“They say that the best weapon is the one you never have to fire,” fictional arms-maker/superhero Tony Stark said in the sales pitch for his Jericho missiles, “I respectfully disagree. I prefer the weapon you only have to fire once.” That was from “Iron Man” way back in 2008, but today’s story is so fresh, that the barrels might still be hot.
One of the Navy’s oldest guns was finally fired in combat — and it scored its first kill in its first belated effort.
While President Joe Biden pretends, among other things, to have us at war with Houthi terrorists who are certainly at war with the civilized world, the U.S. Navy remains on station in the Red Sea for real — defending lives, ships, and property from Houthi predators.
Make no mistake about the danger our sailors face. Houthis might seem like ragtag hordes of criminals, but missile technology has evolved to the point where almost anyone with the means to obtain them can get gear that’s plenty accurate and deadly enough.
A couple of weeks ago, when the Red Sea Missile War had heated up, Popular Mechanics published a detailed explainer on how the Navy shoots down missiles. Instead of boring my non-nerd readers with all the gory details, let me give you a quick rundown of life aboard a guide-missile destroyer when the missiles start flying.
ASIDE: Naval warfare for the past 50 years or so has increasingly become a contest of missiles vs. antimissile missiles. If the Battle of Midway were fought today, it would take place at greater distances and would be over in an hour or two instead of a day or two. The winner would be determined not by who had the best planes, the best pilots, the best sailors, or the toughest ships, but by who had the best-integrated systems. Kinda takes some of the romance out of the bloody business, doesn’t it?
First, the AN/SLQ-32 electronic combat system (sorry for the gory detail!) has to detect a threat with its extremely sophisticated radar. Then the computer part of the system identifies the threat (“vampire”) and alerts the crew that something wicked this way comes. As the missile gets closer, the long-range radar hands off to the shorter-range SPY-1D.
At about 30 miles out, the ship finally has the chance to fire off two SM-2 missiles to destroy the vampire. If the SM-2 and the backup both fail, then the crew will fire off a pair of short-range Sea Sparrow missiles. Just to be safe, they’ll probably also engage a countermeasure — in this case, a Nulka antimissile decoy.
If all of those somehow fail and the vampire is still incoming, that’s when the Phalanx close-in weapon system (CIWS) kicks into gear. CIWS is a radar-guided Gatling gun that puts out 20mm armor-piercing tungsten penetrator rounds at a rate (depending on the model) of 50 to 75 per second — a veritable wall of steel a vampire must penetrate.
If you think CIWS is an ugly-sounding name, you should see one of the things. The nicest way I can describe one is that it looks a little like R2-D2 sporting an erection. (Now there’s something that’ll break the robo-censors at Google’s ImageFX…)
“In a landmark engagement last week in the Red Sea,” Popular Mechanics just reported, “a U.S. Navy destroyer shot down an incoming Houthi anti-ship cruise missile,” with CIWS for the first time, “suggesting the ship’s long-range weapons systems failed to neutralize the threat.” But that’s only a suggestion since “we don’t know the exact details of the engagement, so it’s unclear if the use of Phalanx over other systems was intentional.”
Until recently, CIWS had never been fired in combat. For that matter, the Sea Sparrow has never been called upon to do its thing, either, because the SM-2 has never once failed in its job to protect its ship at the extreme range. It’s nice that our surface warfare ships have four layers of missile defense but it’s impressive that they’d never before had to go more than one deep.
It’s even more impressive when you consider that the Phalanx CIWS began development in 1969 and was first deployed in 1978. That’s closing in on five decades of sentry duty without ever firing a shot — but was still alert enough to score a kill when asked to do so.
CIWS is the weapon we only had to fire once and let’s hope the Navy can keep it that way.
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