The supersonic anti-ship missile was a product of the Soviet Union's need to challenge the U.S. Navy at sea. That speed was a brute-force way to punch through more technologically sophisticated U.S. shipboard defenses. In the years since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a few of these missiles and their platforms — essentially holdouts from the Soviet days — have begun to turn up in China. But a new generation of supersonic anti-ship missiles has begun appearing on the market, and their proliferation is on the rise.
Modern warships are no longer armored as they once were. In the cases above, the Exocet's 360-pound warhead did not tear the ship apart. But it easily penetrated the steel hull and wreaked havoc on the ship's internal spaces. Not all hits like this will be mission kills, but the odds of one are high — and increase if multiple missiles impact the hull. This is where the new supersonics come in. Their capabilities vary, but they bring two things to this dynamic. First, by significantly reducing the reaction time for shipboard defenses, they increase the likelihood of a successful hit, especially in their sea-skimming variations. Second, their increased speed translates into increased kinetic destructiveness. Even if a missile is destroyed, its fragments can pepper the side of a ship.
The ThreatAnti-ship missiles have repeatedly proven their value. The HMS Sheffield (D80) was hit by a French-built Argentine Exocet in 1982 during the Falkland Islands War and later sank. The USS Stark (FFG-31) was crippled by a pair of Iraqi Exocets in 1987. And in 2006, the Israeli INS Hanit was struck by a Chinese-built C-802 (a design similar to the Exocet) during the Israeli conflict with Hezbollah. Both the Stark and the Hanit survived, but the missiles achieved what is known as a "mission kill." In each case, though the crew was able to keep the ship afloat and limp back to port, the ship's ability to effectively execute its missions was lost.
The New MarketThree missiles in particular are poised to proliferate more widely:
- The BrahMos: Taking its name from a combination of the names of India's Brahmaputra River and Russia's Moscow River, the BrahMos is the product of an Indian-Russian venture. Its design work can be traced to the Soviet Union's fledgling SS-N-26. Begun in 1985, the design had already been through substantial testing by the time India joined the project. Probably neither the most technologically advanced nor the most maneuverable among the supersonic anti-ship missiles, the BrahMos is principally noteworthy for its availability. It is currently being inducted into service with the Indian military and could soon see a surge in proliferation, with Malaysia as the likely first export customer.
- The AS-17 "Krypton": A late-model air-launched missile with a number of air-to-air and air-to-surface roles, this ramjet-powered missile has already been copied by the Chinese, and the Kh-31A series is being used in an anti-ship role. Despite its significantly smaller warhead, the Krypton is noteworthy for its compact size. Su-30 "Flanker" fighter jets can carry four.
- The SS-N-27 "Sizzler": Another late Soviet design, the Sizzler family (known to the Russians as the "Club") actually encompasses a series of anti-ship, ground attack and anti-submarine missiles. Occasionally known as the SS-N-27B, the anti-ship 3M54 version is of principal interest here, as it includes a sea-skimming supersonic terminal stage that travels at Mach 3 only some 20 feet above the ocean. It covers the last 10 miles of its flight in just over 20 seconds. The guidance systems of this particular missile may be more advanced, and it is thought to have considerable maneuverability in the terminal stage, making it harder to bring down. Its capability was highlighted by the Commander of U.S. Pacific Command, Adm. Timothy J. Keating, when he admitted in testimony before Congress on March 12 that this missile is "a very sophisticated piece of hardware and we are currently not as capable of defending against that missile as I would like." Though it is not always clear that it is the supersonic variant being deployed, the Sizzler family of missiles has begun seeing significant levels of deployment aboard Russian-built Kilo-class submarines purchased by China and India and could be used on more of the Russian fleet as well. Rosoboronexport, the Russian arms-export monopoly, is increasingly marketing the missile as a package with these subs. Venezuela, Algeria and Libya could even find themselves in possession of this capability down the road.