April 13, 2016

The Royal Canadian Navy upgraded to Harpoon Block II anti-ship missiles. Hooray?

Naval Ensign of Canada
The Royal Canadian Navy put out a very interesting press release last week.  I spend more time looking at Russian naval movements and their ships that our own, so this proved very enlightening.

Royal Canadian Navy marks first-ever missile test against shore-based targets
April 8, 2016 – Ottawa – National Defence / Canadian Armed Forces
HMCS Vancouver made history recently as it became the first modernized Canadian frigate to successfully test surface-to-surface missiles against a shore-based target, utilizing the Harpoon Block II surface-to-surface missiles.
This is the first time in history the Royal Canadian Navy (RCN) has exercised such a surface-to-surface missile launch capability. The launches were part of a Joint Littoral Training Exercise (JoLTEX.)
JoLTEX 16 is a training exercise that was recently completed by the RCN at a United States Navy missile firing range off the coast of California. The Exercise was held from March 30 to April 1, 2016.
(whole press release here)
I admit I had no idea that any Harpoon anti-ship missile *could* strike shore based targets, but I guess a ship-to-shore missile is a new capability, and a distinguishing feature between the old variants of the Harpoon and the new Block II.  What about the deck gun? According to Wikipedia the deck gun "is a 57 mm 70 Mark 3 gun from Bofors. The gun is capable of firing 2.4 kg shells at a rate of 220 rounds/min at a range of more than 17 km. The Bofors is a multi-purpose weapon usable against surface and air targets. The 57 mm main gun has limited ship-to-shore bombardment capability."  As I haven't looked very closely at the Canadian Navy armament before, this surprised me as well.  I was unaware we has such a (relatively) small gun on our largest naval vessels; heresy you say? Let me elaborate.  The Russian Navy (1962 design) Kashin-class Destroyer has a multitude of armaments, including two twin 76 mm guns.   But a destroyer is usually bigger than a Frigate; so to compare apples-to-apples, the Russian frigates are the Krivak-class, Neustrashimyy-class and the new Admiral Grigorovich-Class - all of which have more, and bigger, deck-guns.  I'm sure I've drawn the ire of many Royal Canadian Navy fans, but now that I'm looking closer at the armament of our flagship-class, I'm rather horrified.  Yes, I understand it isn't just the size of the gun; it's how you use it.  But I'm getting off topic.

Credit: Google Maps
I think it's great that Canada now has the capability to "reach out" and hit land-based targets (at least) ~124 km away with the Halifax-Class frigates.  Those frigates already had the launchers for the Harpoon Anti-Ship missile, so this new capability doesn't add any significant weight or space (which is always at a premium onboard a ship).  It makes me wonder though, ~124 km isn't very far when you consider ship of this size likely wants to stay away from shore to avoid anti-ship missiles itself, unguided rockets, or drawing artillery fire - as Saudi Arabia has tragically learned off the coast of Yemen recently. Meaning, if Canada wanted to strike at a group of insurgents from the sea, it might have permission from a National government (as might be the case with Libya), or it might not (Syria?).  If a Halifax-class frigate was striking from outside a territorial limit, would it be 22Km or 44Km away from shore?  Either way, it reduces the inland strike range to ~80-100 km.  If we look at Libya as an example of a State where the reach of a Harpoon Block II might come in handy, you'll notice most of the country is inland.  While the Harpoon II might be able to strike targets in the coastal cities (as deep inland as Garyan), the rest of the country would be out of reach.  Don't we need cruise missiles if we're going to get into ship-to-shore strikes?

Range of Harpoon II
Credit: Google Maps
The US Navy and Russian Navy have cruise missiles which have an significantly longer range.  The US Tomahawk can reach between 1300-2500 km depending on the variant.  The Russian (Калибр) Kalibr variants have a similar range, and were used to strike Syrian targets from Russian Navy ships in the Caspian Sea (a 1500 km flight).  But aren't cruise missiles more expensive than the Harpoon Block II?  They're about the same cost; in the area of $1.5M each.

Range of Russian Kalibr Cruise Missile
Credit: Google Maps
Let's look at range again, in Canadian terms that Canadians can visualize.  A Halifax-Class ship in the Royal Canadian Navy can fire it's Harpoon Block II missile across Nova Scotia from the Halifax Harbour.  Impressive!

A Russian Navy Ship or Submarine, armed with their new cruise missiles, might be able to hit Winnipeg from Halifax.  That's a little more impressive, and a little frightening.

So, why did we upgrade our Harpoon to the Harpoon Block II?  Well, the Harpoon was originally fielded in 1977.  The Harpoon II, while not the most recent block, has undergone a significant set of improvements, and performs better than it's predecessor. I'm not suggesting we shouldn't have upgraded them, but maybe we need to look at what we have in the end; what can the Halifax-class Frigate accomplish, compared to other warships of the world?  Was this refit worth the money spent?

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