Here’s what you need to remember: The Norwegian company Kongsberg designed the naval strike missile in part because of its long coastline with Russia. It has since grown into one of the most powerful and advanced systems on the market.
The modern era of the missile at sea arguably began in October 1967, when the Israeli destroyer Eilat, sailing fourteen miles off the coast of Port Said, was ambushed by a pair of Osa-class missile boats. The missile boats launched four missiles, three of which hit the former Royal Navy destroyer, sinking it and killing forty-seven sailors.
The sinking of the Eilat was an earthquake in the world of naval warfare and sparked an arms race in anti-ship missiles. Within ten years, all major navies had their own ship-killer missiles, a rivalry that continued until the end of the Cold War. Now, with the resurgence of the Chinese and Russian navies, many countries (including the United States) are looking to replace their aging anti-ship missile arsenals with a new, modern design.
One of the more recent tactical missile designs is built by the Norwegian company Kongsberg. Neighboring Russia with a very long coastline, Norway needed a modern missile capable of defending this coastline. The result is the Naval Strike Missile (NSM), a white sheet design that Kongsberg describes as “the only fifth-generation long-range precision strike missile in existence.”
The NSM is launched from a helicopter or a ship’s platform by a solid fuel thruster that rapidly accelerates the missile to cruising speed. A few seconds later, the turbojet starts up and the missile continues on its target. NSM has a range of just over one hundred miles.
Unlike supersonic missiles such as the Russian P-800 Oniks, which is capable of Mach 2.5, the NSM stays well below supersonic speeds. Kongsberg, according to an industry representative interviewed at DSEI 2013 in London, England, believes in “smart missiles, not fast missiles.” This philosophy created a missile that was totally different from existing designs. Rather than trying to overcome enemy defenses with a fast missile, Kongsberg instead made his missile harder to detect and therefore harder to shoot down.
The NSM is designed to be inconspicuous, not entirely stealthy, but Kongsberg made design decisions to reduce the missile’s radar signature. Other anti-ship missiles such as the American Harpoon and the French Exocet are not stealthy at all. The NSM combines this with a skimming capability, flying low over waves to stay clear of enemy radar until the last possible moment.
Most anti-ship missiles in the global arms market use an active radar seeker to get closer to their targets. Although effective, this broadcast of a radar signal offers defenders another means of detecting an approaching missile with their supporting electronic measurement equipment. NSM uses passive imaging infrared sensors that do not emit an identifiable signal.
Passive countermeasures are not the only tools in NSM’s toolkit. The missile is capable of high-speed terminal maneuvers, making its trajectory difficult to predict. This is particularly useful against close range gun-type weapon systems, such as the Phalanx CIWS or the Chinese Type 730, which fire at intended missile paths.
Moments from impact, the missile’s autonomous target reconnaissance searches for an enemy task group for the exact ship to target. Additionally, Naval Strike Missile has a target hit point selection, which means it can be programmed to hit a certain part of a certain enemy ship, like the bridge. On impact, it delivers a highly explosive 276 pound warhead. The warhead has a programmable fuse, allowing it to explode on contact with an enemy ship or deep inside an enemy ship. The missile is described as having a titanium warhead, which is capable of helping penetrate enemy hulls.
The NSM is currently in service with the Norwegian Navy, arming the Aegis Fridtjolf Nansen class frigates and the Skjold fast attack boats. It is also operational with the Polish Coastal Missile Division, which uses a truck-mounted version. The US military, looking for a replacement for Harpoon, is very interested in this versatile missile, which could continue to arm Seahawk helicopters, cruisers, destroyers and the littoral combat ship (LCS). The missile was test fired from the USS Coronado in 2014, hitting a mobile test vessel target off the coast of California. Kongsberg apparently thinks NSM has a bright future in the United States as it has already confirmed plans to manufacture them in Kentucky in cooperation with Raytheon.
Kongsberg developed a variant of the NSM known as the Joint Strike Missile (JSM). The JSM is intended for long range strikes against land targets and ships. The missile was designed to fit the internal weapons bay of the F-35 Joint Attack Missile. To do this, the air intake of the turbojet was moved from the bottom of the missile to both sides of the aircraft, and the missile’s ailerons were modified.
A consequence of integrating the JSM inside the F-35 is that it is now compatible with the Mk.41 vertical launch system. The Mk. 41 VLS is the standard missile silo for US, NATO and other allied warships. Previous missiles, such as the Harpoon, were bolted to the superstructure or deck of a ship where space permitted. This not only limited the number of missiles that could be transported, but was also detrimental to the radar cross section of a ship. Most ships with Mk.41 modules have dozens of them, meaning that even a destroyer-type ship such as the Arleigh Burke-class could theoretically carry up to ninety.
The naval strike missile may not be widely deployed right now, but it looks like it has a bright future ahead of it. Adoption by US forces seems certain, if only to complement Lockheed’s larger, heavier, and longer-range anti-ship missile. Once that happens, other Marines will line up and Kentucky’s missile factories will likely buzz late into the night.
Kyle Mizokami is a San Francisco-based defense and national security writer who appeared in the Diplomat, Foreign policy, War is boring and the Beast of the day. In 2009, he co-founded the defense and security blog Japan Security Watch. You can follow him on Twitter: @KyleMizokami.
This one first appeared in December 2016, but is in the process of being reprinted due to reader interest.