Written by Ahmed Sharif
In June 2017, Israel successfully launched a ballistic missile from a container, which was placed on the deck of a ship at sea. With this experiment, Israel brought forward that old argument that any ship can be a warship. There are two aspects of this missile test. One, a missile can be hidden inside a container-carrying ship... ...
Russians have been developing container-launched missiles for some time. But the Russian focus was more on firing a cruise missile from a hidden container. Such a cruise missile can be targeted at a ship at sea or can also be used to attack targets in land. Yet, this is a cruise missile; that is, it would crash onto the target like a suicide airplane. A ballistic missile, on the other hand, brings a completely new dimension in here. The Israeli experiment is important for this reason. Ballistic missiles have more strategic importance than cruise missiles. The second aspect is, the missile was, in fact, fired from a mobile missile-carrier or a missile-launching vehicle. The vehicle was taken on board the ship and fastened to the deck using various mechanisms. That means, a land warfare weapon was bolted on top of a ship, which turned the ship into a warship. The vehicle did not lose its original mission. Once the vehicle is off-loaded from the ship, it would be able to continue its original mission of firing ballistic missiles from land. From another viewpoint, it can be said that a ship like this has the ability to carry a ballistic missile and fire it from the middle of the sea. And again, the ship can potentially increase the range of the missile many times by carrying the missile-launcher from one seaport to another.
This second aspect brings forward a thousand-year old strategic idea. The idea is that a ship’s abilities are equal to what it is able to carry. The idea of permanently installing weapons on a ship is not that old – only several hundred years. On the other hand, the history of taking land weapons aboard a ship to fight a land war at a far-away place is a thousand-year tradition. This thousand-year-old tradition can be seen in the utilization of amphibious warfare ships of today. These ships can carry a huge number of soldiers and munitions, which can be off-loaded at any location to fight a land war, and even to capture a big piece of land by force. There was a time when this matter was normal for all warships, not just for ships specifically made for amphibious landings. In fact, the ship specifically built for amphibious warfare was not developed before World War II. Before that time, if a captain grounded his ship, he was supposed to face court martial!
Land-war weapons ending up in sea-wars
Carrying land-war weapons on board ships and then to make those usable for war at sea brings forward that old strategic idea. Simultaneously, the definitions of warships that had been developed during the last one hundred years are collapsing. Another example can be looked at. The Egyptian Navy bought a couple of Mistral-class amphibious assault ships from France, which were originally built for Russia. Some days ago, an Egyptian Department of Defence video showed that three ‘Avenger’ Short Range Air Defence Systems were operating on board the flight deck a Mistral-class ship. Avenger is a land-based air defence weapon, which is based on a Humvee vehicle.
The video showed that the Avenger system had been bolted on top of the flight deck including the carrier vehicle! That means, from another angle, it can be said that any other ship can receive an air defence system in this way, which will take hardly two minutes! Only a single mobile air defence unit needs to be bolted on top of a ship; that’s it, a warship is ready!
Such land-based cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, or air defence missiles can potentially turn any ship into a warship within a short amount of time, and that too, without a lot of preparation. Such a warship can not only become powerful at sea, it can also off-load its weapons on land to change results of a land war.
The strength of a warship will depend on the amount of weapons the ship can carry on its deck. That means, a ship with a bigger open deck space can potentially carry more weapons on its deck, and thus, it can have more ability to participate in an armed struggle. The same ship that was a cargo ship a few days ago, will become a warship in an instant. But such developments would bring about changes at the policy level, which will hit at the base of several hundred years’ policies. For example, which ship is a warship and which one is a civilian ship? This question was raised many times over. As the strength of a warship was judged by the number of troops or weapons it could carry, if the ship did not carry any weapons, it became very difficult to call it a ship of war! Now, it becomes even more complicated if a ship carries arms in secret during war, but presents a civilian look in front of everyone.
Germany developed and used such ships during World War II. These ships were called Merchant Raiders. The ships used to roam the seas just like any other commercial ship. Several guns and torpedoes were hidden under the deck of these ships. Once the ships came close to another commercial ship, they closed in on that ship and sunk it with gunfire and torpedoes. Several ships of the German Navy attained quite a bit of success in this way. A total of nine commercial ships were converted into warships – KMS Atlantis, KMS Pinguin, KMS Kormoran, KMS Widder, KMS Thor, KMS Orion, KMS Stier, KMS Komet and KMS Michel.
Current Russian-developed container-based cruise missiles have striking similarities with these German ships’ hidden weapons. If a container ship of today carries a couple of containers with cruise missiles, along with their remote control systems hidden inside, the ship can be compared with KMS Atlantis of WWII. Again, if ballistic missiles can be carried inside such containers, then it becomes a strategic deterrent. Which missile is on which ship in which sea – would indeed be hard to find. In conclusion, this would change the entire calculus of war.
What comes first – strategy or design?
A lot of things can change as a result of development of such weapons. One change can come in the design of warships. To increase survivability of today’s warships, so much electronics and weapons are being inserted inside a single warship that it is becoming extremely complex, huge and expensive. As a result, a ship’s mission areas are being shrunk to compensate for a lesser number of ships – many ships can no longer be made. The size of sea area that was once patrolled by 10 ships cannot possibly be patrolled by 3 to 5 ships. As a result, the amount of sea the ships are to control is being reduced; missions are being redesigned. A massive amount of sea-space is being left out of their missions. One ship cannot possibly be at two places simultaneously. The above thinking is likely to challenge the strategic thoughts based around complex and expensive warship designs. And this would place strategic thoughts ahead of ship design and technology.