Cruise Missiles Proliferation in Indian Ocean Region

By Shashank Sinha


New Delhi, 04 October 2006  

Cruise missiles are a type of guided missile which use a lifting wing and most often a jet propulsion system to allow sustained flight and are, in essence, unmanned aircraft. They fall under two principal categories namely anti-shipping cruise missiles and tactical land attack cruise missiles (LACM).

Cruise missiles made their debut during World War II, in the form of the infamous German V1 “flying bombs”, a crude inaccurate weapon primarily used in terror attacks against London. The idea had been around for some time and the Germans had experimented with a device known as Kettering Bug as early as 1917. A V1 type manned cruise missile called Okha  was also used by the Japanese in sucide attacks against Allied task forces.

Post-war development efforts by US and USSR were all centered around captured V1s, resulting in similar designs like the Martin Matador, RGM-6 Regulus and KS-1 Kometa (AS-1 Kennel). Ambitious development of the concept even envisaged intercontinental versions like Northrop SM-62 Snark, North American SM-64 Navaho and Russian Myashischev Buran and Lavochkin Burya but none saw service. The technology was subsequently rapidly overshadowed by ballistic missiles which showed more promise of range and reliability needed at that time to haul thermo-nuclear warheads to intercontinental ranges. The Russians continued reasecrh recognizing its value as a short range low cost ship borne weapon useful to attack carrier battle groups that America was building. Starting from the STYX (which were used by Indian Navy to batter Karachi harbour in 1971) Russian anti-ship cruise missiles grew in size, range, velocity and firepower into leathal monsters like P-500 Bazalt (SS-N-12 Sandbox) and P-700 Granit (SS-N-19 Shipwreck).

It wasn’t untill 1970s that the idea caught the fancy in USA again, guided however by a different set of exigencies. As the threat of all out global nuclear war receded to give way to an age of flexible response, a need for advanced conventional weapons was felt to fight and win the tactical battle scenarios. Cruise missiles were found ideal to carry conventioanl wepon loads to intermediate battlefield ranges with high accuracy, thanks to advancements in jet propulsion and sattelite aided navigation technology. The BGM-109 Tomahawk TLAM was a prime product of such research and caught the fancy of everyone. It has quickly become an indispensible part of all US military operations since the 1991 Gulf War and the most visible element of American punitive actions against state and non state entities.

Cruise Missiles in Indian Ocean Region (IOR)

The Indian Ocean is surrounded by a number of states with fairly advanced cruise missile tecnology. Apart from China which has a prolific cruise missile industry, there have always been the big power navies packing a variety of them onboard their surface and sub-surface combatants and finally the numerous navies of local nation states which are in turn supplied by those powers. Most of these missiles are small and inexpensive antishipping types deployed primarily on board their respective naval assets. In recent years, US involvement in Afghanistan has contributed to significantly increase the presence of cruise missile armed ships in the region.

United States Navy remains the premier naval force in Asia and also leads in deployment and usage of cruise missiles on its surface and sub-surface combatants. Large surface combatants such as Ticonderoga class cruisers and Arleigh Burke class destroyers equipped with Mk-41 VLS, have the Tomahawk cruise missiles as standard armament. In addition Los Angeles class SSN has also been progressively armed with the same. These ships and submarines of the USN Seventh Fleet, based at Pearl Harbour or Apra Harbour, Guam and forward deployed at Yokosuka, Japan, routinely deploy in the Indian Ocean. The United States has made prolific use of these naval assets to launch land attack cruise missiles both in full fledged wars like the 1991 Gulf conflict and subsequent punitive strikes at terrorist outfits, like the August 1998 cruise missile strikes on terror bases in Afghanistan (Operation Infinite Reach). They have also been used extensively in this role in post 9/11 operations in Iraq and Afghanistan during Operation Enduring Freedom. All such operations have seen a mix of Tomahawk firing surface ships and submarines. Such a use of subsurface platforms for targeting land targets with cruise missiles forms the cornerstone of the new littoral warfare doctrine and was first witnessed in 1991 Gulf War when two Los Angeles Class submarines belonging to the Seventh fleet, USS Louisville (SSN-724) and USS Pittsburgh (SSN-720) were used in this role. Apart from them, two similarly armed submarines USS City of Corpus Christi (SSN-705) and USS Houston (SSN-713) are permanently based in Guam. US operations in Afghanistan in 2002 also saw an increased deployement of Tomahawk carrying ships in the Indain Ocean and Arabian Sea. In particular a large number of Ticonderoga class cruisers like USS Bunker Hill (CG-52), USS Chosin (CG-65), USS Cowpens (CG-63), USS Shiloh (CG-67)  and Arleigh Burke  destroyers such as USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54), USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) have made active deployments in the area.

Naval forces of South East Asian nation states are also emerging from the negative after effects of the 2001 Asian economic crisis and seeing a revival of the expansionist phase of the 1990s. Several big ticket additions have already been made to these otherwise modest navies. Singapore has led the way in deploying the sophisticated French designed Formidable class frigates followed by Malaysia’s Lekiu class frigate from UK. Taiwan also operates a sizeable force comprising of ex-USN ships namely Kidd class destroyers and Oliver Hazzard Perry class frigates. The development of these navies are almost directly related to the expansion of PLAN (Peoples Liberation Army Navy) and their incresingly active role in the South China sea and numerous territorial disputes in the region. Therefore as PLAN acquires a greater degree of sophistication it is bound to find a reflection in the naval forces of South East Asia. Almost all these new acquisitions and upgrades carry increasingly sophisticated anti-shipping cruise missiles as an intrinsic part of their arsenal. The late model Harpoon and Exocet MM40 Block 3 that they carry, also include a coastal strike option.

Chinese cruise missile efforts have their origin in massive reverse engineering construction programmes of 1960s focusing on churning out unlicensed copies of the Soviet SS-N-2 ‘Styx’. The resulting family of missiles incorporating varying degrees of improvements is collectively known by their popular western designation CSS-N-1/CSS-C-2 Silkworm. These are crudely built and badly finished weapons that are completely obsolete today. They have seen combat use at the hands of many Arab users in numerous skirmishes the most recent being the 1991 Gulf War, and have proved totally ineffective. Modern PLAN surface combatants carry a new indigenous anti-ship cruise missiles –– the YJ-83 (NATO: CSS-N-8 Saccade) which is an extended range development of the earlier YingJi-8/YJ-8, (NATO: CSS-N-4 Sardine) missile. All modern destroyers beginning from the Type 051B (Luhai class), Type 51C (Shenyang Class) and Type 052B (Guangzhou class) are armed with YJ-83 variants. Boasting a range of 150 to 200 km, the YJ-8 is almost identical in length and diameter to the French Exocet anti-ship missile from which it may have been copied, and is similar to the U.S. Harpoon and Russian Kh-35. Air launched versions are also operational on PLAN JH-7 fighters and H-5 bombers (Chinese copy of Russian Tu-16 Badger), which could potentially operate in the Indian Ocean from bases in mainland China. Chinese attempts at developing long-range land-attack cruise missile (LACM) have proved to be more elusive. Press reports have varyingly sighted US Tomahawks (reportedly handed over to china by Pakistan from examples which fell in its territory in 1998 Infinite Reach Strikes) to Russian Kh-55 (NATO: AS-15 Kent) supposedly supplied by Ukraine, as possible origins of a Chinese LACM. However, leaving improbables aside it cannot be ignored that the last two decades have seen a multifaceted espionage effort on the part of the Chinese to acquire sensitive military technologies that are desperately needed to modernize its armed forces. A substantial proportion of that is likely to be directed towards the indigenous cruise missile effort.

Many shadowy projects have been reported like the ChangFeng and long range DongHai (DH-10 tested in September 2004), promising “Tomahawk like capabilities”. However, the most visible outcome of such research seems to be centered on the YingJi-62 (YJ-62) a new type of anti-ship missile that first entered service onboard the PLA Navy’s Type 052C (Lanzhou class) destroyer in 2004. With a claimed range of 280 km it is thought to be capable of attacking land targets and uses strap-down inertial guidance coupled with GPS, and active radar to ensure stand-off precision strike ability. The missile could still very well be a development of the YJ-83 or based on Russian Klub with which it shares many design features. It has similar mid-body fold out wings and lateral air intakes and may be a proving test bed for follow-on long range systems. Another possible candidate could be the 500 km range YingJi-63 (YJ-63) an LACM derived from the HY-4, itself a development of the soviet Styx. All this could translate into an increasing number of Chinese surface ships and conventional submarines armed with increasingly sophisticated cruise missiles available for deployment in Indian Ocean and capable, for the first time of influencing the littoral battle.

Some of the latest Chinese cruise missile technology is expected to find its way to Pakistan. Indeed some of the hardware is already in place in the form of older Silkworm missiles and new acquisitions from China like the proposed F-22P frigates are sure to come with the YJ-83 as their main strike arsenal. The Pakistan Navy also has other fairly advanced cruise missiles in its arsenal –– RGM-84 Harpoon is used in large numbers onboard EX US Navy ships and Type 21 frigates from UK and they are sure to arm the four S class frigates (formerly Kortner Class) being acquired from Greece. A large order was placed for Harpoon Block II this year which would introduce a land attack capability for Pakistan. The ubiquitous Exocet is carried by new Agosta 90B submarines and provide the Pak Navy with its first underwater missile launch capability. These missiles are also routinely carried by its maritime reconnaissance and strike assets like the P-3C Orion and Atlantique aircraft and thus pose a serious challenge to Indian Navy all over the Arabian Sea. Majority of the missiles however are anti-shipping weapons, except of course the Harpoon Block II or “Sea-slam” versions of the Harpoon, and not ideal for littoral warfare. That could change fast if the new Hatf VIII Babur appears in service in any tangible numbers. The test of this missile took almost everyone by surprise and it was widely touted in the media as the answer to Indian efforts with Brahmos. The Babur boasts a longer range of 500kms and advanced INS/GPS (in some versions TERCOM) guidance. Speculations on the origin of this missile again veer from China to reverse engineered Tomahawks combined with disbelief at Pakistan’s claims. Very little first hand literature is available on the missile in public domain and a few photographs reveal a typical subsonic cruise missile design with a booster launcher. It must be noted that China the most likely source has numerous such experimental models in its prolific cruise missile research programme. Cruise missile development is a tricky and painstaking business and almost no one gets it right the first time, so the Pakistan claims must be taken with a pinch of salt. That doesn’t take away from the fact that threat quotient has increased for India, especially in view of the Babur being declared ‘nuclear capable’. The new attack can come from any azimuth, defeating the traditional ballistic missile warning systems.

India of course cannot remain immune towards the buildup and deployment of such capabilities in the IOR, but curiously its approach so far has been largely reactive and devoid of any vigorous purpose. After taking a famous lead in cruise missile operations during the 1971 Karachi attacks things remained more or less static for two consecutive decades. Indian Navy remained the primary user of cruise missiles, sticking to late model soviet Styx variants across its destroyers, frigates and missile boats. And although Indian security managers did stand up and take notice of the Tomahawk strikes and its implications, there was little that could be done without any credible indigenous research programme and absence of comparable products on the offer list of traditional arms suppliers. Indeed introduction of second generation systems had to wait till the end of the decade when Harpoon type Kh-35 missiles became operational aboard new generation Delhi class destroyers (Project 15), Brahamputra class frigates (Project 16A) and other corvettes and missile boats. New generation Russian missiles of the Klub family also followed on Talwar class frigates (Krivak III) and upgraded Kilo class submarines. The utility of these systems however remains strictly limited to an anti shipping role although IN was already talking of a littoral role for these new weapons.

Ambiguous press reports have sighted a number of research programmes the most prominent being the Sagarika, which was expected to result in an operational LACM option for future nuclear submarines. Nothing has come of them so far. A study in contrast is the highly successful Brahmos missile project which has resulted in an Indo-Russian joint venture to produce the 3K55 Onyx/Yakhont supersonic cruise missile in India. Yakhont was supposed to be a follow on replacement for the SS-N-22 Sunburn missiles which formed the main strike arsenal of Russian Sovremeny destroyers, before the development funds dried up. It has seen a remarkable resurrection as the Brahmos which has a max-range of 290 km thus having a clear littoral strike role from the onset. The Army is also to deploy it as a tactical battlefield missile and an air launched version is on its way. Its chief value however would still primarily lie as an anti ship weapon where supersonic speed would ensure it a high penetration rate of the target’s defences. It is already being installed on the older Rajput (Kashin modified class) destroyers and expectedly to Delhi class ships and all other upcoming surface combatants. Carriage of at least 16 rounds fired through a VLS (or a mix of VLS and angled container/launchers) should ensure a very useful strike capability on such ships. When the air launched version comes along it would make a lethal addition to the already impressive potential of the Su-30 MKI giving them a long range maritime strike role. Future LRMP platforms like the proposed P-8 are also likely to pack Brahmos in the same role.

In spite of this seemingly remarkable success, India is still some time away from a tangible LACM. Attributes of such a system are now widely understood to have an emphasis on range as opposed to velocity, a respectable payload and good accuracy. Development of such a system demands the existence of some key techno-industrial basic structures. In particular a gas turbine propulsion industry and advanced guidance and navigation aid. Some of these sub-systems are available off the shelf, while other key elements have to be acquired through painstaking research. International consortiums such as the Brahmos Aerospace also cannot be too useful as restrictions of MTCR kick in.

India already has a pool of research experience born out of the learning curve of the IGMDP and the Brahmos project. Exigencies of advanced GPS guided navigation can be prospectively met through aids like the GLONASS which is planned for future amalgamation with Indian military. Much of the groundwork has already been done and would help to give shape to a decisive and increasingly indispensable capability for the Indian military.







6.       The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, March/April 2006

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