Let us engage in a thought experiment. The year is 2033 and the USS ROBERT O. WORK (CG 76) is steaming in company with USS ENTERPRISE (CVN 80). Cruiser WORK is equipped with the latest version of the AMDR radar, 150 surface-to-air missiles suitable for engaging air breathing threats and ballistic missiles, a rail-gun, and a 500kw laser. Both the rail-gun and the laser have capability against air breathing and ballistic targets.
The United States is in a state of hostilities with China, and ENTERPRISE is operating in the Sulu Sea in support of an USA/USMC operation to seize airfields on the Northeastern portion of Borneo. Ownship missile and rail-gun rounds have been depleted by 1/2 neutralizing a series of submarine-launched cruise missile attacks, and there are surface ship- and bomber-launched ASCM threats still to be encountered. Thirty-six additional hours are required on station to complete this aspect of the ENTERPRISE mission, before the two ships can retire further east. How the conflict started is unimportant, and the logic of the operation underway is irrelevant. The thought experiment is tactical in nature. I am asking you to put yourself in the place of the CO/TAO of the WORK and think through the psychology of the following problem.
The threat you face is an incoming raid of three Chinese anti-ship ballistic missiles. For the purpose of our thought experiment, the best missile you have onboard to neutralize this threat has a probability of kill against the ASBM threat of .7 in a salvo of two missiles at a range of 40 miles. Working our way inward, the rail-gun presents a probability of kill against the ASBM of .75 at a range of 20 miles. The 500kw laser presents a .9 probability of kill for the raid at a distance of 7 miles from ownship. Obviously, soft kill capabilities can and would raise these probabilities (or more to the point, lower the Chinese probability of hit), but for the purposes of this experiment, let us assume hard kill only.
We can assume that the Chinese hold a considerable advantage in the missiles vs. interceptors available equation, and that the U.S. Navy has made only modest gains in industrial base capacity for the re-supply of interceptors, and this includes rail-gun rounds. Re-supply of missiles at sea is still problematic.
Additionally, it is reasonable to assume that there would be fleet guidance governing how a ship would husband its assets in a detect-to-engage scenario like the one posited here. In essence, this experiment is designed to get you (the reader) to think about what that guidance might be. I leave room for the possibility that the numbers selected above by a liberal arts major might be chewed up and immediately spit out by an Operations Research practitioner, resulting in a mathematically provable answer. But what I’m trying to get at here is the psychology of the shooter. We have a limited number of kinetic interceptors, with a reasonable Pkill against these weapons at tactically significant ranges. And we have a laser with a higher Pkill against these weapons at ranges that would make even the stoutest of heart nervous against a supersonic, maneuvering, ballistic target.
What should we as a fleet do? How should we think about this sequence? Are we asking too much of ships to hold fire with traditional kinetic weapons in favor of a close-in laser engagement?
What if the incoming raid were not ASBM’s? What if we were targeted by a coordinated raid of ASCMs—a mix of both sub-sonic and supersonic? And what if the “raid” consisted not of missiles, but of UAVs?
Put another way, is a “hybrid” mix of missiles and a laser a tactically useful arrangement, if one is designed to deepen the magazine capacity of the other?
Now, bring soft kill back into the equation. Would useful soft-kill measures in company with laser engagement raise your feeling of comfort/confidence in holding fire with missiles or rail-gun?
Finally, assuming the capabilities I describe are mature and effective in 2033, what are the steps we need to consider NOW in order to bring about this future---programmatically, operationally, and bureaucratically?
I do not know the answers to these questions, and I do not know if they are answerable. But I am interested in what you – an informed community of readers – think about them. Please do not “fight the scenario”. Press the “I believe” button and think about the tactical ramifications of this question.