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Navy Upgrades Vertical Launch Systems

by Kris Osborn on July 2, 2014

Mk 41 Vertical Launch SystemsThe Navy is upgrading the missile-firing vertical launch tubes aboard its cruisers and destroyers in order to add new fire power and extend their service life, service officials said.

Lockheed Martin recently received a contract from the Navy to work on the Mk 41 Vertical Launch Systems, or VLS, which allows engineers to work on designs, integration, support services and maintenance for the launchers.

The VLS, which can fire offensive and defensive missiles, have been firing weapons since the early 1980’s, primarily aboard Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, Lockheed and Navy officials said.

The launchers already fire a wide range of missiles to include Tomahawks, RIM-7 Sea Sparrow missiles, anti-submarine rockets, the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, ESSM, and various Standard Missiles such as the SM-2 and SM-3, said Brian Bohs, business development manager for controls, launchers and weapons, Lockheed Martin.

“For parts that become obsolete or new capabilities that come in, this is the contract that the customer says ‘I need you to redesign this component,’” Bohs said. If all options on the contract are exercised, the cost-plus deal could go up to as much as $182 million.

With the upgrades, the Mk 41 VLS will be able to fire the Block 2 ESSM which has improved guidance technology as well as the new SM-3 Block 2a missile which is a new, larger standard missile designed to achieve longer ranges compared to other SM variants.

The ESSM Block 2 is engineered with what’s called a semi-active, active guidance system, meaning the missile itself can achieve improved flight or guidance to its target by both receiving and actively sending electromagnetic signals, Raytheon officials said.

“Each new Mk 41 VLS missile or combat system integration provides the opportunity for new launcher capability and performance improvements, such as increased data through put via ethernet, new bi-directional digital interfaces such as Mil-Std-1553B, GPS data feed and new missile test functionality with future missile variants,” said Matthew Leonard, Naval Sea Systems Command.

Along with being on U.S. Navy ships, the Mk 41 VLS are also in service aboard 12 allied Navies around the globe, Bohs said. The allied countries using Mk 41 VLS include Australia, Canada, Denmark, Germany, Japan, The Netherlands, Norway, Spain, Thailand, Turkey and New Zealand.

“It is the only multi-mission launcher in the world. It provides anti-air, anti-submarine, surface to surface and strike capability,” he added.

The maintenance and upgrade contract includes work to engineer the VLS to better support ballistic missile defense missions, Bohs added.

“The Mk 41 is capable of firing any missile in the U.S. inventory. The missiles come in canisters and canisters go into the launcher. The ordnance crew connects the umbilical of the launcher to the connector of the canister and then the launching system recognizes which missile that is,” Bohs said. “The Mk 41 is being configured so that it can accommodate new missile technology as it emerges.”

Overall, as many as 9,000 launch tubes are currently configured on approximately 90 ships.

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{ 29 comments… read them below or add one }

oblatt22 July 2, 2014 at 12:52 pm

The primary objective here is to take existing working systems and replace them with more expensive higher maintenance ones.


Curt Conway July 2, 2014 at 9:10 pm

At present well over half the platforms cannot launch ESSM or have SM-3 IIA capability. The SM-2 Blk (anything) missile is expensive and a waist on a medium range target. The ESSM is ever bit as capable and at a significant cost reduction. These missile systems require greater fidelity, and larger quantity (bandwidth) of communications to the more sophisticated weapons. If we are to stretch the older platforms utility into the coming decades and get the full lifespan out of the ship, and enable the use of the medium range AAW weapon (ESSM), and enable the ship to be a Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) platform, then these modifications are REQUIRED! It also brings all the platforms to the same configuration equipment wise significantly simplifying logistics . . . which saves a LOT of money in the future supporting one equipment set of parts. This is a common sense approach to improving the fleet plain and simple. Way to go NAVY!


TheEvilBlight July 3, 2014 at 10:40 am

The Ticos are the oldest, and should receive priority for radar and VLS upgrades. Though I wonder if the Navy will replace them with Block IIIs…

ESSM can also be quad-packed, loading them into VLS cells represents a considerable "savings" in terms of salvo size. If you need to shoot at aircraft, use quad-packed ESSM instead of older Standards.


Tom July 7, 2014 at 7:27 am

So how many billions has the US Navy wasted on using SM-2's when an ESSM could have been used to destroy an enemy target? How many billions will be wasted over the next 5, 10, 20, 100 years? Obviously this is the DoD run amok making financially unsound decisions, for just a few hundreds of millions they would have saved untold billions it sounds like!


Peter Erik Bensen July 9, 2014 at 12:44 pm

Sparrows and their derivatives are largely obsolete. Recent years have seen advances which have extended the various Sparrows utility. Without advanced Standard Missiles, we would cease to have a capable aircraft carrier navy. Sparrows are a last-ditch close-in weapon which can be fired in volleys, used on lesser threats, or used in restricted ROE scenarios.


rtsy July 2, 2014 at 11:57 pm

Seems to me like its designed to counter China's growing missile capabilities and keep our own force modern.


hibeam July 2, 2014 at 3:56 pm

The Marines will want a runway launched version.


TheEvilBlight July 2, 2014 at 11:41 pm

The missiles must be able to take off and land vertically.


blight_ July 2, 2014 at 4:51 pm

Modularity working as intended.

As for ESSM: http://www.dodbuzz.com/2013/08/20/navy-works-to-d…

And from LM:

Contract sounds very mundane. From LM:

"This contract combines purchases for the U.S. Navy and eight allied navies under the Foreign Military Sales program. Included in the work is missile integration, software development, integration of VLS into new ships, technical refresh, systems engineering and life cycle support for MK 41 VLS. These services will also be done on the U.S. Navy's Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyers. "

Sounds like a cycle of upgrades to perhaps ensure that older Burkes get their hardware refreshed to match the newer Burkes.


StealthFlyer July 2, 2014 at 7:38 pm

“It is the only multi-mission launcher in the world." Uh, no. Even limiting the conversation to just ship-based launchers, the US (Mk 57 VLS on DDG-1000) and other nations (Russia, Great Britain, South Korea, etc) have several.

“The Mk 41 is capable of firing any missile in the U.S. inventory." Again, more hyperbole, even if we drastically limit the comment to just ship-launched missiles (it can't fire Harpoon, RAM, Griffin, Stinger, etc).


TheEvilBlight July 2, 2014 at 8:09 pm

Sylver only does SAM's (Aster and Crotale) for the moment, but the French may retrofit land-attack missiles someday.

PLAAN'S VLS are probably multi-mission but not much known about specific missiles.

Korean K-VLS is known to carry Hyumoo and K-ASROC. I guess it's multi-role (land and anti-sub). Unsure what the Koreans have for the Mk 41's on Sejong et al…might be just SM's.

Cold War-era Russian cruisers had the massive missile launchers for anti-ship missiles, plus smaller VL cells for short-range anti-air missiles. The newer ships appear to mount a variety of different VLS systems (Redut, UKSK, et al). As far as I can tell, Redut is smaller and mounts the anti-air missiles (S-400 type), and the UKSK does anti-ship or land attack (Klub and Oniks).

I'll have to dig into the Russian systems some more. You're correct on the second point, since not everything is VLS-able, despite what the article states.

Edit: Sure, a VLS can carry land-attack, but what do we have? Just the Harpoon. Though for some reason there's still some controversy about whether or not Harpoons can be fired from VLS, so here is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/RGM-84_Harpoon#media…

I wonder why so many nations only use their VLS for surface to air…or in the case of the Koreans, have a separate system for land attack. Perhaps it's because Harpoons weren't good enough, so they designed a separate missile for their purposes? Though at the end of the day having independent missile capability outside of the whim of American exports gives you some insurance.


liken01 July 2, 2014 at 9:37 pm

If you look at that picture again they are not putting the harpoon in the vls. They are putting it on the rack.


ghostwhowalks July 2, 2014 at 10:15 pm

Normally anything that needs to gain altitude is helped by being fired upwards.
Harpoon of course stays low so being launched nearly horizontal suits its mission


TheEvilBlight July 2, 2014 at 11:31 pm

That makes more sense. I stand corrected then…all our VLS cells are just anti-air and TLAM.

So long as we don't have to shoot it out with any other ships we'll be fine. However, we did fire Standards at ships during Praying Mantis but I don't think we'll be doing that again any time soon.


StealthFlyer July 4, 2014 at 11:33 pm

Standards would have to be the main anti-ship missiles used by any of the 34 Flight IIA DDG-51 Arleigh Burke destroyers today. No US warship commissioned in the last 14 years has included Harpoon. If the US had anti-ship capable torpedoes that could be fitted to ASROC missiles, that could offer another option, especially against large ships.

About 90-110 LRASM missiles will be produced later this decade for initial use on some aircraft (Super Hornet, B-1) and ships (via Mk 41 VLS), but it will have to win a competition to gain a larger production order as the official Harpoon replacement (see DefenseIndustryDaily for more on LRASM).

Brian B. Mulholland July 2, 2014 at 8:58 pm

Anything that expands antiair / antimissile capacities sounds good to me. What Blight said.

The majority of the ships that will get the new VLS and ESSM II also have a 5-inch gun. A laser-guided Excalibur round is probably a better Boghammer swatter, in terms of flight time, and cheaper.


TheEvilBlight July 2, 2014 at 11:35 pm

I stand corrected on the multi-role nature of VLS. We're still short an anti-ship missile for VLS, unless we fire TLAMs or standards at a ship.

It seems VLS overseas isn't that much better in terms of all-around ness. It's probably because no navy has really been in the business of attacking another navy for decades, thus we haven't been really thinking about saturation attacks against ships. I think if LRASM is VLSable it'll give us something to use against Russian or Chinese surface battlegroups.

Conversely, anyone who isn't cowed by America is buying nice anti-ship missiles from the Russians, or cooperating with them to build their own, like Brahmos, with plans to launch lots of them. Russian anti-ship VLS aren't all that big, but they probably carry more anti-ship missiles than an American ship.


Jay Gibbs July 3, 2014 at 6:18 pm

"Conversely, anyone who isn't cowed by America is buying nice anti-ship missiles from the Russians, or cooperating with them to build their own, like Brahmos, with plans to launch lots of them. Russian anti-ship VLS aren't all that big, but they probably carry more anti-ship missiles than an American ship."

If they carry more than eight ASM's, it's more than American ships. It's ridiculous that we don't have a more modern ASM capability than the four-round Mk 141 and the 30+ year old Harpoon. In my opinion it's an egregious failure to plan and prepare for an essential mission, (ASuW), while we focus almost entirely on long range land attack capabilities.

Even more frightening, is our negligence in ASW weapons as well. We haven't developed a new ASW missile for decades.

Staggering failures in our capabilities.


TheEvilBlight July 3, 2014 at 8:16 pm

The Gorshkov frigate carries 16 Oniks, the Grigorovich carries 8 Klub or Oniks, and is based on the Talwar which carries 8 Brahmos. Grigorovich has a 12-cell VLS for SA-N-12. Not much to write home about.

Surprised we don't use the Standards as a basis for an anti-ship missile.


jsallison July 3, 2014 at 9:07 pm

Show me that it can be replenished underway and not have to go back to a friendly, secured port to reload. That would be an upgrade I could get behind.


TheEvilBlight July 4, 2014 at 12:57 am

Systems were prototyped, but I am pretty sure the issue was that it couldn't be done at high sea states. But in the Pacific, I'll take my chances on mobile VLS-loading in an atoll versus going back to Pearl.


Launchertech July 9, 2014 at 10:19 pm

It can be replenished underway IF necessary, but not in a high sea state, after all who wants to handle anything in a high sea state?. Put the missiles on the deck and the crane that is stowed in the launcher is capable of placing them into the cells.


Brian B. Mulholland July 5, 2014 at 8:19 pm

EvilBlight, how effective were the Standard missiles fired against ships during Praying Mantis


TheEvilBlight July 5, 2014 at 10:33 pm

Joshan, a Combattante II FAC took five standards and one missed Harpoon, had to be sunk with guns.

Sahand took two Rockeyes, a Harpoon and four Skippers.

Sabalan was crippled with a single Mk 82.

It's probable that the Standards fired at Joshan were light and didn't pack a great deal of explosives, but I'm unsure if the assessment of the damage to Joshan was ever released.


Paul Navarrete July 10, 2014 at 9:10 am

SM's were never designed to sink vessels. They only use in the ASM role to disable sensors and inflict collateral damageor attempt to set the vessel on fire. If anything, it is purely a kinetic weapon.


Brian B. Mulholland July 7, 2014 at 9:39 pm

Thank you.

That's a convincing argument for a better warhead, be it Standard, Harpoon, Skipper or other.


TheEvilBlight July 7, 2014 at 10:15 pm

There's very little that can take a 1,000 pound Mk 83 and continue to fight, even when the bomb is dropped with low kinetic energy.

The standard missile itself is ~1500 pounds, and perhaps 20 percent of it is warhead, the rest is casing, propulsion, guidance. Exocet is ~1500 pounds with a ~360 pound payload. The Stark took an Exocet and was still able to fight, which tells you that a 360 pound HE warhead intended for anti-ship use is insufficient to completely defeat a ship with a single hit.

Modern ships aren't as susceptible to being golden BB'ed. I reckon very good intelligence on the layout of ships combined with missiles that can recognize ships and go straight for their jugular may make missiles more effective than the size of their explosive payload would suggest.


kevin July 10, 2014 at 10:05 am

Damn, the world sure has been spending huge amounts of $ building up new tech weapons. The day of the fireworks, I hope I don't do something silly like sleep in and miss it!


TheEvilBlight July 5, 2014 at 1:47 am

Unsure if the specs make the Standard a particularly impressive ASM…though SM-3 and SM-6 could be better.


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