Missile Reloads at Sea: The Next Big Thing?

By Dan Middlemiss, 29 March 2023

In this age of rapidly evolving naval combat technology, it may seem odd that modern navies, including Canada’s, still cannot accomplish two seemingly simple tasks – reloading and exchanging missiles for vertical launch silos (VLS) at sea.1

Instead, today most naval surface combatants must return to a home or friendly port to reload or redeploy their VLS missiles. In the midst of naval combat, this limitation constitutes a major vulnerability, and effectively removes a warship from the order of battle at possibly a critical point, for days or even weeks at a time.

Moreover, this weakness places even greater stress on getting the pre-deployment missile load-out balance between defensive and offensive missiles right. There will be no opportunity to second-guess once the ship sails. This is especially true for the US and the UK navies which, as part of their AUKUS agreement to confront the emerging Chinese People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) more directly in the far western reaches of the Pacific Ocean, have to rely on ‘come-as-you-are’ missile loads. The concern is that the PLAN, operating much closer to home ports and with far greater VLS missile loads per ship, may have a decisive advantage in any future combat engagement.2

However, this situation may soon be about to change for the US Navy. Recently, Secretary of the Navy (SECNAV), Carlos Del Toro, once again emphasized the need for at-sea reloading at this year’s Combat Systems Symposium.3 Del Toro has championed this concept before, but experts in the field stress that the initiatives being explored in recent demonstration tests, have involved ‘forward re-arming’ via pre-positioned, auxiliary sealift vessels stationed either in a friendly port or in the calm waters of a harbour. There, Transferable Re-arming Mechanism (TRAM) devices can conduct the actual missile transfer to the alongside warships. Real-world results have been mixed to date, but the potential benefits could be enormous for keeping valuable fleet combatants on-station for a much longer period of time.4

Commentators in both the United Kingdom and Australia have recently criticized current frigate procurement programs for bringing seriously under-gunned warships into their respective fleets.5 This missile load disadvantage is exacerbated by the absence of any means to replenish missile stocks at sea. In Australia, Navantia recently proposed a $10bn package of 6 heavily armed corvettes plus 3 additional Air Warfare Destroyers to boost naval firepower against the PLAN.6 Unlike Navantia’s offer which was submitted in time for Australia’s Defence Strategic Review, BAE has also proposed a heavily armed air warfare destroyer with 100-150 VLS missile cells.7 The thrust of these proposals is to deploy and keep more VLS missiles at sea.

For Canada’s future Canadian Surface Combatant (CSC), which is already reduced to 24 VLS with missiles, this inability to re-arm at sea is an even greater operational vulnerability. Deploying a very expensive warship to medium-to-high intensity threat environments abroad becomes even more problematic, and it is highly likely that naval planners will opt for a mostly defensive VLS missile load-out. Expert opinion today suggests that even much more heavily armed warships than the CSC would not last more than one or two engagements before they would be either sunk, damaged, or forced to withdraw to port or to a safe harbour for more missiles.8

Given all the high-tech wizardry at sea these days, it does seem strange that allied navies have not pursued more aggressively technological and operational solutions to the vexing problem of re-loading missiles at sea.


1. The US Navy experimented with reloading missile silos at sea on some of its cruisers and destroyers, but abandoned such efforts in the 1990s as being too slow, clumsy and even dangerous. Despite this, vertical launch systems are among the most adaptable weapon mounts that the navy fields, allowing a ship to carry a variety of defensive and offensive missiles in the same shipboard infrastructure, and to fire them in rapid succession.

2. Western navies, in addition, are likely to be operating within range of Chinese land and air launched missiles. For an interesting analysis of potential Chinese missile capabilities against opposing navies, see, Dr. Sam Goldsmith, Vampire Vampire Vampire: The PLA’s anti-ship cruise missile threat to Australian and allied naval operations, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, April 2022; and Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark, Winning the Salvo Competition: Rebalancing America’s Air and Missile Defenses, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2016.

3.  Megan Eckstein, “US Navy prioritizes ‘game-changing’ rearming capability for ships,” defensenews.com, 28 March 2023.

4. For detailed analyses of the issues, possible solutions, and potential benefits, see: Timothy A. Walton et al, Sustaining the Fight: Resilient Maritime Logistics for a New Era, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 23 April 2019; Bryan Clark and Timothy A. Walton, Taking Back the Seas: Transforming the U.S. Surface Fleet For Decision-Centric Warfare, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2019; and Bryan Clark et al., Restoring American Seapower: A New Fleet Architecture for the United States Navy, Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2017.

5. See, “Under-gunned Royal Navy warships,” Navy Lookout, 22 May 2021. Accessed at: https://www.navylookout.com/under-gunned-royal-navy-warships/. For a withering attack on Australia’s new Hunter-class frigates, see, Dr. David Shackleton, The Hunter frigate: an assessment, Australian Strategic Policy Institute, April 2022. Also, Malcolm Davis, “Australia’s navy is undergunned for denying long-range attackers,” Australian Strategic Policy Institute, 11 October 2019.

6. Cameron Stewart, “$10 bid to build killer fleet,” The Australian, 15 February 2023.

7. “BAE systems proposes Hunter class variant with up to 150 missile VLS cells,” The Australian, 10 February 2023.

8. The CSC will carry separate canisters of Sea Ceptor point defence missiles, but these are relatively shorter range compared to the SM-6 missiles in the VLS cells. Consequently, apart from providing some defence for the CSC itself, these close-in weapons would not provide much protection for a US Carrier Battle Group, for example, where the CSC would be part of of a screening, picket force, and could be 50-100 kms from the aircraft carrier it would be screening. Moreover, the RCN will be incapable of fielding a Task Group of 3-4 CSCs plus a replenishment ship until the 2040s at best. By then, the VLS missile loads of major naval opponents will vastly overmatch the limited VLS cell-counts of any Canadian Task Group. On the issue of the rapid exhaustion of missile stocks, see, Megan Eckstein, “US Navy prioritizes ‘game-changing’ rearming capability for ships”, defensenews.com, (28 March 2023).


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