The Evolution of the Universal Vertical Launch System & its Impact

Vertical launch systems (VLS) are a type of missile launcher that can be used on ships and submarines. VLS systems are typically made up of a number of cells, each of which can hold one or more missiles. The missiles are stored in the cells in a vertical position, and they can be launched quickly and easily without having to be moved to a separate launch platform.

How did the world come to have 60-100 Universal Vertical Launch System (UVLS) cells on a single vessel? For our audience, here is what UVLS means. It means that a family of missiles or different missile designs modified to fit inside a standard canister. These missiles are kept at the ready & can be fired at a moment’s notice for defense or offense. Such a system offers flexibility as it can fire missiles with different roles in the same canister, thus the load out can be fine tuned for mission profiles.

Still, How did the world come to have 60-100 Universal Vertical Launch System (UVLS) cells on a single vessel? The answer lies in the 1970s & the 1980s, on the other side of the iron curtain. The erstwhile Soviet Union was vary of the surface dominance imposed by western fleets, especially their aircraft carriers. Instead of choosing a fair fight, the Soviets developed every other mean of sinking an aircraft carrier battle group (CVBG).


A Ticonderoga class cruiser showing her impressive fore and aft arrays.


They commissioned the following vessels which can be termed as carrier killers.

  1. Kirov class battle-cruisers with 20 P-700 missiles
  2. Slava class cruisers with 16 P-500/1000 missiles
  3. Oscar class submarines with 24 P-700 missiles

While fearsome, this is just the top of the iceberg. These vessels were supplemented by over 200 Soviet air force bombers like the Tu-16 & Tu-22M which could carry 2-3 Anti Ship Missiles (AShMs) each. Worse were over a 100 corvettes & frigates which had or could be armed with 4-6 AShMs each. The aim was to use a mixture of assets to execute a tactic called saturation attacks. It means, you ripple fire so many missiles that enemy’s Air Defense (AD) cannot neutralize them. And, these weren’t necessarily high explosive warheads, they could be nukes to.


Here is a Tu-22M with its Kh-22s

The USN was using twin arm launchers which were severely limited in their rate of fire. They were good for engaging targets spread out in space & time but not good for saturation attacks. So, what do you do? VLS is the answer to all these troubles. Missiles can be ripple fired in large salvos in a very small span of time thus improving the response rate for a saturation attack.

9Meet the Mk 26 twin arm launcher

Depending on the realistic force concentrations of the Soviet fleet & the fact that every USN CVBG would have 3-4 escorts in peace time & 5-6 in wartime, they decided to go with 122 VLS cells for the Ticonderoga class Flight II (I prefer calling Mk26 launcher equipped Ticos as Flight I & the VLS ones as Flight II). We should not forget that the first 5 of the 27 Ticos had 2 Mk 26 dual arm launchers with 68 reloads. Realistically, every incoming target has 2 SAMs fired for engagement, thus a Flight II Tico could theoretically engage 60 incoming missiles alone. Vertical Launch System was actually a small component of the Aegis Combat System which tied in all sensors on the vessel through sensor fusion. This allowed using different weapons for targets located by different sensors.


Here we see USS Cowpens ripple firing her fore and aft VLS

A single Ticonderoga could thus deal with missiles fired by

  1. 30-35 Soviet bombers in an all out air attack (PS Soviet AShMs were longer ranged than western fighters in some cases)
  2. 2-3 Kirovs if they empty their angled launchers
  3. 2-3 Oscars if they empty their silos
  4. 15 corvettes etc.

Considering each CVBG had a mix of Ticos & several Spruance class destroyers. Each Spruance barely had anything to deal with supersonic Soviet AShMs aside from 8 Sea Sparrows. Thus the Tico could very well be the vessel deployed closest to the Soviet interest/territory to defend the CVBG from such an aggression. With adequate air cover, a single Tico could hold a figurative naval fort against almost everything a Soviet fleet could throw at it. Realistically, a Tico only carries 80 SAMs with Anti Submarine Rocket (ASROC) & Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) making up the rest. It amazes me that the USN now has 22 of these & 66 of the only slightly less armed but more capable Arleigh Burke class destroyers with 20+ under construction or funded.


There’s theoretically 410 missiles in this pic ready to be fired

While you think the Soviet threat was taken care of with Ticonderogas and Arleigh Burkes, its not all true. There is a teeny tiny issue with the Aegis which has only recently been sorted out. Standard Missile 2 or the SM-2 was the primary weapon for engaging aerial targets. Being a Semi-Active Radar Homing or SARH missile it needed a dedicated radar to illuminate the target for it. This job was done by the AN/SPG-62 fire control radar, only 4 of which are present on Tico & 3 on Burke class. So the true engagement capacity was never 60 targets but multiple of 3 or 4 depending on how many targets can AN/SPG-62 illuminate or how many missiles can it guide.


AN/SPG-62 is the bottleneck in Aegis’s effectiveness

Emergence of Active Radar Homing or ARH missiles like SM-6 & Enhanced Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) allow every missile to engage a different target irrespective of illumination. Thus only a SM-6 & ESSM equipped vessel can engage 60 targets at once theoretically when talking about USN. Also, the new AMDR on Flight III Burke class vessels would further improve the chances of surviving a saturation attack since they can guide many more missiles being an AESA compared to the PESA SPY-1.

Since the trend setting by USN major surface combatants we have had other navies follow suite. The most remarkable is the PLAN which has an Aegis equivalent in 2 sizes entering service. The smaller 7500 tonne Type 052D has 64 UVLS cells while the much larger 12,000 tonne Type 055 has 112 VLS cells. Both these types are claimed to have ARH SAMs & advanced AShMs to deal with & deliver saturation attacks. We are yet to see a true UVLS from either Russia or India for SAMs & AShMs in service on their surface combatants. Other major powers have relied on using Aegis and/or Mk 41 VLS on their own designs.


Changsha, First of its Type (055), King of the Asia Pacific!




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3 responses

  1. Adrian

    That’s a nicely written article.

    From this, I wondered why the other Western powers only have between 32-48 vls cells for their frigates/destroyers.


    1. Epsilon

      Answering your question, I feel it is because all western powers assume presence of a US force for protection.


    2. Thanos

      Because a carrier group needs a lot more protection from the biggest saturation attacks so most other western allies don’t need those capabilities in that amount as the US Navy. Also they tend to use their money more on things like health / social care and education instead of playing armed to the teeth world police / bully.


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