In recent months, much ado has been made about America’s diplomatic opponents developing anti-ship capabilities that we currently have no defense against. Chinese and Russian anti-ship missiles, capable of achieving hypersonic speeds, represent a kind of threat the United States hasn’t faced in decades: a technology that America is not only behind on, but apparently, years behind on. Now, as the United States funnels money into trying to close the capability gap posed by these anti-ship technologies, the U.S. Navy will soon be adding a different kind of “indefensible” anti-ship weapon to their own arsenal — and it comes from Norway.
While China’s DF-21D and Russia’s Kinzhal hypersonic missile platforms rely on incredible speeds and advanced targeting systems to circumvent existing ship defenses, Norway’s NSM, or Naval Strike Missile, takes a decidedly different approach to ensuring a ship’s destruction. Compared to China’s anti-ship missile, which may be able to take to the skies strapped the belly of heavy payload bombers, the NSM is only about 12 feet long (and may end up smaller to fit inside the F-35’s internal weapons bay). Also unlike Chinese and Russian anti-ship threats, the NSM not only fails to achieve hypersonic velocities (greater than Mach 5) it can’t even reach supersonic ones (greater than Mach 1). Smaller, less powerful, and significantly slower than the anti-ship boogeymen fielded by competitors, the NSM doesn’t even use the same sort of radar system employed by other anti-ship missiles as it closes with an enemy vessel.
What the NSM lacks in speed and kinetic energy it makes up for in smarts, however. The platform’s low top speed allows it to be extremely maneuverable, which coupled with its small size make it difficult to detect and even more difficult to intercept. Instead of relying on radar to close with its target, which will often set off alarms on most advanced vessels and alerts missile defense systems, the NSM relies on a passive infrared sensor to close to within just two feet of its intended target location. However, as handy as all that is, even that isn’t really what makes the NSM platform such a formidable anti-ship weapon. What really does it is its ability to leverage all those capabilities using its advanced mission planning system.
The mission planning system utilized by the NSM allows the weapon to coordinate a strike using multiple missiles that all hit the target at the exact same time despite being staggered at their launch. Multiple incoming missiles, each actively maneuvering to avoid intercept and using infrared to avoid detection, would pose an almost insurmountable challenge to even the most advanced and capable missile defense systems on the planet. Further, the NSM can identify the type of ship it’s approaching and choose the best possible target to inflict the most damage with each missile.
This system can also be used to selectively disable systems on larger vessels, as it uses autonomous target recognition (ATR) to choose its point of impact, then even sets the delay of the munitions exploding based on the level of penetration required to reach a vulnerable system. A titanium casing around the warhead gives it an increased ability to burrow its way through a ship’s hull, supplementing the timed fuse. Once the weapon detonates, a steel grid within the warhead casing creates additional fragmentation, allowing for more damage that the explosion alone could provide.
The NSM already has iterations mounted aboard Norwegian Corvettes, and on the Heavy Expanded Mobility Tactical Truck (HEMTT) in demonstrations provided for the American Defense Department, but most important of all, the platform is being adapted into a Joint Strike Missile that can be carried in the F-35s internal weapons bays. That means carrying the weapon won’t compromise the aircraft’s stealth profile, and it could be fired from carrier based F-35Cs in the future, offering America’s fleet of carriers a potent anti-ship offense.
The NSM has been operational in the Norwegian Royal Navy since 2012, but has not yet entered service as an F-35 capable platform.
Image courtesy of the U.S. Air Force