US Navy PHALANX CIWS vs. Small Boat

“The Phalanx CIWS is a close-in weapon system for defense against anti-ship missiles,” informs. Let’s hope it does a better job with missiles than it does with small boats. Just sayin’ . . .


    1. avatar gene smith says:

      When I was stationed on Carl Vinson in ’88-or ’89 we had an anti -air shoot. We shot CWIS against towed targets. The damned thing busted up the target and kept locked on to the shackle at the end of the cable and blew that off too, when it was released to re-fire. Last I heard the Navy was supposed to be mounting cameras on them to use against Bog-hammers and other small targets. This looks as if the RADAR is acquiring and targeting the boat’s wake.

      1. avatar The Original JohnO says:

        I wondered if the choppy sea wasn’t producing a very cluttered radar return. A missile above the water surface would be a cleaner target.

        1. avatar Joseph Quixote says:

          This beast would be more effective.

  1. avatar ActionPhysicalMan says:

    It’s to frighten birds away to keep poop off the deck. They should be more careful or that tourist boat might complain.

    1. avatar Paul53 says:

      Well that’s just plain stupid! Why do they call it a poop deck then?

  2. avatar Cliff H says:

    More likely an incoming missile will be on a direct trajectory to the boat, not weaving around on the water. Even so, that was pretty pathetic shooting – I suspect it was computer controlled and the computer could not react quickly enough to compute the course corrections. Seems like the better choice against incoming small craft is a team of SEALs with M-14s.

    1. avatar Anner says:

      True dat. Any cruise missile, whether against ground targets or ships, has a fairly long and constant-speed final leg before striking its target. The INU (inertial navigation unit) works best with an alignment maneuver (a slight turn) several miles out from the target. Once the missile is satisfied it’s navigation solution is good enough, it uses the last few miles to acquire whatever terminal guidance it has (infrared, TV, radio waves) through the seeker head.

      Nerd rant off. It means: yes, the CIWS wrecks shop against cruise missiles. Small boats are handled by a manual 30mm cannon.

      1. avatar roger says:

        That’s true for missiles like tomahawk and harpoon and exocet. More modern missiles, like the Russian sizzler and its Chinese variants, speedup going supersonic in the terminal stages.

        1. avatar Geoff PR says:

          “More modern missiles, like the Russian sizzler and its Chinese variants, speedup going supersonic in the terminal stages.”

          That’s a smart way to do it.

          Gives the defender a lot shorter time to respond.

        2. avatar I1ULUZ says:

          Some use a pop up maneuver at during terminal phase, other will corkscrew in, some do a figure S maneuver, very low sea skimming, etc. Never fire just one missile, a salvo of at least 2, time them so time on target is simultaneous from 2 different bearings so Christ It Won’t Shoot CIWS, CheeseWiZZ, etc… can’t take out both, only time to engage one, not allowing time to skew to the other target, track, lock on and fire before it hits.

          Some have titanium coverings over the warhead to decrease pK of CIWS. Seekers can be active radar, IR combo. Due to the fact that ships don’t like to sit around being sitting ducks you can send them out to the general location of the CVNBG and then once they detect a radar to go into homing mode.

          Hope that the radar operator is awake and notice a blimp tracking inbound, ES operator is able to detect the active radar and correctly ID it, countermeasure systems are loaded and hot, TAO and OOD are smart enough to listen to the ES operator to put the ship on the best bearing for chaff and IR decoys to work, bring CIWS to bear. The CO is not a total wuss like USS Stark’s was and would not allow CIWS to be test fired while in the Gulf, sector hold back key be removed and sector hold back key removed.

          All awhile the missile is closing at 10 miles a minute toward the target.

          It firing at the small boat in via a joystick and a human operator not air mode. It’s rather good in air mode, can shoot down the target sleeve so it hits the side of the ship, take out the A6 pulling the sleeve for a Japanese DDG after it tracks up the tow cable for the sleeve.

          Least that is what I’ve read online and seen in movies 😀

        3. avatar BDub says:

          The “wall of steel” anti-missile concept has gotten long in the tooth.

      2. avatar Random_Commenter says:

        Seems like a good sales video for the RHIB dealer to show clients. “See, it shakes off CIWS fire.” Of course, we never saw the boat to examine if any rounds clipped or penetrated it.

        I was amused that the loading/maintinence crew wearing 80’s era flack vests (IBA?), as if it could stop a a CWIS round.

        1. avatar PavePusher says:

          The vest would likely be to protect against inbound shrapnel, or rounds that detonate while handling.

    2. avatar Tom says:

      Yeah cause the NAVY just has tons of SEAL Teams laying around with nothing better to do.

    3. avatar Jason Lynch says:

      Did a fair bit of work on this for the Royal Navy, when we brought in the latest -1B version of Phalanx and its “anti-surface capability” was being proposed as a reason to get rid of some other weapons that, supposedly, would now be redundant.

      For those interested, Phalanx was originally purely an automatic air defence gun – it decided what it would shoot at and when, and other than putting it into “Air Mode Auto” that was the extent of operator interaction. One of the many updates it’s had to keep it capable, is a thermal camera: radar is very accurate in range and excellent for finding and locking onto “fast, small thing coming at you at nearly Mach 1”, infrared is then outstanding for giving a very precise angle of sight onto that object so the gun can be aimed even more accurately and kill incoming threats further out with fewer rounds fired. While it’s mostly used fully automated, the nice engineers at Raytheon thought “since we’ve got the camera, why don’t we put the image in front of the operator so they can see what they’re shooting at?” followed by “if we can see where the gun’s pointing, why don’t we give the operator a controller so he can drive it manually?” Hence why the -1B version of Phalanx gained its ability to manually engage small boats and slow air targets – it was a “why not do this?” rather than a “there is a pressing need to…”

      The reason not to be worried that the Phalanx doesn’t seem to be hitting and sinking the boats are twofold. Against small boats, you’re not in any sort of automatic mode; the operator is tracking and firing manually. The gun is stabilised, but that’s all the help you get: there’s a fair bit of spray-and-pray and Kentucky windage involved. (The really clever – and genuinely impressive – open-loop tracking and fire control only works well on fast airborne targets, which is the job Phalanx was always designed for). It’s not the mount’s priority, so the operators don’t get huge amounts of practice in peacetime.

      The other problem is that Phalanx is firing a 20mm APDS round, which is very lethal fired head-on into incoming missiles but just drills a 9mm hole through a boat when it hits: if you don’t hit the engine or the coxswain, it won’t do much. Small boats can be *tough*; we had an incident a few years ago when a destroyer seized a drug-smuggler’s go-fast and, having secured relevant evidence, used it as a gunnery target precisely because it would stay afloat despite being shot full of holes and set on fire: it gave all the weapon-aimers needing to stay qualified, the chance to get their practice shoots in. (It never did sink, even after one of the boarding team blew it into smallish pieces with some PE7)

      Phalanx is a very good system for defending against missiles and aircraft close-in, and the manual mode is better to have than not have, but it’s a backup not a priority. For surface threats close-in, we use 30mm cannon firing high explosive/incendiary shells; the USN’s got assorted 25mm and 30mm weapons for the job. And of course when it’s really close, there are assorted machine-guns, small arms and (in our case) Mk 44 Miniguns coming into play.

      1. avatar soccerdad says:

        perfect analysis +1000

      2. avatar LarryinTX says:

        Somebody needs to explain to me why it does not use the Warthog’s 30mm cannon, space is not a factor and the 30mm is way far more capable. Damn gun is huge, but oh boy, does it work.

        1. avatar Rambeast says:

          Spinning and elevating that big bastard to target quick incoming missiles would be touchy. For surface targets, sure.

        2. avatar Joseph Quixote says:

          It is out there. It’s called the goalkeeper. Most of the European countries use it and it is pretty devastating. It sure does take alot of space, maybe that’s why they don’t use it on U.S. ships.

    4. avatar IdahoPete says:

      Or a live gunner with a dual .50 …

    5. avatar Indiana Tom says:

      Seems like the better choice against incoming small craft is a team of SEALs with M-14s.
      WWII PT Boat with machine guns would be more effective.

  3. avatar Hawkeye says:

    But is it as strong as a small pony?

  4. avatar Jeff says:

    Most likely had a problem with the target discrimination algorithms. A missile in the air has a lot less background clutter than a boat on the surface of the water with waves and wake kicking up a lot of return.

    1. avatar Cliff H says:

      Sometimes you just need a good old-fashioned homo-sap sitting in the seat and peeping through an iron sight.

  5. avatar CTstooge says:

    Reminds me of shooting sea ducks.

    Seriously though…based on this shooting, add 3 more suicide boats and a couple will get through

    1. avatar Geoff PR says:

      “Seriously though…based on this shooting, add 3 more suicide boats and a couple will get through”

      That is exactly the Iranian battle plan. The estimate Iran has 1,000 + of those to throw at the Great Satan.

      1. avatar Geoff PR says:

        Make that “They estimate…”

  6. avatar BLAMMO says:

    It uses radar for targeting airborne missiles and aircraft that have slipped through outer defenses. The radar many not be very good at targeting surface vessels, especially in rough seas. It may need a clean return.

    Some of those “strafe” patterns looked like it may have been operated manually.

    1. avatar The Phantom says:

      It looked to me like the bullets were being lobbed in and the ship seemed to be . pitching and yawing.. This would explain half the rounds landing past the target and half falling short.

      1. avatar Geoff PR says:

        “It looked to me like the bullets were being lobbed in and the ship seemed to be . pitching and yawing..”

        Phalanx has… problems when mounted on a non-stationary platform.

        Like a ship.

        It’s a last-ditch defense against inbound missiles. When there’s a number of them coming at you some will probably get through.

  7. avatar Jay in Florida says:

    Who was aiming that gun?? Stevie Wonder??
    Id imagine they used more rounds then Id fire in a few years.
    Even I hit paper once in awhile.

    1. This just in:
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      1. avatar Timmy! says:

        By the way, what was tilapia called before the marketing people got a hold of it a few years ago? I mean, I never heard of the damned things before… what, 2001? I like to speculate that they were called something like “Skunk Fish”

    2. avatar skinnednkuckles says:

      I think it must be the NYC Police Sniper Team.

  8. avatar anaxis says:

    When we were staying on the LSA at Balad, there was a trailer-mounted version of a CIWS right outside of our unit’s compound (and directly on the other side of the my hooch’s wall). Those things are loud….. especially when it lit up while I was in a deep sleep; every time it happened I nearly had a heart attack. And then counter-battery fire from the nearby Marine mortar team would lull me back to sleep. Good times.

    According to the Airforce guys who maintained the system, that version could supposedly take out an in-flight mortar down to 100mm in size, but mostly those came from a different direction and landed over by the airfield. However; it did manage to zap a couple rockets that came closer, and once I found pieces of a katyusha tail/motor assembly scattered around my parked deuce. I picked up a stabilizer fin and part of the casing with Cyrillic markings, which currently reside somewhere in my old footlocker.

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      Cool. The crazy shit we’ll carry home from war. I’ve still got a couple of arming lanyards from the Gulf War, used them as key rings for years, but they chewed up my pockets. These were aluminum wire, pretty heavy guage, which were the safety pins on bombs, loop at the end clipped to the airplane, when the bomb is dropped the wire is pulled out of the fuze, which then spins in the windstream to arm. Of course, at the bomber bases there were zillions of the damn things, nobody cared. But I wasn’t at a bomber base, and somebody had the smarts to cut off the 10 foot wires down to around an inch, and carry thousands of them to my base in Jeddah, where the crowd went wild! I mean, the sucker actually was part of a bomb that was dropped on Baghdad, or whatever! Absolutely worthless, and just too cool. Thanks for your service, and for the memories!

  9. avatar Stinkeye says:

    I wonder what religion the computer targeting system is? Because that is textbook spray-and-pray.

  10. avatar Louis Marschalko says:

    With that dispersion pattern a hit would be sheer luck. The shell splashes were all over the place.

  11. avatar barnbwt says:

    I wonder, hear me out, if the boat wasn’t hardened against non-explosive rounds for the test, so you could get more practice time with your ONE boat before putting in another procurement request?

    1. avatar tdiinva (now in Wisconsin) says:

      I think you have the correct answer. This was not a combat mission it was target training. It appears that the stream of rounds intersects the target. It would be pretty expensive to blow up boats in training.

    2. avatar Vv ind says:

      Makes sense. One thing for sure; the sailer driving the thing has brass balls

      1. avatar Jason Lynch says:

        Pretty sure it’s remote-controlled: that’s what we use for gunnery training against small boats, anyway.

        1. avatar Vv ind says:

          Remote control? No way! Do they even have that technology?

        2. avatar LarryinTX says:

          Why not use jihadists? You know, he gets his Virginians and we get the target practice.

    3. avatar Alexander says:

      Hardened against high velocity 30 mm rounds? And still float? This is a boat, not a battleship.

    4. avatar Monkey says:

      I’ve played this game more than once. This is a hit-to-kill event.

      Not hardened. Plenty of foam to keep it bouyant. Remote controlled – no brass balls required.

      In those ($hitty) seas, hitting the small boat gets to be difficult. Given the weaving, even more so.

      FWIW, it only takes a couple hits from the CIWS to ruin that boat’s day. However, I prefer MK38 25mm for this kind of work.

      I love my job.

      1. avatar Bourbon guzzler says:

        Seriously……it’s remote controlled??

        1. avatar LarryinTX says:

          I still think jihadists would be cheaper, and more fun. The prez should use his pen/phone and send a few from Gitmo.

  12. avatar Rick says:

    If the 30 mm used by chain guns on the Apache weren’t HE they wouldn’t have killed any damn body yet with one.

    1. avatar Ragnar says:

      IIRC, the Apache’s chain gun was not designed to be hyper accurate. The theory was that if you put the 30mm rounds into the same box you would be wasting ammo. So the gun is built for area targets as opposed to single targets. Its got, again IIRC, something like a 4 mil dispersion built in.

      1. avatar LarryinTX says:

        When the Vulcan 20mm was first installed on F-4 Phantoms it did not have that dispersion built in, and was useful for digging tunnels, but not much more. It was very quickly changed. Accuracy could be extreme, but that would not accomplish any conceivable mission.

  13. avatar Paul53 says:

    Better to mount the Phalanx on the small boat. See if it can hit the broad side of a destroyer.

  14. avatar Daniel in SC says:

    My father use to work for a defense company who did something with these during the first Gulf Wat where they had a habit of killing the huge gulls that would fly near the ships. Supposedly would just make a huge mess out of whatever it hit.

    1. avatar CRF says:

      Now I imagine sailors with umbrellas on the deck as bloody seagull pieces rain down at random intervals.

  15. avatar Milsurp Collector says:

    The Russians have been using their equivalent of this to fend off pirates for years, but imagine if every American shipping firm put one of these on their freighters. Pirates from Somalia and elsewhere would be reduced to mere history. Refuse to turn that rust bucket around after three warnings over the intercom and you’ll be kindly introduced to Mr. BRRRRRT. Too bad such a large percentage of the western world is obsessed with political correctness and feels bad for violent criminals.

  16. avatar B says:

    You have not lived until you have pulled the trigger on an m163a1. If you know…you know. 16R.

  17. avatar Hunter says:

    the CIWS is a 20mm gattling gun. the way it takes out airborne threats, be it missiles or hostile aircraft, is by putting enough ordnaince in the air for the threat to run into. think flack during WW2. if the CIWS set to auto it will track and engage airborne threats when they are within range. most naval vessels order of engagement are shipboard missiles, deck gun (5″54cal, or 5″62cal), then CIWS. The ability of the CIWS to engage surface threats is a new upgrade/Mod to current systems and require an operator to operate the system in manual, watching the threat through video feed and providing enough lead to hit the target.

  18. avatar Frank Masotti says:

    Nice toy, how much did we the tax payers pay for this failure?

    1. avatar Geoff PR says:

      Well, Wiki says the system costs $35 million.

      Likely each..

  19. avatar Rob K says:

    It looks like no one here understands how CIWS actually works. The system is operated differently in air mode vice surface mode. In air mode, the engagements are directed by its radar and closed loop fire control where the system does all the work once the operator has flipped the switch to start the engagement (I will avoid further details here due to the sensitivity of the info). In surface mode, the system is more manual with the operator using the system’s IR sensor as director to control the engagement in conjunction with the system’s video tracker (which feeds the fire control algorithms for lead and ballistic calculations). If the operator cannot get the video tracker to track properly, then the system can be operated in a complete manual mode where the operator is basically using the Mk1 eyeball and Kentucky windage (in this mode misses are common and success is soley a function of operator proficiency). In testing, I’ve seen CIWS Swiss cheese dozens of small boats when it was able to be operated as designed. I’ve also seen it perform poorly when the operator’s skill was questionable or when it was being used in a tactically questionable manner.

  20. avatar Gordon says:

    When engaging an incoming aerial threat, Phalanx is controlled by the computer and uses the direct feed from the search and track radars in the radome to use the threat’s speed and trajectory to estimate where the threat will be when the rounds fired would hit it, and then fires at that area to destroy the threat.

    When engaging a surface threat, Block 1B Phalanx mounts are controlled from the local control room (not sure if CIC can do it as well – I was a Block 1 tech, not Block 1B) by a technician using a joystick and a live feed from the FLIR camera on the side of the radome.

    Big difference.

    -Ex-Navy FC1(SW) 1121 NEC (Block 1 Phalanx CIWS)

    1. avatar Rob K says:

      Nice to see someone getting it right. I’ve done T&E for Navy gun weapon systems (including CIWS Blk 1B) for much of my civil service career.

      1. avatar Gordon says:

        Phalanx CAN be used for small boat threats…but it is suboptimal. You’re better off using a M2HB, a Bushmaster 25mm, a Mk19 40mm or even a pintle-mounted M60E4 for those threats.

    2. avatar Jason Lynch says:

      Our Type 45 destroyers have the Phalanx consoles in the Operations Room (=CIC) and that’s where the operator would be. (In sight and easy shouting distance of the Principal Warfare Officer, who’d be trying to keep control of the surface battle, and also sitting next to the controls for the 4.5″ gun and the 30mm Bushmasters – so your surface team is grouped up in one place).

      The local control panels are, if memory serves, just off the midships passage and are used as backups if necessary.

  21. avatar derfel cadarn says:

    The average air speed of an Exocet missile is around 500-600 mph the speed of the boat a maximum 30 mph. With a cost of 5.6 million dollars per unit, less ammo, this appears a rather poor investment

  22. avatar Model 31 says:

    I hope they got something better for defending against a 20′ skeeter packed with an IED.

  23. avatar Jimmyjames says:

    Thank you Richard Jordan Gatling…old North Carolina boy. As to shooting up the fast boat…you just gotta lead ’em more son.

  24. avatar DaProf says:

    And that’s why it is important to always use the right tool for the job.

    Sure, you CAN use a soup can as a hammer if you have nothing else, but isn’t it better to use a hammer as a hammer?

    Or the corollary: If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.

  25. avatar Steve Clark says:

    I was thinking about these the other day. For those in the know, if push ever came to shove and China were to launch a salvo of, say, 10-20 anti-ship missiles at one of our aircraft carriers, would the 4-6 onboard units be able to stop them all?

    1. avatar Jason Lynch says:


      Short answer – “no, but don’t worry”. CIWS is merely one of a number of defensive layers.

      If the Chinese try to fling thirty or forty (let’s be generous) missiles at a USN carrier battle group, then the launch platforms (those missiles don’t launch themselves, you know) may well have a kinetic, indeed explosive, debate with the carrier’s air wing on the way in. Of those being launched, most will then be shot down a long way out by the escorting DDGs and CGs, who have the very capable AEGIS air defence system (bettered only by Sea Viper on our Type 45, but then I’m biased 🙂 )

      Any properly-aimed leakers (and some clever, if classified, technology will have been spoiling the enemy’s aim) will be engaged by the carrier itself, hitting layers of Enhanced Sea Sparrow and Rolling Airfame Missile SAMs, some very capable electronic warfare that’s seducing or distracting their seekers… and only then will the CIWS get a chance to shoot at the survivors. So while CIWS can be saturated by too many threats, and isn’t a guaranteed killer on every threat… it’s a valuable last line of defence. (It’s also got some features that mean it can keep working while important bits of the ship it’s on might be damaged or broken, one of the reasons it’s popular)

      It’s not absolutely impossible to put a missile into a US carrier, but it would be very difficult and expensive (in munitions, equipment and lives) with poor odds of success.

      Sorry for an answer that’s probably at once too long and too short 🙂 Used to do this for a living and you can probably tell I really liked my job.

      1. avatar LarryinTX says:

        Well, I know nothing at all, but I have a guess, that the shooters will not get a second chance.

  26. avatar Anon says:

    In WWII, the German battleship Bismarck was making a run for France from the Atlantic, after sinking the British battle cruiser Hood.

    The last chance for the British to sink the Bismarck were some bi planes off of an aircraft carrier. The planes were Swordfish and very slow.

    I think there were 8 or 12 of them who found the Bismarck. NONE were shot down but one torpedo hit the Bismarcks
    rudder, causing her to go in circles, thus a sitting duck for the British battleships.

    Most experts feel the reason the Bismarcks guns could not hit the Swordfish was speed, the Swordfish were 89/90 mph, the guns sighting mechanisms were set for much faster aircraft, I kid you not.

    Hang onto that M1 and 1903, you may need it.

    1. avatar LarryinTX says:

      Really. For some reason I thought the Prince of Wales hit the rudder with guns, never heard of torpedoes. OTOH, you sound like you know.

      1. avatar jwm says:

        Yeah, it was a torpedo from a swordfish that hit the rudder. In it’s earlier engagement, when the Hood was blown up, Prince of Wales hit Bismark with 14 in shells. In spite of the fact that her main battery was quirky and did not have all the bugs worked out(she was a brand new ship). The gun problem was so bad on POW that she never got a full 10 gun broadside off. If memory serves at one point she was down to 4 guns against Bismarks 8 And Prinz Eugens 8 guns, which were 8 inchers.

        The Germans did high tech real well and they put all their advanced widgets on the Bismark. The Germans just assumed that they would be facing state of the art and got fabric covered bi planes instead.

        Their guns couldn’t track slow enough to hit the “Stringbags”. And shrapnel would pass right thru the fabric and wood body and as long as it missed the engine, pilot or fuel tank the stringbag would keep right on flying.

  27. avatar Biff Baxter says:

    The accuracy does not instill confidence.

  28. avatar John says:

    Have to say, it’s pretty cool to see the barrel compensate for the rolling of the ship. It’s the little things that make one happy sometimes. And of course, minigun of any kind always equals happy. Too bad only the govt and the 1% can afford to shoot one.

  29. avatar jwm says:

    We have billion dollar ships loaded with priceless crews. Layering and piling on defenses is in order.

    1. avatar Jason Lynch says:

      Our Type 45 destroyers were built “fitted for, but not with” Phalanx. Before HMS DARING made her first Persian Gulf deployment, I and the Navy officer I worked with made a good enough case to Navy Command that she went from “fitted for” to “fitted with” in time for that cruise, and her sisters have gained the same.

      Good as her missile systems are, when the cost of your trousers falling down is so high… the price of a belt to go with your braces isn’t that expensive. (Substitute “pants” for “trousers” and “suspenders” for “braces”, as necessary)

      1. avatar jwm says:

        I got it. Is the RN still “wet”.

        1. avatar Jason Lynch says:

          Thankfully, yes. (To be fair, folk hardly touch the stuff on deployment, but it’s nice to be able to have a beer or a glass or two of wine when it’s “The Cruel Sea” night in the wardroom)

        2. avatar jwm says:

          “The Cruel Sea.” Asking the waiter about dust on the water was priceless.

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