For me, the story of the U.S. Navy’s journey to achieve effective fleet air defense is a personal one – and one that drove my professional career choices. But this is not a mere walk down “memory lane” or a bit of mid-life nostalgia, but an important point that helps, I believe, to illustrate the challenges facing surface-to-air missile development and Fleet operational deployment.
Along with about 200 other U.S. Naval Academy midshipmen, in 1967 I journeyed to Norfolk, Va., (aboard the World War II troopship, USS Chilton, a.k.a. “The Chilton Hilton”) to go to sea on my third-class midshipman cruise aboard the USS Columbus (CG 12). Commissioned as a Baltimore-class 8-inch gun cruiser in the waning months of World War II, Columbus had been converted into an impressive missile ship, boasting two twin-Talos launchers and two twin-Tartar launchers. “Bristling” with surface-to-air missiles would be an apt description. Columbus was also a COMCRUDESFLOT (a forerunner of the later CRUDESGRU designation) flagship and, coincidentally, the embarked COMCRUDESFLOT commander, Adm. James Calvert, would become superintendent of the Naval Academy during my time there.
With Calvert in charge, Columbus and several of her sister ships headed south from Norfolk to the Caribbean to conduct what even we midshipmen understood was a major surface-to-air missile exercise. The anticipation was palpable. And we did conduct that major exercise, firing something on the order of a dozen-and-a-half surface-to-air missiles against a variety of drone targets. But we couldn’t hit anything! Once, and I recall this vividly to this day, a large drone flew over the fantail of Columbus about a minute after one of our missiles had left its launcher, as the 1 MC, the ship’s general announcing system, blared “this has been a tracking exercise.” Needless to say, several years later, I selected naval aviation as a career path, not surface ships.
Fast forward fifteen years and now, as a somewhat salty naval aviator I was assigned to the staff of Cruiser Destroyer Group THREE, embarked in USS Kitty Hawk (CV 63). As “Battle Group Bravo,” we had cutting-edge command and control and the most modern jet fighters in the fleet. I had heard stories about the U.S. Navy’s focus on defending against Soviet aircraft trying to attack aircraft carriers and had learned that the “vector logic grid” was part of the big picture of using aircraft and surface-to-air missiles to defeat waves of Soviet aircraft – and their air-to-surface missiles – bore-sighted on U.S. Navy aircraft carriers.
The vector logic grid and this overarching aircraft and surface-to-air missile integration sounded incredibly high-tech and synergistic, and as we sortied from San Diego toward Hawaii to conduct our final battle problem prior to deployment, I had visions of finally being part of the future, high tech, Navy. That is, until I arrived in Kitty Hawk’s CIC for the first exercise. There, on the forward bulkhead of CIC, was a standard gray Navy blanket that represented the “screen” and pieces of white string emanating from the bottom of the blanket, spreading out in geographic directions marking the “grid.” Then, as our aircraft launched to take their positions in the grid, cardboard cut-outs of these aircraft were pinned up on the blanket in the appropriate places. This was in 1984, seven years after the first Star Wars movie hit theaters. This wasn’t Star Wars.
The point of all this is that it is easy to look at the U.S. Navy’s surface-to-air missile success circa 2012, with modern vertical launch Aegis cruisers and destroyers and extraordinarily capable Standard missiles, and easy to forget that the journey to arrive at this world-class capability was one fraught with challenges. But what was the big step the Navy took to make this journey successful? It was the decision to focus development on “The Three Ts.”
The “Three Ts” – All Eggs in Just a Few Baskets
The U.S. Navy’s decision to focus its fleet air defense efforts primarily on Talos, Terrier and Tartar – working in conjunction with the Navy’s carrier-based fighters as well as point-defense systems – was arrived at with due diligence. The complete story of this journey is a long as it is complex, and exceeds the space we have available here. What I will focus on briefly is the journey for each missile individually.
Talos was always envisioned as the U.S. Navy’s “big missile,” and at one point in its developmental process was envisioned as a universal missile, much as the RIM-family Standard Missile is today. As the operational requirements for the missile became more daunting throughout the late 1940s and into the 1950s, requiring Talos to reach higher and fly farther to be effective against ever-more-capable targets, it grew in size, with the missile and its booster ultimately weighing in at almost four tons. Importantly, as Talos grew in size, the Navy had to develop other missiles – Terrier and Tartar – for smaller ships.
Talos entered service aboard the missile cruiser Galveston in 1958, and went “operational” in early 1959. The first operational version of Talos rode a beam most of the way to the target, but it homed in on the target semi-actively. As it evolved to its most updated versions, the missile had a speed of 2.5 Mach, a range of 100 nautical miles, and a service ceiling of 80,000 feet. After the Navy’s fighters had attrited whatever bombers and/or missiles they could, the long-range Talos was the next step in the gauntlet.
Talos was the U.S. Navy’s most capable first-generation surface-to-air missile, but it was also by far the largest and it required a large, expensive hull. Knowing the appetite to fund these hulls was not abundant – especially in a Navy that was embarked on building a fleet of large attack aircraft carriers as well as a fleet of nuclear attack and ballistic missile submarines – the Navy pressed forward on Terrier and Tartar development to place surface-to-air missile capability on smaller, more affordable hulls, as a way to add missile rails to the Fleet more quickly. The final Talos variants had a range approaching 200 miles, and during the Vietnam war, Talos ships shot down three MiGs. When the Navy retired the Talos as a frontline missile, the remaining inventory was converted into supersonic Vandal target drones.
The concept of operations behind Terrier was initially somewhat similar to that of Talos, but eventually that CONOPS diverged – and with good reason. While Talos was to go after Soviet bombers attacking the aircraft carrier and its escort ships, for Terrier, the most important targets were not large bombers; they were small missiles the bombers would launch. This, in turn, caused a major change in the type of warhead needed. Talos used a continuous-rod (CR) warhead, with rods, hinged together at alternate ends, wrapped around an explosive charge. When the explosive charge detonated, it forced the rods apart. They formed an expanding circle of metal. When the circle hit an airplane, it cut into the airframe, destroying the aircraft.
With Talos, it took time for the circle of steel rods to expand. If the target were a large bomber, that was quite acceptable, since the circle would surely hit somewhere along the length of the bomber. The shorter the target, the less time before it passed ahead of the expanding circle. Against a short target closing with the missile at very high speed, the key issue was how quickly the warhead could reach out, rather than how much airframe it could destroy. The CR warhead was eventually superseded by a blast-fragmentation warhead and ultimately by a warhead which could, in effect, be aimed at the target. This made Terrier effective for its mission.
Terrier was constantly improved. Originally a wing-controlled, beam-riding, 1.8 Mach missile with a range of 10 nautical miles, the Terrier was developed into a tail-controlled, semi-active radar homing, 3.0 Mach weapon with a range of 40 nautical miles. Ultimately, the Navy produced 8,000 of the Mach 3, 3000-pound, surface-to-air Terrier.
In its final version, with a service ceiling of 80,000 feet and the semi-active radar homing guidance system, Terrier was arguably the most successful surface-to-air missile in the Navy’s inventory during this timeframe. Ultimately, Terrier was replaced by the RIM-67 Standard Missile.
The final surface-to-air missile in the Navy’s Three T family was Tartar. Weighing only 1,300 pounds as first introduced, but able to travel Mach 1.8, it had a range of almost 18 miles and a service ceiling of 65,000 feet, making it an ideal surface-to-air missile for smaller Navy ships. Tartar ultimately saw service on a total of eight classes of U.S. Navy ships. It was conceived as a direct replacement for the twin 5-inch/38 caliber gun onboard a large number of war-built destroyers.
Tartar was born of a need for a more lightweight system for smaller ships, and something that could engage targets at very close range. In June 1955, CNO Admiral Arleigh Burke ordered the project accelerated, because without it there was no defense against low-flying aircraft at the short ranges at which Tartar would be effective. Essentially, the Tartar was simply a RIM-2C Terrier without the secondary booster. Tartar was simply referred to as Missile Mk 15 until the unified Army-Navy designation system was introduced in 1963.
Tartar was used on a number of ships of a variety of sizes. Initially the Mk 11 twin-arm launcher was used; later ships used the Mk 13 and Mk 22 single-arm launchers. Early versions proved to be unreliable. The Improved Tartar retrofit program upgraded the earlier missiles to the much improved RIM-24C standard. Further development was canceled and a new missile, the RIM-66 Standard, was designed to replace it. Even after the upgrade to a new missile, ships were still said to be Tartar ships because they carried the Tartar Guided Missile Fire Control System.
A Summing Up – What the Three Ts Gave Us
While this segment may seem to be little more than history – even ancient history – to some, the point of this focus on the Three Ts – as well as their operational capabilities – is that while focusing the U.S. Navy’s SAM capability around these three missiles provided enormous stability for U.S. Navy SAM capability, it also revealed that the Navy had taken SAM development to a point where it was approaching diminishing returns on missile development.
The Navy came to recognize that further advances would involve not just the missile itself, but all else that was associated with the missile – fire-control systems, other hardware and software, radars, and the like. Thus, it was rapidly becoming much more effective to seek higher overall performance by improving the system surrounding a missile rather than by replacing or substantially upgrading the missile itself. This recognition provided the organizing impulse and inspiration for what would become the U.S. Navy’s Aegis system.