This Bolt-On Launcher Can Give Nearly Any Ship The Same Weaponry As A U.S. Navy Destroyer

The launcher could allow everything from amphibious assault ships to logistics ships to carry the Navy’s most potent surface-launched missiles.

byTyler Rogoway|
RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) photo


The folks over at BAE Systems have come up with a fairly novel way to give any ship with some deck space Mark 41 vertical launch system (VLS)-like capability without having to make huge alterations to the guts of the ship, which in many cases wouldn't even be possible. Dubbed aptly the Adaptive Deck Launcher (ADL), the system provides four cells positioned at an angle that can accommodate the same all-up missile canisters used by standard Mark 41 vertical launch systems like those found on the U.S. Navy's cruisers and destroyers, as well as many allied surface combatants. 

The system comes in tactical length, used for quad-packed RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles, anti-submarine rockets, and shorter-ranged anti-ship and land-attack missiles, as well as strike-length that can accommodate anything a full-spec Mark 41 VLS can, including Tomahawk cruise missiles and the latest SM-2, SM-3, and SM-6 surface-to-air and ballistic missile defense missiles. 

Clearly, there are tradeoffs with a launch system like this. First off, it takes up substantial deck space for just four cells (each one can hold four ESSMs). They are also angled, and if fixed in place, the missile may have to burn some of its fuel and energy to get pointed in the right direction after launch. But even with these limitations, the ADL offers a tremendous amount of flexibility and potential to whatever surface platform it is bolted on to. 

The Mk 41 is an amazing launch system, and it comes in different sizes and configurations, but it requires a deep void in the ship to accommodate it. , Lockheed Martin

For instance, this system could be added to 'Gator Navy' amphibious transport docks and dock landing ships, as well as the Navy's new Expeditionary Mobile Bases, and even some of our allies' most prominent vessels, giving them the ability to carry various missiles of their own, including standoff land-attack and anti-ship missiles and ESSMs for organic self-protection. This would allow them to conduct more independent operations and field small amounts of advanced weapons that are tailored to the mission at hand. 

The Navy could even deploy these more prolifically to help satisfy its evolving vision for 'distributed lethality' that includes migrating missile systems to platforms that are not traditionally 'shooters' in order to present a far larger threat envelope to the enemy and much greater tactical flexibility. This is especially true when it comes to going after time-sensitive targets that may be out of range of traditional surface combatants or combat aircraft. 

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Under this concept of operations, the sensor and the shooter are increasingly decoupled. In other words, the sensor—or sensors—that detect and target an enemy aircraft, missile, ship, ground vehicle, or structure are attached to platforms that may not actually launch an attack on said target. Instead, the targeting coordinates and telemetry are data-linked from the sensor platform to a platform that has a weapon that can prosecute an attack. What this means is that an F-35 can ask for an SM-6 surface-to-air missile from a ship far away to prosecute a target in their vicinity deep over the battlefield. Or an Aegis-equipped destroyer detects an enemy ship closer to a logistics ship outfitted with an ADL that is carrying Naval Strike Missiles and the destroyer instructs the ship to fire one of its missile at the target. 

Under such a concept, the vessel carrying missiles doesn't even have to be equipped with the sensors needed to employ them itself at all. If the missile includes a data-link and the ship is also plugged into the network, other sensors on platforms hundreds of miles away can provide the necessary targeting information and telemetry to the missile. This opens up new possibilities for far greater coverage for everything from land attack to missile defense without having to simply build more multi-billion dollar vessels to increase capacity and coverage area. This concept is especially relevant as modern sensors increasingly outrange the reach of some of the missiles the platform they are attached to carries.

For some ships, being able to organically target the missiles in the Adaptive Deck Launcher themselves is also very possible. Take the Littoral Combat Ships for instance, which do pack some capable sensors, including unmanned drones and manned MH-60R helicopters, but currently lack firepower to make the most out of them. ADL could be the highly versatile host for the 'teeth' that these ships so clearly lack. In addition, the Tomahawk land attack missile system was designed to work from a modular programming interface that could be installed on any ship. The RIM-162 ESSM in its new Block II format doesn't need dedicated radar illuminators to engage its target like its predecessor did. Instead, it is networked and can get telemetry from a ships' air-search radar that is fed to them via data link. In other words, for some ships, the ADL could give them ESSM capability with relatively minor modifications and software upgrades. 

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For the Littoral Combat Ships, in particular, one can imagine how the weapons mix could be varied depending on the mission. For anti-submarine focused work, three ASROC anti-submarine rockets could be carried as well as a quartet of ESSMs for self-defense. For operations in high-threat areas, all four cells could contain ESSMs, with a total loadout of 16 missiles. For mixed operations, eight ESSMs could be carried along with a pair of Naval Strike Missiles or Tactical Tomahawk Missiles. For distributed warfare ops, maybe throwing a single SM-6 into one of the cells for contingencies could be a wise choice, as well.

What's most important is that this is a relatively low-cost option that can take advantage of all the Mark 41 support infrastructure that is so prevalent in the U.S. Navy, as well as the specially-packed weapons that go along with it. With that in mind, it offers a tremendous amount of additional flexibility over bolt-on box launchers that accommodate just one type of weapon and offer no future growth opportunities. Those proprietary box launchers, like the ones used for Harpoon or Naval Strike Missile, also don't have the ability to integrate ESSM. So, an additional VLS would be needed if any air defense capability was wanted, such as a farm of Mk 56/48 cells that are dedicated to ESSM alone. These also take up additional deck space and aren't stealthy by design, something the ADL can be if requested. 

Mk 48 VLS onboard the Japanese destroyer Ikazuchi., Yaso Osugi/Wikicommons

There are other advantages worth mentioning, as well. Reloading a traditional Mk 41 cell at sea is a major challenge, one that has drawn worry as to how ships will stay replenished of weaponry during a large scale conflict. The ADL loads these canisters sideways, which makes them far easier to handle and requires equipment that may already be available on many ships. Also, it turns out that the latest ESSM Block II's increased weight has gone beyond what the Mk29 box launchers found on carriers and amphibious assault ships, that were originally designed for the old RIM-7 Sea Sparrow, can handle. So, a new launcher is needed if the Navy wants to bring ESSM Block II capability to these highly prized assets. The ADL was built to satisfy this requirement and bring quad-packed ESSM cells to these ships, as well. Currently, the Mk29s can only hold eight ESSMs. The ADL can hold 16. 

The system was also designed with the Navy's future "FFG(X)" frigate in mind. Using this system would free-up space below deck and could be integrated directly into the frigate's superstructure. It could also offer strike-length cells when tactical-length cells were all that could be accommodated with a traditional Mark 41 system. This wouldn't only allow it to hold larger missiles, but it would also add more future growth potential when it comes to hosting new weapons. 

Different ADL configurations, including the low-observable one on the left. , BAE Systems

It would be nice if they could offer an option with the strike length cells on top and four more tactical-length cells on the bottom. Maybe each row could share the same flame funnel and thermal handling system too. This would allow for far more weapons carriage capability without taking up any more deck space. But regardless if this is possible or not, the ADL may, at least at first glance, be puzzling to some, but when you drill down you realize just how promising and force-multiplying this concept could actually be. 

Often times people forget that the clean and near-flush hatches of a traditional Mark 41 VLS hide the massive rectangular cube of launch tubes and the infrastructure that supports them that descends dozens of feet into the bowls of a ship. While they may not take up much space horizontally, they sure do vertically. For ships where such a deep installation cannot be accommodated, or where the cost and level of work needed to make the ship capable of accommodating it is prohibitive, the ADL is a logical choice. The fact that it can be bolted on to just about any ship with enough open deck space to accommodate it, is even more exciting.

Now we'll have to wait and see if the U.S. Navy and any of its allies think so, as well.

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