- The Conversation) One year ago, the American warship defended itself from attacking cruise missiles while patrolling the Red Sea. It was a minor affair with few shots fired and no one hurt. But it was noteworthy for its global security implications.
On Oct. 9, 2016, two launching 48 kilometres away from . They flew low over the water at about 1,100 kilometres an hour, and would reach the ship in just over two minutes.
Missile defence layers
Mason is a guided missile destroyer designed for air and missile defence. Sailors control its weapons from the combat information centre, a windowless room lit with screens. Those weapons create several layers of defences.
The ship first launched two long-range interceptor missiles. It followed those with one medium-range interceptor. The interceptors would try to shoot down the incoming cruise missiles. The ship also launched a to fool the cruise missiles' radar.
One cruise missile hit the water 19 kilometres away from the ship. It may have been hit by an interceptor. The other crashed on its own 14 kilometres out. The USS Mason consequently did not need to use its last line of defence, a short-range Phalanx gun, seen here:
A few days later, on Oct. 12, . It apparently was shot down 13 kilometres away, about 45 seconds before it would have struck. The ship on Oct. 15.
Other countries' warships employ similar defences, though with fewer layers. For example, Australia's have Aegis systems, Standard interceptors and Phalanx guns. Canada's smaller carry Sparrows and Phalanx.
Record books and textbooks
Another missile 'anniversary' occurs this month. Anti-ship cruise missiles claimed their first success 50 years ago. On Oct. 21, 1967, Egypt sank the Israeli destroyer .
Since that time, the USS Mason is only the second warship believed to have downed a hostile cruise missile using an interceptor. That earns it a mention in naval history. Britain's HMS Gloucester was the first. an Iraqi cruise missile with a Sea Dart interceptor on Feb. 25, 1991.
Mason's hostile cruise missile interception was also the first for the Aegis combat computer system. The U.S. introduced it several decades ago to counter missile-laden Soviet warships. It must have been gratifying for sailors and developers to see years of preparation pay off. The real Aegis-versus-missile fights seemingly unfolded in textbook fashion.
The Aegis-equipped destroyer USS Hopper launches a Standard missile in the Pacific Ocean in July 2009. (U.S. Navy)
The U.S. Navy is now updating those textbooks. It studied Mason's rare encounters for lessons in interception training and procedures. It then shared that knowledge across its surface fleet.
The rarity of real battles motivates my missile combat research. My mathematical models are simplistic substitutes for real experience. But hopefully they provide clues about , and .
Other lessons, or warnings, also follow from the USS Mason attacks. For example, heavily armed Mason's success contrasts with the fate of the unarmed transport ship Swift. An earlier cruise missile from Yemen . , ships now need 'a fabulous set of radar and missiles' to survive near hostile coasts.
Mason's high-tech defence also contrasts with warships' continued vulnerability to low-tech threats. Examples include mines (for example, in 1991) and suicide boats (, 2000). Collisions with other ships (, 2017) or harbour bottoms (, 2017) are also risks. Against those threats, provides little help.
A third contrast exists between the costs of attack and defence. The threatening cruise missiles were likely 10 times cheaper than the interceptors Mason used up in defence. They were also 1,000 times cheaper than the ship they might have sunk.
Nonetheless, the USS Mason's success is reassuring for naval strategists. Fleets around the world rely on missile defences like those. They enable aircraft carriers, transports and other ships to perform their missions in hostile waters.
One caution: The Yemen rebels fired older cruise missiles, just a few at a time. Some newer ones fly twice as fast, giving defenders less than a minute to respond. Better-armed opponents could have trucks, ships, submarines and/or aircraft firing missiles by the dozen.
Many countries can thereby make their local waters very hazardous. Think , or .
Non-naval strategists might also be reassured. Warships with upgraded versions of the same computers, radars and interceptors provide limited to countries along the or the .
Similar in operation in Romania and under construction in Poland protects Europe against Middle East ballistic missiles. Japan likewise is building to defend against .
All told, there is a lot riding on the USS Mason's experience.
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