IR event position 36-21 north and 074-24 west – request by station report”

“STRATCOM with negative space or missile event”

“FAA – no air traffic that area”

“Fleet Forces with a negative report on Navy units that area”

“Homeland Defense — Coast Guard reports no known surface traffic, scrambling alert C-130 SAR from Elizabeth City”

“NORTHCOM, this is Rear Admiral Odin, NMCC — anything from FACSFAC VACAPES?”

Looking towards the FAA rep, the NORAD watch officer catches her shaking her head

“NMCC, FACSFAC reporting no contacts”

“OK NORTHCOM, report when USCG C-130 airborne and ETA area of concern.   Pass to FAA to re-route traffic to keep area clear – Navy have anything that can get out there fast for a quick look?”

“Fleet forces — negative, most of our fast flyers are already loaded and Oceana is limited ops due to fog”
“NMCC copies all — call me back in five minutes with an update and COAs”

Crossing the coastline, the missile’s radar altimeters make a quick check and cruising altitudes are adjusted accordingly.   Cruising at .8M the eight missiles quickly cross over Lynnhaven inlet, passing NAS Oceana to the left and the empty piers of Little Creek Amphib base to the right.   A waypoint is reached and 2 pair of missiles pitch up and all 8 terminal seekers turn on.

A pair of Hawkeye maintainers from VAW-120 on their way out to the flight-line for launch preps stop, startled at first by the sound then the sight of dark forms whistling by in the gloom.   Moments later the sky to their right erupts in flame, followed by a series of concussive thunderclaps rolling across the ramp, shattering glass and setting off car alarms in the parking lot.   Successive explosions follow as the remaining missiles complete their dives.

The waterfront is a horror of flame, smoke and twisted metal, the likes of which haven’t been seen in almost three-quarters of a century.   Roosevelt is ripped apart above the hangar deck level, an inferno of flames where her island and midships should have been.   One missile had struck the base of the island, another had penetrated to the hangar bay through the open bay doors, exploding amidst   pack of aircraft.   A third had completed its dive in the vicinity of where the six-pack should have been.   Across the pier, Truman was similarly damaged and at a nearby pier, two other missiles had found their mark in the USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) and USS Ramage (DDG 61).   Explosions from burning aircraft and from deep inside the mortally wounded ships continued to rain fire and shrapnel around the harbor area.   The tail section of an F/A-18E was embedded in the superstructure of the USS Hue City (CG 66), her mast bent and broken by the nearby hits on the two destroyers, her decks filled with flaming debris.

Later that day, a C-130 from Elizabeth City CGAS flies over a sea speckled by the color of floating containers.   No sign is found of the ship carrying them, nor of any survivors from that ship.

Fiction you say?   Perhaps — for now.   However, given long-running trends and recent events, the threat to deployed forces, afloat and ashore, has continued to grow in size and capabilities.   And now, the nightmare of many a defense analyst is coming to the light of day — the ability to conduct an attack on the homeland in a manner that is directly unattributable to one or more nations . . . for you see, the Russian arms manufacturer, Novator, through a front company, is offering the Club-K system, a four-tube launcher, plus all support facilities, inside a standard ISO shipping container:

And customers?   Yes — they’ve got a client list.   Such is the post-Cold War world and the state of cruise missile proliferation that an ostensibly ‘private’ company can offer for sale the latest cruise missile packaged in a manner that enables state and non-state actors to carry out surreptitious campaigns that subvert the norms of international behavior and the laws of war.

I.   Beginnings

The cruise missile debuted in the aftermath of the 1967 Arab-Israeli war when SS-1 Styxx anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) were used to sink the Israeli destroyer, Eilat off Port Suez in October.   Since then ASCMs have seen use around the world.   During the Falklands war, the Royal Navy lost the HMS Sheffield and container ship Atlantic Conveyor and suffered heavy damage to the HMS Glamorgan due to French built Exocets used by the Argentinians.   Iraq reportedly launched over 200 Exocets against a variety of targets, mostly commercial shipping, during the Iran-Iraq War.   When US forces began escorting re-flagged tankers in 1986, the USS Stark was hit and nearly sunk by an Iraqi Exocet.   US forces in turn, used Harpoons in actions against Libyan and Iranian surface ships to good effect.   Additionally, the US deployed and used conventional versions of the nuclear Tomahawk land-attack cruise missile (LACM) in ever increasing numbers from surface ships and submarines in a variety of actions and combat.   Versions of the Harpoon, modified for attacking land targets have also been employed.    The effectiveness of the cruise missile in leveling the playing field between he haves and have-nots was under-scored in 2006 when an Israeli patrol boat, the Hanit, was struck by a cruise missile fired by Lebanese Hezbollah forces near Beirut.

HMS Sheffield Atlantic Conveyor
USS Stark INS Hanit

Today, there are literally tens of thousands of cruise missiles of all types and capabilities in the service of nations on every continent.   They range from the now primitive first generation missiles that were little more than scaled down drone aircraft with rudimentary autopilots and terminal radar, to sophisticated third generation missiles that can fly at over three times the speed of sound and use complex features to defeat counter-measures.

In concert with the proliferation of air-, sea- and shore-launched anti-ship cruise missiles is a more troubling trend — the development and deployment of long-range land attack cruise missiles (LACM).   Whereas a mere ten to fifteen years ago, principally only the US and Soviet Union had built and deployed LACMs, chiefly because they were the only nations with the resources enabling the development and production of complex terrain mapping guidance systems and super efficient, small and light turbo-jet motors.   Today, however,  we see the list has added several more nations, like France, and China in spite of these supposed technological hurdles.    Many of these nations are also notorious proliferators, ensuring that eventually these weapons will find their way to a growing number of state and potentially, non-state actors as well.   How had this proliferation come about and what can be done?

II. Roots of Proliferation

As we have seen with ballistic missiles, the explosion of dual-use technology, much of it stemming from the digital information revolution, has enabled an atmosphere conducive to the spread of these weapons.   Whereas before, it took the resources of the US, from satellites to high-power computers to synthesize digital radar maps for TERCOM radar guidance, today GPS, GPS-based maps, Google-Earth and the latest generations of commercial-off-the-shelf computers can provide similar capabilities for an integration cost of between $50,000 – $150,000.   Small, efficient turbojets may likewise be purchased on the open market.   Targeting comes via the web, updates by cellphone or embedded in podcasts.   Nations, or state-supported business enterprises compete for overseas sales in a market awash in petro-dollars and high demand from a variety of shadowy sources.     Purchasers are not necessarily the end users.   The net effect is that paralleling trends in the ballistic missile field, cruise missile numbers continue to grow in numbers and capabilities — and availability for use with WMD.   In fact, a LACM is a superior delivery system in many respects for chemical or biological agents instead of a ballistic missile due to its slower flight and potential area of dispersal.

Chinese LACMs
DH-10 Prototype DH-10 (artist’s concept) CJ-10 (derived from Russian KH-55/AS-15)

Anti-proliferation regimes have been established with the intent of if not curtailing, at least severely limiting   horizontal (spread to other countries) and vertical (capability growth) proliferation.   Still, in spite of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), the US-led Proliferation Security Initiative (PSI) and the Wassenar Arrangement on Dual-Use Export Controls, the problems grow.   Non-proliferation schemes will not stop or dissuade a nation determined to expand its arsenal at any cost.   Willing participants will be found, such as when the Chinese illegaly obtained former Russian AS-15/Kh-55 LACMs from Ukraine, and then moved to reverse-engineer them for the CJ-/DH-10 missile.   The poster child for proliferation, Iran,   in the past decade of proliferation regimes and trade sanctions, has been able to indigenously build and deploy (a) a space launch vehicle, (b) field increasingly longer-ranged MRBMs, approaching IRBM range in the process, and (c) acquire 2nd generation cruise missiles (C802) from China (for the timeline, see here: C802-Documents and scroll down to the third page) and reverse-engineer others (like the Chinese C-704) despite these limiting factor  in place:

Iranian NASRI ASCM (L)   and Chinese C-704 (R)

III. Beyond Counter-Proliferation

Understand, proliferation controls should not be done away with.   They do serve a useful, if limited role in slowing progress, but as an all-inclusive method for stemming the tide, they have clearly failed.   When proliferation controls fail to prevent the spread of weapons, the prudent state, or alliance of states, undertakes to build defenses.   As was the case with BMD, cruise missile defense rests on the the three-legged stool consisting of attack options, passive and active defenses.   Having covered these before in our discussion of BMD, identification of these elements should suffice for our purposes today.

Unlike BMD, the major effort for CMD has been focused on defending high-value targets, typically naval- and merchant shipping, since the vast majority of the world’s cruise missiles today are ASCMs.   To that degree, significant effort has been devoted, especially in the active defense realm.

Now, like BMD and in concert with it, CMD must be extended ashore to protect deployed forces, Allies, friends and partners overseas and back in the States, the homeland and all US territories.   This is a much more complex undertaking than BMD given the threat, it’s ability to be concelaed until close to its intended target and where stealth or low observable technologies have been utilized, particularly difficult for defenses to detect and track, especially in high clutter areas like overland and at the land/sea interface.   Warning times, flight times and hence, available time for defenses to react will necessarily be compressed.   Sorting from not just terrain clutter, but the sizeable complex of friendly or neutral targets in the areas of concern will also greatly complicate establishing and operating an effective defense.

IV.   Towards  An Effective Defense

In designing an effective CMD, there are three broad criteria to be met:

  1. It must be militarily effective across a range of circumstances;
  2. It must be robust in all plausible environments; and
  3. It must be cost effective to the degree that an attacker cannot scale his way out of the defensive challenge (e.g., overwhelm with numbers of “cheap” cruise missiles)

The first two criteria are readily met with many of the current systems deployed afloat and ashore — it’s getting past the last that is an issue (similar to that faced by BMD).   While it is true that the relative cost of cruise missiles compared to the defense is in favor of the offense, it is the larger costs, of the loss of   high-value units or property/lives in the case of homeland defense, that mandates the necessity of developing and deploying defenses.

Like BMD, CMD has four basic elements from which measures of effectiveness may be drawn:

  1. Capability to detect/track cruise missiles after launch;
  2. Interceptors to destroy the cruise missile;
  3. A battle-management and C2  architecture to that ties the two elements above together, providing for seamless, real-time engagements; and
  4. Effective and predictive consequence management processes for post-attack.

As a greying AEW professional, I will note that the most difficult — and intuitively most important challenge to be met in CMD is detection.   Early detection buys trade-space for positioning of interceptors and coordination across lines of defense and between AORs (if need be).   Where the possibility of one or more WMD equipped cruise missiles are concerned, early detection and by extension, early intercept may mitigate post attack consequence management concerns by placing debris outside of critical/defended areas (e.g., population centers).   While no one sensor is free of all limitations, the best for detecting cruise missiles will be airborne sensors netted with ground- and space-based sensors.     Airborne sensors are less constrained by the likes of terrain, curvature of the earth (limiting radar horizon) and weather, but do come up against limits of onstation time and presence.   AEW systems also tend towards the expensive side, are limited in number and require expensive supporting   infrastructure.

Lockheed WV-2 & USS Sellstrom (DER-255) 1957 ZPG-3W AEW blimp (US Navy) 1960

Some number of decades ago we went through this drill — back when the concern was Soviet bombers coming over the pole and across the broad ocean area to attack the US.   To counter this, the US established a layered network of distant (“Contiguous Barrier”) and near shore (“Insore barrier”)  AEW barriers manned by WV-2/EC-121 Super Connies, deployed radar picket destroyers,   and coastal radars.   The largest non-rigid airships ever built, the ZPG-3W AEW blimp (four) were used to fill gaps.   Two experimental radar platforms were built and maned at sea (“Texas Towers) by the Air Force, but after one was lost in a storm, the effort was abandoned.   Batteries of Nike Hercules surface-to-air missiles ringed the major cities providing air defense for leakers that got through the ADC fighters.   All of this was managed and directed via the revolutionary (for  its time)  SAGE (Semi-Automatic Ground Environment)  system.

Even as that system was reaching a mature stage, the threat of ICBMs and a shift in deterrence philosophy and defense spending priorities led to the closeout of the barrier patrol by the mid-60’s.   With the exception of ICBMs (and a nasty little experience with IR- and MRBMs on a certain Caribbean island), it was generally felt that the distance of the oceans provided protection from other threats to the homeland, that any conventional or random (read: small) WMD attacker would be dissuaded because of the tyranny of distance and the US nuclear arsenal.

Unfortunately, some groups failed to get the memo.

In light of that and subsequent events, hostile actors are looking for new ways to bring the fight back to our shores, and now, looking at the proliferation of cruise missiles, they have access to the articles of war once reserved for the major nation-states — and we must be ready to defend ourselves.

It begins with collective action among the nations who must come to understand the extant and growing threat €“ not just from ASCMs but also from the proliferation of LACMs.   Re-doubling efforts under current proliferation schemes may be fine, but in the case of a company that builds for export systems like €œClub-in-a-box € there may need to be stiff, targeted action that places a steep price on that company, and by extension, the state that supports such action by turning a blind eye to its efforts.

Passive defense and preemptive efforts continue through enhanced surveillance and where necessary, covert action to dissuade and if necessary, disarm actors from obtaining and employing these type of assets.   In scenarios where legitimate arms acquisitions are at work, theater and regional cooperative security arrangements may help slow the spread of the more destabilizing offensive weapons.   Those efforts, however commendable, are not enough though and eventually an active defense €“ forward and at home, will be required.

E-2D Advanced Hawkeye JLENS Deployment Concept High Altitude Airship (Artist’s Concept)

The good news is this need not be a zero-based effort as many of the systems, sensors, command and control networks already employed overseas and on mobile platforms could be adapted for use in homeland CMD.   New systems like the E-2D, JLENS, the High Altitude Airship and elements of the Phased Adaptive Approach undertaken for overseas ballistic missile defense may be adapted and integrated with existing systems, like Aegis and PATRIOT for home.   The challenge will come in the scale of deployment, given the extensive coastlines of the US and proximity to those coasts of a sizeable portion of our population and critical infrastructure, and the strong demand signal from the several geographic combatant commanders for those same forces ad capabilities to meet theater and regional threat requirements.

V.   Conclusion

The opening scenario could just have easily had a major petroleum refinery, one or more nuclear plants, and the financial district of one or more coastal cities or some other major piece of infrastructure or population center as its target.   The warheads could have been carrying a biologic agent as readily as conventional explosives.   And while the good people at Novator provided a real world example courtesy their €œinnovative € thinking, it could just as well have been a modified ASCM or, worse, a short- or medium-range solid fueled ballistic missile, the likes of which we are seeing increasingly enter the inventory of hostile nations and which may too, find their way into the possession of shadowy figures and organizations, buried behind layers of legitimate front organizations.

To be sure, and to avoid being overly sensationalist, the threat is greater, for now, overseas to our deployed forces and to our allies, friends and partners.   But as the events of that September day nine years ago proved, eventually it will find a way to extend its reach.   We can begin, now, with putting elements into place and gradually scale upwards as capacity improves.   We can work with willing partners to lessen the development and productive capacities at the source.   We can do all that, but in turn, we must acknowledge that status quo is no longer a viable option.   We must plan, prepare and execute for the common defense.


  1. virgil xenophon

    Boy, SJS, this article really sends me to the depths of despair for numerous reasons. Under Obama we no longer have the will to mount any such programs or acquire the systems needed.Indeed an active hostility to such things. And our debt-load practically guarantees that there will be no money anyway. In fact the resultant force vector arrow is going the other way. I see a push by the Obama Administration for massive budget cuts in Defense to pay for healthcare. I really do despair.

    On the technical front I would concur with all the suggested fixes, but would also suggest building a series of unmanned mini “Texas Tower” Phalanx systems (yes, even with all their limitations, but it’s all we’ve got, unless one could co-locate an appropriate Navy missile that would work) off our coasts as goal-keeper systems to sweep up anything that gets thru the outer screens. In fact I’d build these FIRST as a) we have the systems built/invented and b) given the current political atmosphere they may be the ONLY systems having half a chance of being put in place 1) soon or, 2) EVER AT ALL. They also appeal to the bean-counters in Congress as are largely unmanned, thus come with little or no assoc. overhead manpower operating costs–not to mention assoc pension, retirement, and medical costs. And while the JLENS and hi-alt airship have relatively small manning needs, they A) haven’t been built yet and 2) are a super-low priority for a “Diversity” fixated Navy–let alone Congress.

    And, of course, the only real way of getting ahead of the power curve on this lies in the HUMINT side of the house–and good luck with that. Our own capabilities are practically non-existent, and the Obama Admin is going out of it’s way to demoralize the CIA with Holder-inspired “torture” investigations, which means we are almost TOTALLY dependent on the cooperation and capabilities of our allies and “friendly” nations. Yet Obama is going out of his way to pick a fight with the ONE ally in the Mid-East with the best intelligence operation–Israel–for ideological reasons (gee, I wonder why B. HUSSAIN Obama would do that) alone, it seems. So
    no joy on that score either.

    And pressure on the firms that are producing and marketing this stuff? Don’t make me laugh. Neither our State Dept, nor our allies–let alone Obama have the stomach for tough action/pressure on this front. Look how we’re currently handling Iran/Cuba/N.Korea/Syria. We are really in deep serious, in deep kimchi on this score.

    Excuse me, I have to go open another bottle of Barbancourt now–am getting too sober to contemplate the implications..

    (PS:Sorry to have delayed on the nuke game/deterrence theory stuff–slo-boat to China, but it’s coming)

  2. Mongo

    This is a scenario that has been on my mind for years, with my version having surface and submerged delivery platforms as viable threat options. I generally concur with Virgil’s assessment here, but would add a couple of things; both doable now.
    1. Shore based (literally) AESA and IRST systems mounted in many locations on both seaboards, utilizing lighthouses or mission specific towers to gain a wee bit of height; necessarily interconnected with the above mentioned alphabet soup agencies.

    2. Again using AESA and IRST, UAV’s patrolling the coastlines on a 24X7 basis. Many units available preclude single point of failure incidents. Globalhawk Block 10 would probably suffice and be my preference, perhaps carrying AIM/ASM weaponry.

    As you state above, SJS, detection is somewhat the ounce of prevention, but it needs the backup of capable point engagement systems to bring down any vampires. I don’t know how much improvement we’ve seen in CWIS’ target detection and tracking ability since the 80’s, but OTH detection and engagement times for some of the then existing threat articles was just a tad under three seconds. That ain’t a whole lotta time, especially when the system isn’t running in Auto.

    Airborne platforms increase response time substantially, as you already know, and with UAV’s we would have at least a good start now until something better comes along. Throw in RIM-7 and other comparable assets, and we might just have a chance at staving off what has been, IMO, a very real threat.

  3. Michael Antoniewicz II

    Have a trailer do the pitch up maneuver but keep going to explode a non-nuke E-bomb over the area to kill things like ambulances, fire trucks, radio’s, cell phone’s, cell *towers*, power sub-stations….

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