It’s a futile decision to import 13 of the 5-inch naval gun with limited combat utility
Dr N. C. Asthana
India is reportedly going to import up to 13 5-inch (127mm) L62 Mark 36 naval gun on the Mark 45 mount (Mod 4) worth USD1.0210 billion (approximately Rs 7,265 crore) from the US. In a press statement, the US Defence Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA) had said that the US government had approved the sale of 13 guns with 3,500 D349 shells and MK-92 Mod 1 Fire control Systems. The principal contractor will be BAE Systems Land and Armaments, Minneapolis, Minnesota, manufacturing the gun in Louisville, Kentucky. Reportedly, there are no known offset agreements proposed in connection with this potential sale.
Extremely Limited Combat Utility of a Small Gun
The US media had reported that the MK-45 Gun System would provide the capability to conduct anti-surface warfare and anti-air defence missions while enhancing interoperability with the US and other allied forces. Any scientific, military, or historical evidence, however, does not support this belief.
The fundamental problem of the 5-inch gun is the extremely limited combat utility of a small gun like this in modern naval warfare. With the advent of ship-to-ship missiles of quite long ranges and greatly heavier explosive payloads, naval guns of almost all descriptions have lost whatever little value they had in naval combat. Moreover, in modern naval warfare, hardly any naval combat of any consequence takes place at ranges of 24 km, which this gun offers. We will elaborate on this in the following:
Even Great Battleships of Yore Fielding 16-Inch Guns were Actually Able to do Little
Famous battleships of the World War II era mounted formidable naval guns of 16-inch calibres firing massive shells of over a tonne (2,700 lbs) each to ranges of approximately 30 km. The guns had to be mounted on massive battleships (such as the Iowa class) displacing about 45,000 tonnes. They had some utility in ship-to-ship combat of that era—such as in the sinking of the HMS Hood by KMS Prinz Eugen. Their other use was in bombarding a beach prior to an amphibious landing. More importantly, the battleships and their great guns made sense only when there was parity in the combat capabilities of the opposing forces; that is, when the enemy too was responding in kind with similar guns.
The battleships became helpless before navies that chose to adopt asymmetric techniques. The Pearl Harbour attack exposed this most brutally when 353 Japanese aircrafts dropping bombs and torpedoes and five midget submarines sank four battleships and damaged another four besides damaging three destroyers, cruisers and other ships each. An obsolescent Fairey Swordfish biplane torpedo bomber crippled the mighty battleship KMS Bismarck; the torpedo rendered its steering gear inoperable. Mini-submarines first damaged the KMS Tirpitz and then Lancaster bombers sank it.
By the time of the Vietnam War, 16-inch guns of the USS New Jersey were used to fire a few times to clear landing zones for helicopters in jungles. In the Operation Desert Storm, USS Missouri fired a Tomahawk missile and a couple of hundreds of 16-inch shells supposedly for supressing beach defences, but in reality, more for psychological effect.
India Itself has Never Used Naval Artillery to Good Effect
During the 1971 War, India had not fired from its then available 4.5-inch Mk-2 guns of comparable calibre in any significant naval engagement. When we attacked the Karachi port in Operation Trident, we used Vidyut-class missile boats firing Styx missiles. Four days later, in Operation Python also, Vidyut-class missile boats again fired Styx missiles.
The Styx missile had a warhead charge of 454 kg explosive and engaged targets at much greater range. A 5-inch gun firing a puny shell of 31 kg with a charge of less than 5 kg at a maximum range of just 24 km has no combat value in modern naval warfare. When we did not use the 5-inch gun half a century ago, there is no good reason to expect that it could be used effectively now or in future when much better missiles have been fielded by both sides.
The 5-Inch Gun Serves Neither Tactical nor Strategic Purpose
The sales pitch of the 5-inch gun speaks of its role against surface warships, anti-aircraft and shore bombardment to support amphibious operations. These, however, do not fit into our naval warfare strategy and possible combat scenarios.
In the era of guided missiles, we are not going to engage enemy warships in a slugfest at that 20 km or so—it could be suicidal! The Indian navy fields a variety of guided missiles including, Brahmos (200-300 kg warhead charge, 400-500 km range); 3M-54E/3M-14E Klub/ SS-N-27 Sizzler Anti-Ship/Land Attack Cruise Missile (400-500 kg warhead charge, 220-660 km range); Kh-35/SS-N-25 SwitchBlade (145 kg warhead charge, 130-300 km range); P-20/SS-N-2D Styx (454 kg warhead charge, 80 km range); Sea Eagle (230 kg warhead charge, 110 km range); Harpoon (221 kg warhead charge, 280 km range); and Exocet (165 kg warhead charge, 180 km range). Where do we find the need of a 5 kg charge thrown at 24 km? The 5-inch gun has not been proven against anti-ship missiles, the biggest threats to warships. Modern anti-ship missiles make deliberate erratic moves before impact, reducing the probability of being hit by unguided projectiles.
Coming to the anti-aircraft role, it needs no explanation that while guns had some chance with the slow-flying propeller-driven aircraft of World War, they are useless in attacking modern supersonic aircrafts, including those of the Pakistan Air Force! The 5-inch gun, with its severely limited kill probability cannot be compared with Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) or a Gatling gun for point defence against guided missiles. In simple words, the 5-inch naval gun is a relic of the past. It does not make any difference that it has an automatic loader with a capacity of 20 rounds and can be fired under full automatic control for the simple reason that the rate of fire is utterly insufficient for anti-aircraft role.
Our naval strategy does not contemplate an American style beach landing. The US Marines might ask for more naval gunfire support from the sea for forces ashore; we have neither any capability of amphibious landings nor is there any report that we are planning for it. In any case, the Marines seek support of big guns, which may effectively neutralise hardened beach defences, not the tiny 5-inch gun. However, the romance of the thunder of the big guns notwithstanding, the Marines also realise that the big-gun battleships are prohibitively costly and still highly vulnerable to infinitely cheaper weapon systems. The US Navy is, therefore, thinking in terms of the futuristic Zumwalt-class guided-missile destroyer, the twin 155 mm naval guns of which would fire a guided projectile (as against the ‘dumb’ shells of the 5-inch gun) at more than four times the range of even the 16-inch guns. Dumb shells are inherently inaccurate. Even when the guns of the Iowa-class battleships were paired with a radar system for improvement, their shots still fell about 140 m off the targets at 31 km, which is unacceptably higher than the 5-20 m accuracy of the M982 Excalibur 155 mm guided projectile. In future, if the technology of electromagnetic railguns is perfected, they could make a difference for ‘guns’.
At best, the 5-inch gun could be used only against much smaller vessels like pirate boats. There are doubts whether its shells can take out even Pakistan’s Larkana-class large patrol crafts (180 tonnes). Moreover, we do not envisage a scenario where our destroyers would go to Pakistan’s shores to engage their patrol crafts, as, by themselves, they would not venture deep into the sea leaving their basic job of coastal patrolling. The Americans themselves had hastened to add that the proposed sale would not alter the basic military balance in the region.
We must not forget that during Operation Odyssey Lighting in late 2016, when the US Navy Arleigh Burke-class destroyer Carney fired 285 rounds from its 5-inch gun at ISIS fighters in the city of Sirte, the ISIS was in no position to retaliate effectively. Attack helicopters and Harriers had also supported the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit, besides the guns. If we try to replicate it with a nation like Pakistan, the retaliation could prove costly.
Questionable Decision to Import the Gun
The question is why we must import something, which is very much passé in modern naval warfare and which not going to make any difference to our combat capability. In any case, what difference can 13 guns on a few warships make? They cannot enable us to implement a new warfighting concept, advocated by USN Vice Admiral Thomas Rowden, called ‘distributed lethality’ either where the basic idea is that every warship in ‘hunter-killer surface action groups’ will be supposed to be able to take the fight to the enemy, even when there isn’t an aircraft carrier nearby. There is no reason to believe that the import of a weapon system that has lost its relevance in modern naval warfare long back will somehow magically improve India’s capability to meet current and future threats from enemy weapon systems. The enemy is not going to fight naval guns with naval guns. Ships carrying naval guns will be engaged by far more accurate missiles fired from a distance well beyond the range of the puny gun. Under these circumstances, the decision to purchase this gun is highly suspect on professional merit itself. It does not make sense to spend a billion dollars on something of so little utility.
(The writer, a retired IPS officer, has been DGP Kerala and ADG CRPF and BSF. He is author of 46 books and 76 research papers including seven books on military science, defence and strategy)