The Navy’s “advanced capability” Mk 48 torpedo is an “extraordinary weapon,” but a changing strategic environment has the top brass dusting off the weapon it replaced just before the turn of the millennium. Harpoon anti-ship cruise missiles could be making a comeback.
“We thought we could get by with our heavyweight torpedo, our advanced capability (ADCAP) Mk 48 torpedo, because we thought the predominant threat at the time when that decision was made was submarines,” Rear Admiral Daryl Caudle explains. Now, once again, there’s a need for “the standoff distance of an anti-ship cruise missile.”
Every two years, the Rim of the Pacific (RIMPAC) command carries out sinking exercises to dispose of decommissioned warships and provide necessary training at the same time.
The Harpoons recommissioned for testing passed every challenge with flying colors and even managed to rack up bonus points during the 2018 SINKEX.
According to Caudle, Commander of the U.S. Pacific Fleet’s Submarine Force, our modern adversaries now have “highly capable navies.” He says, their “extremely good surface ships” have “very capable missile systems themselves.”
That is why there is an ever-increasing need to “improve our lethality at ranges much greater than the Mk 48 torpedo.”
Rather than re-invent the wheel with expensive and buggy new technology, the decision makers decided to dust off the Harpoons which had been sitting in mothballs. Caudle noted, “We thought we may need to bring them back,” when they shelved the missiles.
It took about a year to update the system to “talk” to the modern “combat control system.” They were designed to go head-to-head with Russian surface action group ships during the cold war. It has been so long since they were used, the Rear Admiral pointed out, “the old guys like me actually were on ships that had Harpoons.”
Over a year ago, Caudle was placed in charge of getting the system upgraded enough for testing which was carried out last month.
Ranking officers of the Submarine Force approached the Naval Undersea Warfare Center with a “phased” proposal.
First, to “reconstitute the capability,” technicians had to “build the software necessary to use our existing combat control system and talk to that Harpoon cruise missile.” The Rear Admiral has nothing but praise for the men who performed the task.
“The folks doing the software coding were working hard up in Newport to get that system built.”
A Los Angeles-class attack submarine, the USS Olympia was chosen to test the revamped Harpoons “because we knew she was going to be part of RIMPAC,” Caudle relates. The crew had to be trained in all of the basics.
Submarine Squadron 7 worked “hard on that ship to practice the tactics, techniques, and procedures to shoot the Harpoon.”
Caudle notes not only did they have to “bring those back out of the mothballs,” they had to “actually know the language that we speak to prepare for firing and actually shooting the weapon.” They had to “dust those procedures off.”
All the practice and hard work paid off. Mars, the god of war, seems to have been watching over their shoulder and bringing some fortunate “luck” as well.
The first target scheduled for sinking was the ex-USS Racine on July 12. The Olympia loaded two Harpoons, one being a backup, and “got in position on the range” at the Pacific Missile Range Facility off Kauai, Hawaii.
“We thought we were going to have to shoot second,” Caudle reports. “As luck turned out and I was very thrilled, the Air Force mission which was to shoot a long-range anti-ship missile, they got delayed, so we got to shoot first.” That means the damage they did couldn’t be attributed to Air Force work.
“We shot the Harpoon perfectly, went into cruise and hit the ex-Racine, which is an LST (landing ship, tank), dead center.” LSTs carry tanks for landing on shorelines.
“The beautiful part of this is the Oly was not expected to shoot a torpedo, too.” Thanks to “the way that things unfold in the real world,” a change in the lineup meant that around mid-day, the Olympia moved into position and launched a famed ADCAP torpedo.
It “worked perfectly, went out there, and did its job.” According to Caudle, it “honed in on the Racine, broke its keel, and a couple hours later it was on the bottom. Our torpedo is an extraordinary weapon, it really is,” he said.
Fate allowed the Olympia to demonstrate a tactic which could be the deciding factor at the Pentagon whether to bring the Harpoon fully back into production.
“So the interesting part is, you can see kind of almost a tactic there that I think is important that we got to practice just by happenstance, shooting a long-range shot and then move in for the close-range shot” From Caudle’s perspective, there’s “no question,” it was a success, “it worked flawlessly.”
A second Harpoon was deployed against the Racine by the Royal Australian Air Force. One of their P-8 Poseidon aircraft participated in the RIMPAC SINKEX for the first time in history.
The Singapore Navy also deployed two Harpoons in the second sinking exercise, which used the ex-USS McClusky as a target. The Oliver Hazard Perry-class frigate ended up “at the bottom of the ocean much faster than anticipated,” thanks to the Harpoons. It went down so fast that some units didn’t get to participate.
Typically, “if you shoot a Harpoon and it hits above the waterline, it’ll punch a hole and blow up but it won’t sink a ship.”
One of the ones launched by Singapore “just happened to hit at the waterline and the ship started sinking about halfway through the event, so there were some countries that didn’t get to shoot their missiles and weapons.”
A total of six Harpoons were “successfully shot between the two SINKEX events,” the weapon’s maker, Boeing, declared in a statement.
Now it is up to the undersea warfare directorate and the Program Executive Office for Submarines, the Naval Undersea Warfare Center, and others to make the decision “about how to phase that weapon back in and to what extent we’ll phase it back in.” Still, the excellent results produced by the Olympia “will inform that decision.”