The development of anti-ship missiles 


The ongoing Russian-Ukrainian war in the recent year, and especially the success of the Ukrainians force to sink the black fleet flag cruiser ‘Moskva’, have brought to the front pages the issue of anti-ship missiles and their capabilities. Therefore, I wrote a short review about the development of anti-ship missiles over the years, and especially about some very interesting innovations from the last couple of years, and their meaning for ships defense systems.

naval surface missiles began to develop in the 1950s by the Soviets, who were seeking a response to the power of American aircraft carriers in the post WW2 era. The Soviet doctrine involved equipping small naval vessels with missiles that could sail close to the coast and “ambush” American aircraft carriers, by launching missiles at relatively long ranges.

The first missile developed by the Soviets was the “Styx,” which was initially installed on small wooden boats of the Komar class, and later the Osa class, which was already constructed from steel. One of its earliest combat uses of such a missile was, of course, the sinking of the Israeli destroyer Eilat in 1967 when an Egyptian Osa fired several missiles from the Port Said area towards the Eilat, which was sailing north of the Sinai coast.

Another significant operational event occurred during the Indo-Pakistan War of 1971. In the midst of Operation Trident, the Indian Navy attacked and sank Pakistani vessels that sailed near the port of Karachi, using Styx missiles from Osa-class boats. This operation was a well-coordinated event by the Indian Navy, and to this day, the Indian Navy Day celebrated at this date in commemorating operation Trident

Two years later, the first missile engagements took place. During the Yom Kippur War, the Israeli Navy sank numerous Egyptian and Syrian naval vessels, while not even single Styx missile hit an Israeli ship. The reason for this was proper preparation and the development of effective countermeasures and electronic warfare systems, that diverted the missiles off their intended course.

Over the past few decades, anti-ship missiles have undergone major development, but regardless of the launching platform (surface vessels, shore-based systems, submarines, or aircraft), these missiles were primarily designed as sea skimming missiles. They were designed to fly as low as possible above the water, typically just a few meters, to delay their detection by the targeted ship and make it more challenging to defend against them.

Until late 1990s, these missiles were subsonic (meaning they traveled below the speed of sound) and their seeker were based on radar. The missile operated the radar during their flight before arriving to the target area and homing on one of the targets in the area, according to pre-programmed logics.

Consequently, defense systems developed in two main directions to counter these threats: “soft” defense systems focused on electronic countermeasures and decoys, and “hard” defense systems consisting of guns or missile-based interception. One of the earliest “hard” defense systems in the world is, the “Barak” system, manufactured by IAI (Israeli Aerospace Industry), which was developed during the 1980s and became operational in the early 1990s.

As all anti-ship missiles follow a “sea-skimming” trajectory, defense systems also evolved to focus on detecting and neutralizing these missiles. Over the years, there have been several advancements in anti-ship missile technology.

The first is the advancement of seeker capabilities. Seekers become more sophisticated, incorporating various mechanisms to counter electronics warfare and decoys (chaff) systems.

In addition, the range and speed of missiles have increased, making it difficult for the detection process and, most importantly, the response time for a ship against the missile. The Russians began developing an anti-ship missile called “Yakhont” in the mid-1980s, which is still a significant challenge for defense systems of all kinds.

Another lees known development is the transition from analog to digital seekers. This has posed challenges in the development of electronic warfare techniques, because with each software update, the entire logic can change. Therefore, the methods used to deceive the old analog radars become irrelevant.

However, the most significant recent development is the introduction of anti-ship ballistic missiles. Why has this not happened until now? Mainly because ballistic missiles guidance systems were developed to target stationary objects on land, therefor they were primarily based on inertial systems or GPS. The issue is that in order to hit moving target at sea, a totally different technology is needed.

Hitting a moving target, during missile penetration back to the atmosphere at tremendous speed (7-8 times the speed of sound), is an extremely complex task. The Chinese were among the first to develop such a system, primarily to counter the threat posed by American aircraft carriers, which they could not handle using regular sea battles capabilities.

Around 2013, civilian satellite imagery began to reveal “targets” in the Gobi Desert, which looked like simulations of aircraft carriers and large destroyers. Later, “missile impacts” were detected on those areas. It is presumed that those anti-ship ballistic missiles (ASBM) seekers are based on optical systems and is primarily intended to hit large and slow-moving objects.

The latest development in this field occurred at the end of 2022 when the Chinese unveiled their first ship based ASBM capability. The new missile have been downsized to fit their modular vertical launch system on board their new Type 055 destroyers.

So why is this a significant development? As mentioned earlier, the flight path of traditional threats is entirely different from that of a ballistic missile. Detecting and intercepting a low and slow missile (traditional anti-ship sea skimming missile) poses a fundamentally different challenge compared to detecting and intercepting an anti-ship ballistic missile that arrives at a high angle (70-80 degrees) and at a very high speed (7-10 Mach). The existing “hard” kill defense systems installed on most naval vessels were not designed to handle such a threat and therefore cannot effectively respond to it.

The Americans realized this over a decade ago and began adapting their defense systems installed on Arleigh Burke-class destroyers (about 6,000 tons) to counter the new threat. By the way, the ongoing development process of the new SM-6 missile has not yet been completed, and the missile is currently partially operational.

That’s the reason why the Israeli Navy’s “C-Dome” system, developed by Rafael, is a breakthrough in this field, and has already demonstrated its ability to intercept ballistic missiles, initially on Sa’ar 5 corvettes and recently on the new “Magen” class corvettes. The main innovation is that a system with such capabilities is installed on a relatively small ship – only 2,000 tons.

Today, the Israel Aerospace Industry (IAI) also markets the Barak ER missile family with the ability to intercept ballistic missiles, and it is reasonable to assume that they will continue to develop and introduce different interceptors, including those based on the technologies of the “Arrow” interceptors.

However, the field of anti-ship missiles is also not dormant, and it continues to develop. The Americans realized that they were lagging behind in this area since the legendary Harpoon missile developed in the 1970s no longer meets the requirements. After several failed projects in the previous decade, Lockheed Martin and Raytheon separately embarked on a new project for a new anti-ship hypersonic missile called HALO.

One of the truly intriguing developments in the field recently is the guidance kit for anti-ship bombs based on the successful J-DAM family. The bomb, called QUICKSINK, lives up to its name – it sinks a ship at an incredible speed. The bomb penetrates through the ship, detonates underneath it, and simply breaks it in half. The ship sinks within minutes, if not less.

Beyond its fast-sinking capability, the angle at which it arrives, close to 90 degrees, makes it very difficult to defend against for the same reasons mentioned earlier regarding ballistic missiles. However, since it is a glide bomb and not a guided missile, it will need to be launched from a relatively close range – tens of kilometers – and the aircraft will have to take risks and enter the ship’s defense envelope.

In addition to these fast-sinking bombs, there are ongoing developments in various types of guided missiles and loitering munitions. Although they may be relatively simple to deal with, they can assist in saturating the ship’s defense systems and help the actual missiles penetrate and damage the ship.

Where will it go from here? It is reasonable to assume that ballistic missiles against ships will continue to evolve and develop. We may see more of them, launched from the shore, aircraft, and especially ships.

Defense systems will need to find versatile solutions for those threats, such as highly effective countermeasures and high-power lasers, which are already being explored.