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

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

46 Comments on "Loading Prompt Global Strike in VLS Cells Will Transform U.S. Naval Power"

  1. 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 !

  2. 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.

  3. 200 lbs payload? hardly the stuff of nightmares

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

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

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

  10. 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.

  11. 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…

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

  13. Finally a good thread.

  14. > 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.

  15. Warrant Diver | July 8, 2010 at 6:27 pm | Reply

    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.

  16. Byron Skinner | July 8, 2010 at 3:01 pm | Reply

    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.

    ALLONS,
    Byron Skinner

  17. Byron Skinner | July 8, 2010 at 11:23 pm | Reply

    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.

    ALLONS,
    Byron Skinner

  18. 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…

  19. 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.

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

  21. 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.

  22. Thank you Navy for making the Defense readyness.

  23. 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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