The Congressional Research Service has issued a three page, “Defense Primer: U.S. Precision-Guided Munitions.” (Thanks to the USNI news service for bringing this to my attention.)
The remarkable thing is how pervasive these systems have become.
The U.S. military has become reliant on PGMs to execute military operations, being used in ground, air, and naval operations. In FY2020, DOD requested approximately $5.6 billion for more than 70,000 such weapons in 13 munitions programs. DOD projects to request $4.4 billion for 34,000 weapons in FY2021, $3.3 billion for 25,000 weapons in FY2022, $3.8 billion for 25,000 weapons in FY2023, and $3.4 billion for 16,000 weapons in FY2024.
What has this got to do with the Coast Guard? The Coast Guard is a military organization. We are an armed force at all times. We are armed, but we are not really armed for the realities of the 21st century.
Precision guided weapons have the potential to provide the capabilities we need on a wider range of platforms, with increased effectiveness, at lower costs, with less likelihood of collateral damage.
One of the Coast Guard’s core peacetime capabilities should be the ability to forcibly stop a vessel of any size. Earlier I discussed why I believe we are not capable of doing this, here in 2011, and in fact not as capable as we were in the 1920s and 30s here in 2012.
If we are to make a meaningful contribution in any future conflict, we need to be equipped with modern weapons.
Precision guided munitions are no longer reserved for capital ships. Littoral Combat Ships, the Navy combatants that are closest to our large cutters, were built with Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) systems and Naval Strike Missiles are being added. There is not a single class of US Navy surface combatants, down to, and including the Cyclone class patrol craft, that is not equipped with some form of precision guided munition.
It is time for an upgrade.
Guided weapons can give even relatively small platforms a heavy weight punch. Anti-ship cruise missiles and torpedoes have been successfully fitted to numerous classes of vessels of less than 300 tons full load (e.g. smaller than the Webber class).
Certainly precision guided weapons, be they missiles or torpedoes, cost more on a per round basis, but a gun system that can inflict comparable damage requires an expensive gun, a large quantity of ammunition that is expensive, heavy, and a potential danger to the ship itself, extensively trained technician maintainers and operators, and frequent live training. The launchers for smart munitions by contrast may be simpler. The weapons are most frequently “wooden rounds” that require no maintenance, and training programs are frequently incorporated in the launch system software.
Lastly, if we are going to engage targets, potentially within the confines of U.S. harbors, we want to make sure rounds don’t go astray and hurt innocent Americans. Guided weapons are far less likely to cause unintended damage.
The document briefly describes twelve systems. This is certainly not all the systems in the US inventory. I presume, only these are described, because these are the systems that are included in current budget deliberations. I am reproducing the description for the systems that I think are most likely to be applicable to the Coast Guard, preceded by comments on how they might be used by the Coast Guard. The document divides missiles into “Air Launched,” “Ground Launched,” and “Naval,” but as we know, several of these missiles can be launched from ships as well as from the air or ground.
Hellfire, a good candidate for countering small, fast, highly maneuverable surface threats. Also capable of inflecting serious damage on larger targets if multiple rounds are used. Damage is roughly comparable to a shell from a WWII cruiser. Versions are now being used to arm Littoral Combat Ships. They appear to be a good fit for vessels as small as WPBs.
Hellfire Missile. The first Hellfire was introduced into service in 1982 on the Army’s AH-64 Apache, using laser guidance to target tanks, bunkers, and structures. Hellfire missiles have a maximum effective range of 4.3 nautical miles. During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Hellfire missiles were introduced on the MQ-1 Predator, and later the MQ-9 Reaper, enabling unmanned aerial vehicles to provide a strike capability. Hellfire missiles have become a preferred munition for operations in the Middle East, particularly with increased utilization of unmanned aircraft like MQ-1s and MQ-9s.
JAGM, a possible direct replacement for Hellfire. same size and shape:
Joint Air-to-Ground Missile (JAGM). The Joint Air-to-Ground Missile is designed to replace the Hellfire, TOW, and Maverick missiles. JAGM uses a new warhead/seeker paired with an existing AGM-114R rocket motor to provide improved target acquisition and discrimination. JAGM underwent testing starting in 2010, declaring initial operating capability in 2019 having successfully been integrated on the AH-64E Apache and AH-1Z Super Cobra attack helicopters.
Naval Strike Missile, chosen for the Littoral Combat Ship and new frigate, this would seem to be a natural fit for the National Security Cutter and Offshore Patrol Cutter. I would prefer the LRASM because of its longer range and much larger warhead, but this system does have a smaller foot print so might fit where the LRASM could not. This is the first time I have seen a maximum range of 300 nautical miles quoted.
Naval Strike Missile (NSM). The NSM is an anti-ship low observable cruise missile capable of flying close the surface of the ocean to avoid radar detection. The NSM is designed to fly multiple flight profiles—different altitudes and speeds—with effective ranges of between 100 and 300 nautical miles at a cruise speed of up to 0.9 Mach. The Navy has integrated the NSM on its Littoral Combat Ship, which deployed to the Pacific region in September 2019.
LRASM, this would be my preferred option to arm the NSC and OPC. It has sufficient range to almost guarantee that if there were a terrorist attack using a medium to large ship, we would have a vessel underway, ready, and within range to engage it. Its warhead is almost four time the size of that of the NSM, so it would be much more likely to get a mobility kill with a single round. It, like the NSM, can be launched from deck mounted inclined canisters.
Long Range Anti-Ship Missile (LRASM). LRASM was conceived by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, using a JASSM missile body to replace the AGM-88 Harpoon. Flight testing began in 2012 with the B-1B and the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. LRASM uses radio-frequency sensors and electrooptical/infrared seekers for guidance.
If you want to dig deeper into this, the Congressional Research Service has done a much more in depth study of the procurement issues.