Home » Sea » AirSea Battle » Loading Prompt Global Strike in VLS Cells Will Transform U.S. Naval Power

Loading Prompt Global Strike in VLS Cells Will Transform U.S. Naval Power

by Greg on July 8, 2010

By Craig Hooper
Defense Tech Naval Warfare Analyst

As the venerable Tomahawk missile becomes too vulnerable for certain targets, naval observers have wondered why the Navy isn’t racing to fill the U.S. surface fleet’s 7,804 Vertical Launch System (VLS) cells with a new generation of anti-ship or fast land-attack munitions.

Our wait is over. The big brains at DARPA are aiming to appropriate VLS cells for the Prompt Global Strike Mission.

Meet ArcLight–the weapon that will change the way the world thinks about U.S. surface combatants:

“The ArcLight program will design, build, and flight test a long range (> 2,000 nm) vehicle that carries a 100–200 lb payload(s). ArcLight is based on an SM-3 Block II booster stack, a hypersonic glider and is capable of being launched from a Mark 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS) tube. The development of the ArcLight system will enable high speed, long range weapons capable of engaging time critical targets and can be launched from Naval surface and sub-surface assets, and Naval/Air Force air assets.”

Enlisting VLS cells for the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) Mission would be a boon to PGS advocates. First, by decoupling PGS from conventional ballistic missile platforms (the assumed primary delivery system for PGS), Congressional concerns that certain countries might misinterpret a PGS hit as a nuclear strike evaporate–and with Congress aboard, the funding that has crimped PGS development will, assuredly, open.

This development also may resonate with Acting Navy Secretary Robert Work (ok, ok, he’s still Undersecretary of the Navy…for now). Undersecretary Work has long preached the virtues of America’s VLS-equipped surface fleet, and any prospect of leveraging new technologies for the old launch system will spark the Undersecretary’s interest.

In short, this is gonna get done.

But what does it mean? Putting PGS into the VLS does something far more interesting than just “add capability”. It changes everything. PGS on a surface ship transforms the largely defensive nature of the U.S. surface combatant/carrier escort to, well, “offense”.

And that shift from the “Missile Defense” destroyer or “Air Defense” cruiser of old to a “Global Strike Combatant” will pose a real conceptual challenge for everybody–from those walking Aegis deckplates to any potential adversaries.

The idea that America’s 7,804 VLS cells may soon gain the ability to rain almost instant havoc on targets some 2,000 nm away should put a bit of a damper on those who counted on overwhelming a hunkered-down and relatively passive “defense-oriented” AEGIS fleet. It’s a big deal.

You heard it here first–A shift of the U.S. surface combatant fleet from defense to offense is a real game changer.

Photo: U.S. Navy

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{ 70 comments… read them below or add one }

Jed July 8, 2010 at 1:13 pm

Hypersonic glider – yep, that's are real easy thing to design, build, test and successfully get into production and into the fleet – don't hold your breath !


Marcase July 8, 2010 at 1:42 pm

The HyStrike / Fast Hawk crowd getting a bone to sniff – before it gets yanked away (again).
We've been here before; high hopes and gospel from powerpoint Jedi Knights, but in the end it will be nothing more than another program zooming past Nunn-McCurdy.

You heard it all before.


Wombat July 8, 2010 at 3:24 pm

All too true. My guess is it we will have to see how the other PGS projects go before this one gets anywhere. If they all crash and burn this one probably will too. There are still lots of technical issues to overcome, and those take $$!


Craig Hooper July 8, 2010 at 8:04 pm

Yep. It is a DARPA thing, so, yeah, it could be one of those "Lucy-with-the-football" projects.

But there's enough proof-of principle going on that I'm optimistic. Gotta push the envelope on the VLS cells anyway–they're all we've got…


aubrey July 8, 2010 at 2:13 pm

200 lbs payload? hardly the stuff of nightmares


Formerly known as Skeptic July 8, 2010 at 10:17 am

At hypersonic speeds, it don’t take much.


JEFF July 12, 2010 at 2:58 pm

A 200 lbs kinetic payload traveling at hypersonic velocities is equivalent to a 5000 lbs kinetic payload at supersonic velocities. E = M*V^2


E_Khun July 8, 2010 at 2:25 pm

My first thought was "finally, make a battleship for it" but then the math kicked in. Max speed for SM3 is about 6000 mph, so 2000 mile will take you 20 minutes to reach. All the while the enemy will see your "hypersonic glider" coming in hot and high.


citanon July 8, 2010 at 4:58 pm

If it's on an Aegis it will not necessarily be 2000 miles out, and seeing, tracking and hitting a few hundred incoming hypersonic gliders will not be easy.

This will hold all of the PLA's fixed assets at risk.


Maxtrue July 8, 2010 at 5:31 pm

Again, a 2000lb rod traveling at over mach 7 with the ~mid day sun behind it would be a tough target to stop, especially if the rod's mass has the ability to maneuver. Lasers aren't going to do much either. Yep, tough target to hit before it slams into the ground with the force of a low yield nuke. Say good-bye to the underground target.

And of course this would be over-kill on a naval target.


citanon July 8, 2010 at 9:13 pm

It’s only 200 lbs……


JEFF July 12, 2010 at 3:00 pm

A 200 lbs kinetic payload traveling at hypersonic velocities is equivalent to a 5000 lbs kinetic payload at supersonic velocities. E = M*V^2

Kto Tam July 8, 2010 at 3:39 pm

Note that the Obama version of EuroBMD envisages putting Mk 41 VLS boxes on land in Poland, Romania and perhaps other places later this decade. If this PGS weapon becomes real, expect the Russians to have a cow.


BILL D July 8, 2010 at 6:17 pm

Hate to say it but the idea of a joint missle shield system developed between U S and Russia was a good idea–remember the missles are being put in eastern Europe as a counter to NK and Iranian nuclear missles.Russia is still anxious to cooperate with the US to a certain degree and maybe the joint system would open more dialogue with them or at least get them to cooperate more.


anonymouser July 12, 2010 at 11:46 am

No it is not. It sees medium-range US missiles deployed in Europe as the intense threat they actually are, not as some BS "stepping stone to dialogue and cooperation".


JZizka July 8, 2010 at 3:56 pm

It could be a real game changer, a 100 – 200lb payload traveling at hypersonic speeds (M>5) could impart unbelievable amounts of Kinetic Energy (think GigaJoules). They'll most likely equip it with varying payloads based on the target set (flechette warheads, penetrators, unitary warhead, etc.).

Assuming the technology is sufficently mature (I think it's close based on recent flight tests) outfitting naval vessels with these missiles and basing them in ground based silos/launchers provides a rapid, surgical strike capability.


Cheb July 9, 2010 at 3:55 am

Not quite GJ: assuming nothing but the 200lb payload strikes the target and that it's travelling at the minimum required to be called hypersonic (mach 5), you're looking at 130.6MJ. Of course, if we suppose that another 300lbs is keeping the payload together and that it's pulling mach 7 at time of impact, the number is more impressive, at 639.8MJ.


Ed! July 8, 2010 at 4:04 pm

The PGS will really strike into the likes of Iran, North Korea, and China. The Iranians would have to deal with the ability for the US to launch from outside the Persian Gulf to hit Targets deep in Iran. North Korea won't be able to use their air defenses to stop our missiles with PGS. China won't like the fact we can launch these from a destroyer, now they will have to combat more than just our carriers and destroyers and cruisers already have the SM-3s to use to defend against that carrier killer Ballistic Missile the chinese have.


Maxtrue July 8, 2010 at 5:23 pm

200lb hypersonics won't do much damage to underground facilities.


Craig Hooper July 8, 2010 at 8:02 pm

Yeah, but I'd hate to see what these might do to an OTH radar site or a ground station or a surveyed missile launch site or a…

Save the underground stuff for the late arrivals. You know, the Air Force… ;)


Moose July 9, 2010 at 2:18 am

Or the Rail Gun rounds


citanon July 8, 2010 at 4:55 pm

Finally PGS starts to make sense, but where is the viable hypersonic glider platform?


William C. July 8, 2010 at 5:20 pm

I like the idea, but the VLS cells on our current ships aren't too large.


Maxtrue July 8, 2010 at 5:20 pm

Well, a bigger game changer would be a hypersonic rod of about 1000lbs + delivered by a bomber or drone. As for the above, won't conversion to PGS subtract from BMD? Is that really a good switch? And what about the inability to reload at sea? Seems like a problem to be addressed asap.


Matt July 8, 2010 at 5:35 pm

so… this is the navys answer for the air force getting an x51 based pgs? i guess it makes sense; replace tomahawks with "arclight" and calcm with x51 based missles…


Moose July 8, 2010 at 5:59 pm

Finally a good name. All those "Fast Hawk" and "HyStryke" labels sounded really crappy. "ArcLight" actually has some gravitas.


Chops July 8, 2010 at 6:47 pm

Remember Arc Light was the name of the mission to kill Colonel Kurtz in Apocalypse Now


Marvel July 8, 2010 at 6:06 pm

Finally a good thread.


Kto Tam July 8, 2010 at 6:11 pm

> a 100 – 200lb payload traveling at hypersonic speeds (M>5) could impart unbelievable amounts of Kinetic Energy

200 lb at Mach 6 has 180 MJ of kinetic energy, about like 95 lb of TNT. That's a bit less than half the load of a MK-82 500 lb iron bomb. I leave it to the weaponeers to comment on the utility of such a weapon.

Since the break-even point for kinetic vs chemical energy comes around Mach 9, I suspect that the ArcLight payload is going to be something more than an inert mass.


SMSgt Mac July 8, 2010 at 10:46 pm

Best post on the thread! Thanks for doing the math: saved others the trouble.
I didn't check your numbers but they look pretty close.
This kind of weapon would be perfect for above ground/surface structures, fleeting targets such as relocatable ICBMs, mobile IADS nodes, etc.
With sufficient accuracy and timing, they could perhaps jackhammer their way down through a hardened,buried high value target. The question needing an answer is 'at what cost?'. And I have a PERFECT test target for the program: 40° 7'40.79"N, 113°16'16.93"W. One of the hardest chunks of granite on the planet.


Warrant Diver July 8, 2010 at 6:27 pm

It doesn't matter what new weapon comes along if there isn't the politcal will to use it against the countries we most need it against…China and Iran come to mind.


Byron Skinner July 8, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Good Morning Folks,

This story covers only very lightly what has been going on for about five years now. Most of it is classified as it should be. Not mentioned but well know are the four SSM’s with four more Ohio conversions likely to start soon and the 12 vertical tubes on US SSN’s.

Byron Skinner


Craig Hooper July 8, 2010 at 7:55 pm

Didn't discuss sub-surface stuff. Just focusing on surface VLS.


Moose July 8, 2010 at 8:42 pm

Everything starts somewhere, but you can count on this thing ending on subs if it sticks around.


Byron Skinner July 8, 2010 at 11:23 pm

Good Evening Craig,

You might want to check out a TIME story, I saw over on yahoo today. Three Ohio Class SSM’s have been spotted in Asian water recently. I think it fits in well with your article.

Byron Skinner


Chris July 10, 2010 at 2:04 pm

While i think PGS could prove really useful, defense related organizations really like missiles because they are very expensive (and therefore profitable). 100-200 pounds of warhead isn't all that much, and given the number of platforms we have available to launch from, and the number of cells we have available, I'm not convinced that the game changes all that much.

And, we still have to have sufficient cells to protect the fleet.

Just a thought…


pchall July 11, 2010 at 3:32 am

What about reloading at sea? I understand they have to return to port to reload. Will there be enough missiles for a reload? This is not encouraging if the stuff hits the fan.


Desert Tortoise December 2, 2010 at 1:30 pm

Difficult but doable with some VLS rounds. There is a reloading crane that takes four VLS cells that isn't currently shipped. The tactical situation doesn't require reloading at sea. In a naval war with the Soviets, we would have necessarily reloaded at sea.
There are three lengths of the Mk-41 VLS and all but the longest one is reloadable at sea. The longest cell is required for Tomahawk and SM-3, other VLS loads could be replenished at sea. Presumably this new missile will be as large as SM-3 and won't be reloadable once fired, but the air defense rounds are.


Blight July 12, 2010 at 2:07 pm

I wonder if we are trading too much destructive power for range…


Andres July 12, 2010 at 7:11 pm

I can't believe how many of you are crying around because of the "soft" warhead. Imagine the 200lb as uranium hardened lead. You could literally blow up pretty much every plating on the planet. As Mr. Skinner said this thing has a longer background than many of you would think – "classified" is not just a term! The new SSGNs combined with such a missile and a few MALD drohnes (just to confuse the enemy) could erase even the hardest defended air space within a few minutes. A real game changer.


Roland July 18, 2010 at 3:35 am

Thank you Navy for making the Defense readyness.


gt350 July 31, 2010 at 8:59 am

A lot of soft warheads would make me take cover==and or KILL ME or just make it so i cant respond which is the point.


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Wombat July 8, 2010 at 3:20 pm

They are actually building a whole bunch more Arleigh-Burkes with the money they were going to use on Zumwalts, also they are building 10 more carriers, a lot of LCSs and the Virginias are coming out of the docks at a pretty fast rate. Other than that though, you are totally right.


Ross July 8, 2010 at 3:50 pm

Soon? You have a very, very long way to go before you get to the stage Britain is in currently with regards to its navy.

ur comparison borders almost upon fearmongering (no offence)


Matt July 8, 2010 at 4:57 pm

what about the ford class carrier? or did they get cancled?


Chuck July 13, 2010 at 10:44 pm

The Brits can barely field 6 new destroyers, remotely equivalent to the Arleigh Burkes, but campared to what the Russian threat is, that is good enough for them. We are nearly at 100 Aegis-VLS equipped cruisers and destroyers. No comparison in my book. Even the Chinese are much farther behind, but they are only looking at operating off one extended coast really. The only problems with ArcLight is the deployment time frame and warhead size. I figure we will be luck to get this out to the fleet before 2020. A 200 lb warhead is pretty weak also.


William C. July 8, 2010 at 5:18 pm

Yet some want us to go down that same path.


Wombat July 8, 2010 at 5:59 pm

They have the USS Ford currently under construction in Newport News now and I think they plan to make 10 of them.


elizzar July 8, 2010 at 6:04 pm

as a brit, the sad thing is we're still one of the largest / most powerful navies in europe … its a sad fall from where we once were, and most of the blame lies with our politicians. the budget could have been spent buying many more foreign designed (not necessarily even built) ships (think twice the size of our current navy) rather than insisting we buy british designed and built. still, the little we do have (if … IF we get the new cariers) is pretty good – just nowhere near enough of it …


Matt July 9, 2010 at 6:30 pm

ok thanks for the info


SMSgt Mac July 12, 2010 at 8:40 pm

kinetic energy = 1/2*(m*v^2)


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