Rocket-Boosted but Going Nowhere Fast: The Navy’s Failed Munitions Programs

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All three of the failed projectile programs had similar design features and shared a fundamental conceptual problem. “When you try to make a rocket-boosted projectile that can steer itself to a target, you basically have built a guided missile,” said Tony DiGiulian, a retired engineer who has studied all these weapons and runs NavWeaps, a website on the subject of naval weapons and technology. One problem with gun-fired guided shells, he said, was that, when fired, sensitive electronics inside the projectile were exposed to exponentially more stress than if they were launched in a traditional missile. Protecting those electronics, DiGiulian said, added to the shells’ cost. “So why not just build missiles in the first place?” he said. “That’s what you’ll end up with anyway.”

Navy officials said they are evaluating a new shell, called the “hypervelocity projectile,” that is lighter and narrower and could potentially be fired from the upgraded five-inch guns at targets 40 miles away. The program is experimental and in its early stages, and it is unlikely to produce a viable weapon soon. With a gap in fire support now running beyond a quarter of a century, the Marine Corps said it “encourages continued study” of yet another idea: installing vertically launched missiles on San Antonio-class amphibious ships, a type of ship much larger than a cruiser or destroyer that is meant to launch Marines ashore in landing craft and helicopters and is not typically outfitted with offensive weaponry itself. The Marine Corps did not specify which kinds of missiles could be used for that role.

The Navy was even less forthcoming with details about what might come next. In a written statement, Rear Adm. Ronald Boxall, who leads the Navy’s surface warfare division, said the service continues “to monitor developing technologies and adapt to changing requirements, from gun-based systems and advanced projectiles to land attack missiles. We take this partnership seriously and are committed to providing the Marines with the naval fire support they need to fight and win.”

The Navy fired its last major naval gunfire missions during Operation Desert Storm in 1991, when the battleships U.S.S. Missouri and U.S.S. Wisconsin blasted more than 1,100 rounds at a variety of targets in the campaign to drive Iraq’s military out of Kuwait. In what appears to be the sole fire mission ashore since then, the U.S.S. Chafee, a destroyer, shot its single five-inch gun at Somalia in 2007 to support Special Operations forces, according to a speech by Adm. Harry Harris, who commanded the United States Pacific Command until he retired earlier this year.

Beyond that mission, little has changed since the Government Accountability Office examined the state of naval gunfire in 1997 and reported that “the Navy admits that it currently has no credible surface fire capabilities to support forced entry from the sea.”

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