Fictional Scenario

Wednesday, I mentioned a bit of fiction that Iran may have sidelined. It got some good comments, so I thought I would share some of the background that led to the story on which I was working.

Short version is that most of our detection capability is focused offshore, and not from the shoreline inwards. Large shipping containers can make quite nice missile launchers that could be heavily shielded to prevent detection. China owns/controls several hundred large container ships, ships that could potentially have fifty or so such launchers in the top layer. Even if you dropped that to twenty or so, still plenty but 50 strikes me as a realistic number for this exercise.

If you go with hypersonic cruise missiles, horizontal or elevated launch is doable. There is also a way to do vertical launch, but for purposes of the scenario I elected to keep with the horizontal/elevated launch as you could avoid putting the missiles up high enough for rapid detection.

Now, if you have ships sailing into/towards Baltimore, Philadelphia, Savannah, San Diego, Long Beach, San Francisco Bay, Seattle, Houston, Hawai’i, and Anchorage, you’ve got excellent coverage. It might even be possible to get one into the Great Lakes, which would be icing on top. In pretty much every case, you are effectively launching from inside the country.

In the case of Baltimore, you would be talking five minutes or less to the targets in or near DC. That includes the White House and Pentagon, Langley, Andrews, etc. From there, bit longer gets you the bases stretching east, including Newport News, Quantico, and a few others. Now, expand that out and you are also taking out Beale and surrounding bases near SF, all of the bases around San Diego, Pearl Harbor, and all the facilities in Alaska. The ship at Savanah could not only take out Kings Bay, but Robbins, Mayport, Jacksonville, Canaveral, McDill, and others (like Barksdale). Even with hypersonics, you are talking longer to hit St. Louis, Omaha, the missile fields, etc.; but, still far short of ICBM time. The San Diego and Houston ships could also send some love towards the Mountain and Peterson, Ft. Hood, Dyess, Little Rock, etc. Great Lakes ship could not only send love towards the missile fields, but hit Wright-Pat, Grissom, Crane, and other inland targets. That’s not all the targets, but it gives you an idea.

In some respects, it is very similar to the targeting the AF chose in that little Rand video they did that had sub-launched missiles taking out our ability to hit the Soviets. The one who’s footage got used in The Day After. Largest difference is that you could have enough launchers to go for the secondary targets (state capitals, industry, etc.) even as you take out C&C and primary response.

May still try to finish it, but that’s the gist. Since there was interest, thought I would share.

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8 thoughts on “Fictional Scenario”

  1. I’m not sure why you would need hypersonic missiles for any of those targets. The point of a hypersonic missile is to be fast enough to make it difficult to shoot down. But they are not particularly maneuverable. Russia has made noises about a maneuverable hypersonic missile; I’m not sure how much of an improvement they’ve made.
    Cruise missiles are maneuverable, making them much more accurate and so more likely to actually remove the target instead of just scaring it a little (always assuming you’re shooting at the correct thing).
    If your targets are at known locations, you could launch ordinary cruise missiles. It’s not like there’s a lot of anti-missile batteries set up and ready to shoot after all.

    1. Hike around the mountains surrounding LA you find the eroded remnants of Nike batteries, complete with defensible perimeters, built for the Soviet bombers which somehow never managed to mangle their way across the Pacific. Who the hell ever imagined a tramp steamer (ok ok prosaic license) and a juiced cargo container or two could replace a squadron or two of heavy bombers (ok ok trans-oceanic logistics)? Very little profit in rusted freighters; so much advantage.

    2. Russia only operational hypersonic missile is a SRBM converted to air launch, so it’s hypersonic the same way the V-2 was. Accuracy is better than the V-2 but Patriot seems to be having no issues intercepting those that come into it’s protected volume in Ukraine.

      The distances for the coastal targets mean flight times for a subsonic cruise missile would be on the order of 10 minutes. unless there’s a fighter CAP up along that bit of coastal waters looking already in the right direction there’s no way anything could get a shot, or even detect them, in that short amount of time.

      Subsonic cruise missile detection and defense is something that’s been a challenge even for the Navy out in blue waters, where the horizon is not all cluttered up with hills and such. For the continental US, something like a whole bunch of aerostats and very high flying very long duration unmanned radar and IRST drones, so they could all just stare at teh same area and rapidly notice any zippy contacts, plus modular vertical launch SAM sites all over the place so someone could do anything about those zippy contacts, would be the basic minimum.

      For hypersonics, they have to accelerate, which means rocket boosters. The sats designed to look for ICBM launches that were repacked to look for SCUD shots during the first gulf war regularly picked up fighters in afterburner, so that hypersonic boost burn would show up on satellite infrared trackers, but likely not with enough precision to do a SAM launch against. Hypersonic maneuvering cruise missiles probably would need hypersonic maneuvering SAMs, which is a lot harder technical problem than hypersonically hitting a specific point on the ground.

      As Deep Though said, “Hm. Tricky.”

  2. The “…surrounding bases near SF” requires an expansive definition of “near” as everything military actually in the SF Bay Area is long closed. Travis AFB is the closest at about 50 miles from the closest coastline, Beale AFB is more like 70, and down the Central Valley Lemoore NAS is also around 60-70 miles is from the closest coast. Down further Vandenburg SFB is right on the water, but that’s closer to LA than SF. The closest Fighters are Navy at Lemoore or CAANG in Fresno, fairly short time to get scrambled F-15s at buster overhead, but probably not close enough to get into a solution for even a subsonic cruise missile.

    In the actual SF Bay Area there’s no more Alameda NAS, most recently useful only as one of the Mythbusters favorite filming sites, no more Blue Cube, what used to be Moffett NAS is now Moffett Federal Airfield but run by Google (not metaphorically: NASA Ames and the little CAANG unit are now just tenants, and Google now has the field management contract), no Mare Island, no USN at all in the SF Bay itself, and so on. The BRAC stuff cleaned everything out.

    As far as detecting anything much over Mach 1: I am not sure the big phased array at Beale runs much anymore, plus as noted it could not see cruise missiles due to horizon issues, and the various ATC radars would gate out something moving that fast if they picked it up at all.

    If for some reason they happened to have an AWACS up as they do sometimes for VIP visits or when the Superbowl was here, that might pick cruise missiles up, and perhaps even get hits on hypersonically fast movers, but that big AWACS radome spins fairly slowly, which does not let the radar beam revisit rapidly enough to get enough hits for a good track on something moving that fast. That’s one of the reasons the USAF is finally contracting an AWACS replacement with the Wedgetail design: It’s fixed phased array antenna does not have that mechanical beam revisit limitation.

    Some places, notably DC, have much more active and layered defenses. But it’s not even like military bases in the US have any permanent SAM batteries.

    Overall the US does not really have any sort of aerial defenses against anything not up at airliner altitudes moving at airliner speeds, or at ICBM trajectories and speed for a very limited number of intercept shots and a limited range of incoming directions. Stay out of those speed and altitude brackets and the first anyone would know about an attack would be when the targets blew up.

  3. Bruce mentioned Nike bases around L.A. – they are all over the mid-Atlantic also. way back when a friend and I mapped out where they were and hiked from Baltimore out to one on the county, just for grins. At the time it was being used as a firefighter training location – they were practicing putting out structure fires in one of the silos, I guess so they could do it in the dark but during daytime. Most everyone had no clue that the site was there, and at the time (the Soviet Union had just collapsed) I wondered how many weapons were still aimed at the place.

    Just a supposition here, but would it make sense for an attacker to flood the airspace with decoys at the same time? just absolutely overwhelm whatever warning systems might be watching. They wouldn’t even need to be hypersonic, and I wonder if that would create the best level of confusion.

  4. I do wonder how practical this actually is though. Unpacking and launching one missile from a container on land, would be very different from launching 20 or 50 at the same time from the top layer of a container ship at sea.
    I guess you could disguise the entire launch system inside a container? You still either need some (suicidal) crew in the container to launch them, or some sort of remote control. Again, launching a bunch simultaneously sounds rather difficult.

    1. Allow me to speak from ignorance of such engineering as may have been done by others. In Bruce World, without deep-weeding issues like concealment during manufacture and lading, the solution is a two-container stack: missile and hydraulic elevator module in the top container, pumps, batteries, controllers, etc. in the (possibly shared) service module below. Easy to mass produce and test at the factory; all skid-mounted for quick insertion, child’s-play for a trained crew to connect and initialize en route if the seas oblige.

      If a tourist like me can think it up …

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