Terminated Weapons: Harpoon

At Fishbreath’s suggestion, I’ve decided to combine some of my resurrection posts with some terminations. Weapons that really should have been cancelled a long time ago, that are in desperate need of replacement. To use a sports metaphor, if I’m calling some up from the minors, I should relegate some others back from the majors. First on the chopping block: the Harpoon antiship missile.

Harpoon has been the western standard antiship missile since its introduction in 1977. It’s got submarine launched, ship launched, and air launched versions, a good active-radar seeker, and you can fit it on most anything. Great. And in the late 70s, it was a good weapon. It gave the warships of the USN some much needed anti-surface punch, and you could retrofit it onto almost any platform.

Looking at it right now, the harpoon sucks.

There are plenty of current market competitors that are better. The harpoon is subsonic; there are plenty of competitors (e.g. SS-N-22 Sunburn and SS-N-27 Sizzler) that are supersonic at least for the terminal phase to reduce reaction time. Is it long ranged? No, the Harpoon is almost painfully short range. Again, the Russians have some really cool long range missiles like the SS-N-19 that have tons of range. Oh, and the Harpoon isn’t stealthy either. Nope.

Let’s make one thing perfectly clear. This isn’t me hating on weapons for not being new. There are plenty of weapon systems that I like that are rather long in the tooth, but have appropriate upgrades to stay current. The C-130, B-52, M-16, and AIM-9 have all received upgrades that keep them useful and competitive with more modern contemporaries. The B-52 and M-16 are particularly good examples of this, having beaten a number of attempts to replace them. There’s nothing wrong with an old weapon per se, but we have to keep it relevant and competitive with contemporaries. Upgrade or replace. Up or out. It’s not that hard.

Let’s look at some weapon systems that we could use to replace the harpoon. Two come to mind. One is the Brahmos, a joint Russian-indian antiship missile system. It’s launchable from surface ships, aircraft, trucks, and submarines. It has an operational range of 300-500 km. Even if we take the low end, that’s more than twice the quoted range of the Harpoon (“more than 124 km”). Oh, and it can go faster than Mach 2.8 terminally. Pretty awesome missile. It is, however, rather heavy at 2,500 kg for the air-launched version and 3,000 kg for the other versions. The Harpoon weighs a svelte 691 kg. So the Brahmos isn’t a perfect replacement; there are ships that we might want to give antiship capability to that can’t fit the big Russo-Indian missile. And Fishbreath will surely start complaining if I only choose a Russian system as a Harpoon replacement, and get upset if I demand bigger ships. Fishbreath likes his wee ships, you see.

An even better Harpoon replacement on a one-for-one basis is the Kongsberg Naval Strike Missile (NSM to you acronym-loving cool kids). The NSM is lighter than Harpoon at 410 kg. It’s range of 185 km is better than Harpoon (at least as far as quoted range goes). It’s got GPS integration. There’s a version that fits in the internal bays of our F-35s, which gets even more range (about 290 km or so). Most importantly, it’s stealthy. So the enemy will have less warning to react to it. It’s also cleared for a bunch of aircraft, ships, and land based vehicles already. Big gain right here as far as stealth goes, since the Russians have finally wised up and mounted CIWS on their ships. This is important, as NATO ships don’t usually carry enough Harpoons to overwhelm point defense systems.

There are a couple of experimental weapon systems of note that might be worth pursuing, namely the Anglo-French Perseus and Lockheed Martin’s LRASM (an antiship variant of the AGM-158 JASSM-ER). Both of these are stealthy, have good range, and are vertical launch capable. I prefer the LRASM a bit more since it’s based on an existing missile platform. Neither is available yet, but we’re content to get some NSMs now and wait for the fancy new developments from MEADS and LockMart for VLS tubes or longer range aerial strike missions.

Oh, and if we needed VLS integration to give our DDGs a big punch, or needed a lot more range than NSM, we could always go buy some BGM-109Bs again. Tons of range, fits in a VLS Tube. Another good choice while you wait for the fancy new stuff, and you can at least fit enough of them on a DDG to have a decent chance of overwhelming the air defenses of an opposing battlegroup.

I’m sure one last objection is coming from some of you. “But wait, Parvusimperator!” I hear you say. “What if I believe that I control the sea, and don’t really care about antiship missiles.” Well then. First, I would tell you that you’re an idiot. Even during the height of the British Empire, they maintained their position by having a navy stronger than the next two navies put together. You maintain your dominance by being able to crush all opposition, not by taking it for granted and going through some stupid hippie draw-down. But if you really didn’t care, no antiship missiles is lighter and cheaper than a battery of old crappy ones. Though, again, this is stupid. Antiship missiles are good.

5 thoughts on “Terminated Weapons: Harpoon

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