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Army to revive ship-killing mission with RIMPAC test

The Army this summer will test a capability it first prepared for in Hawaii more than 100 years ago: the ability to sink a ship at sea from the shore.

During the big Rim of the Pacific exercise held every other year, U.S. Army Pacific is expected to fire a Naval Strike Missile from Kauai at either the decommissioned frigate USS McClusky or the retired tank landing ship USS Racine.

“It is a big deal for them (the Army) because it puts them back in the maritime strike mission,” said Carl Schuster, a retired Navy captain and adjunct professor at Hawaii Pacific University.

Japan also is expected to target a ship with a shore-based missile during RIMPAC.

In the early 1900s the Army created a “ring of steel’ around Oahu with big coastal guns to defend against enemy battleships that never came.

It was the fear of a Japanese attack by sea following the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War that prompted the buildup. World War II and the success of air power — ably demonstrated by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941, at Pearl Harbor — spelled an end to the Coast Artillery Corps by 1950.

Adm. Harry Harris, head of U.S. Pacific Command on Oahu, said in May 2016 that it was time for the Army to get “back in the coastal defense game, in a completely new way.”

The desire to limit the ability of potential adversaries such as China to maneuver at sea through choke points in Asia — and do it with systems that are mobile and harder to target — is now prompting the examination of Army land-based missiles for sea-based threats.

The Marine Corps is seeking a similar ship-killing capability.

“Countries like China, Iran and Russia are challenging our ability to project power ashore, from the sea, through ever-more sophisticated anti-ship missiles. More and more, adversary rocket forces are projecting power over the water in order to protect their control on land,” Harris said at the 2016 Association of the U.S. Army’s Institute of Land Warfare LANPAC symposium in Honolulu.

The United States is now playing catch-up. Harris said the Army could look to the truck-mounted High Mobility Artillery Rocket System, known as HIMARS, “to keep at risk the enemy’s navy, (and) not only the enemy’s land.”

The old-time batteries at Fort Kamehameha in Hawaii were built to defend against the maritime threat. “Fort Kamehameha hasn’t moved an inch since it was built, but what we need today is a Fort HIMARS — a highly mobile, networked, lethal weapon system with long reach,” Harris said.

Schuster said although the Pacific is the world’s largest ocean, its most important strategic maritime areas can be accessed only through island chains or maritime choke points — from which land-based missile forces can operate.

The Army is approaching this new capability via what it calls Multi-Domain Battle, which is described as a coordinated Army and Marine Corps ground combat effort against a peer enemy across land, air, maritime, space and cyberspace domains, exploiting windows of opportunity on a rapidly moving battlefield.

Having the Army target ships at sea would give the Navy and Marine Corps more room to operate.

U.S. Army Pacific, headquartered at Fort Shafter, said it will engage a naval target with a shore-based Naval Strike Missile during RIMPAC, typically held through July. The missile will be launched from the Pacific Missile Range Facility on Kauai from a standard Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck, known as a HEMMT, the service said.

“It is palletized on the bed of the HEMMT like any other palletized system,” the Army said in an email.

The Navy’s 3rd Fleet in San Diego, which plans RIMPAC, said the frigate McClusky and tank landing ship Racine will be sunk during the maritime exercise.

Two years ago Harris, the Pacific commander, “challenged Army leaders in the Pacific to operate outside traditional Army domains,” said Col. Christopher Garver, a U.S. Army Pacific spokesman. “In response to this challenge, U.S. Army Pacific has been working diligently with other Army commands and our joint partners to develop the technical expertise and systems to engage a naval target with a long-range precision strike missile.”

All 26 nations that participated in RIMPAC 2016, including China, have been invited to return for RIMPAC 2018, the Navy said.

The Naval Strike Missile, provided by Raytheon and Norway’s Kongsberg, is a long-range, precision weapon that uses an advanced seeker and can find and destroy enemy ships at distances up to 115 miles.

In 2014 during RIMPAC, a Naval Strike Missile was fired by a Norwegian frigate at the retired 569-foot amphibious transport dock ship USS Ogden 63 miles northwest of Kauai.

The Army’s Tactical Missile System is among weapons also being explored as anti-ship missiles. With modifications, the 13-foot truck-launched rocket can fly 190 miles and dive into a target at Mach 3.

Harris acknowledged in May that technical and cultural challenges exist in developing Army-Navy anti-ship missile capabilities. But he imagined a future in which the best ordnance for a target located by a Navy sensor could come from an Army shooter. Or vice versa.

Either way, “target sharing between a distributed network of sensors and shooters is the future I believe that we must drive toward,” he said.

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© 2018 The Honolulu Star-Advertiser

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