14 May 2010

Potential ASBM Countermeasures: “The Strategic Implications of Obscurants”

Thomas J. Culora, The Strategic Implications of Obscurants: History and the Future,” Naval War College Review, Vol. 63, No. 3 (Summer 2010), pp. 73-84.

Throughout history, smoke has been used in various forms to obscure naval forces at sea. During prominent naval battles in the twentieth century, from Jutland in World War I to the U.S. Navy’s clash with imperial Japanese forces off Leyte in 1944, smoke literally contributed to “the fog of war” and added to the complexity and confusion of battle. But is there a role for smoke or other obscurants at sea in the radar-saturated, cyber-linked maritime environment of the twenty-first century? And what, if any, are the strategic implications of obscurants? This article will explore the latter question, leaving the tactical and operational opportunities of “making smoke” for separate inquiry.

The application of obscurants on the modern battlefield has been widely examined by U.S. Army strategists and operators for over a decade and a half; obscurants are firmly imbedded in U.S. Army doctrine. Moreover, the effectiveness of obscurants against a panoply of terminal homing systems, from the visual to the millimeter-wave spectrum, is proven. In simple terms, the particles suspended in the medium of smoke can be adjusted in size to absorb and diffuse radar waves emanating from the seeker heads of incoming antiship missiles, thereby denying any homing information to the missile. In the modern naval battle space, where antiship cruise missiles (ASCMs) are a principal threat, adapting obscurant systems and developing tactics and operational schemes for their use at sea is prudent. Given the stark potential of antiship ballistic missiles (ASBMs), this adaptation may be essential.

The challenge, then, for naval strategists, operators, and acquisition professionals is to “navalize” obscurants for use at sea, either developing new systems or adapting existing ones. One such system that appears primed for adaptation is the U.S. Army’s M56E1 Coyote smoke-generating system. The Coyote spews out large, radar-absorbing, carbon-fiber clouds that can prevent a radar-guided ASCM from detecting its target, thereby neutralizing the missile’s terminal homing capability. It is an attractive system, since the cost of generating a single obscurant cloud covering several square nautical miles is in the tens of thousands of dollars. Also, depending on environmental conditions present, the Coyote’s cloud can be quite persistent. Effective in virtually the entire spectrum, such millimeter-wave obscurants show great promise in thwarting the terminal radar seekers in many modern ASCMs.

The fundamental assumption underpinning this article is that regardless of which system is acquired, thoughtful obscurant employment will significantly reduce the risk to surface ships from missile strikes. With this in mind, there are four key areas where obscurants have strategic implications: strategic competition, influence and balancing, deterrence, and escalation control. …