Flight Journal: Learning the art of anti-shipping in DCS World

One mission type I have flown only a little bit with the DCS: F/A-18C Hornet is the anti-ship role. Most of the time I’m slinging a HARM missile at an enemy radar site, or dropping laser or GPS guided weapons from altitude on a target but tackling an enemy warship is something that I’ve done somewhat more sparingly. In a new cooperative Liberation campaign, it’s the only mission type we’ve flown so far and here are some comments on how the missions went and how we might approach them in the future.

Marianas liberation

Flying together with Requiem from the Air Combat Tutorial Library (whose Hornet tutorials focus on flying the airplane in a way that many tutorials do not), the newest multiplayer Liberation campaign setup that we’re flying is using the Marianas map and a scenario that pits Chinese and American forces against each other. And that means carrier ops! Lots of carrier ops! And yes… we’re using custom RAAF liveries.

We’ve flown two missions so far and both of them were anti-shipping missions. These are how the missions went and a few things that I’ve learned about anti-shipping in the Hornet in DCS World.

Obliterating the target

First mission of the campaign and we’re setting out to strike at the enemy forces. With a small fleet of F-14’s flying CAP duty, our job in the Hornet’s is to begin chipping away at the enemy forces. Between us in the north and the chain of islands that makes up the Marianas island chain to our south, there are a dozen or more Chinese surface vessels. Many are the Type 052 guided missile destroyer and there’s at least one carrier. Two destroyers, cruising at the periphery of the main fleet, are our target for today.

Setting out just after the Tomcats, we form up our fleet and head to a rendezvous point that serves as our initial strike position.

It’s been a while since I did this kind of operation and a few things have either changed or I’ve forgotten about how to do them. Setting up all four AGM-84 Harpoon missiles I wasn’t able, initially, to set them to the R/BL mode that would let me fire them at a designated target. I soon learned, that I needed to designate the target first and then set the R/BL mode.

Fearing that something was wrong, we both timed in our missiles INS and set the missiles BOL (or ‘bearing on launch’) mode aligned with the initial point to the attack waypoint. Then, after designating and the mode working, I relaxed a bit as the radar in SEA mode was feeding the correct bearing to the Harpoons for launch.

Requiem launched his missiles first while I was still fiddling around with getting my missiles set. Some set to high, some to medium and others to a low altitude approach. Mixed into these approaches were skim and pop-up attack modes to try and throw off the CIWS point defense weapons. Then, rippling off all four missiles, I turned away and got read for the fireworks.

We learned then that one of our destroyer targets had already been sunk and the second damaged in an exchange of missile fire between two Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers. The Ticonderoga’s appear to have saturated the medium range missile defenses opening the door to their own Harpoon missiles as well as ours.

The remaining target ship was mostly helpless as eight Harpoon missiles struck the ship disappearing beneath the waves before the last of the missiles were able to reach it. It’s companion had already gone under by that time too.

A successful mission followed by a successful landing back at the carrier.

Dusk strike

This second mission was a bit more of a nail biter for a couple of reasons. The setup was generally the same with a launch of F-14 Tomcats on CAP providing support plus some Harriers (that were ultimately doomed) striking an EW target on a nearby island. Meanwhile, our job was to attack two more Type 052 destroyers.

While those Ticonderoga missile cruisers were busy engaging the main fleet, our job was to attack the vanguard. So we didn’t have the cover provided by the last strike and we were on our own for this one.

Taking off in the setting sun, the sky quickly turned dark over the Pacific and we were flying on instruments and our sensors alone. Reaching our initial point, we turned on to target and quickly identified our targets. With better coordination we were both ready and targeting the two destroyers with our barrage of missiles.

At 40 nautical miles we opened fire with all eight of the Harpoons closely spaced.

While I turned almost immediately to a 90 degree angle putting the targets on my starboard side, Requiem continued in for a bit longer hoping to draw some fire away from the missiles. More on that in the next segment.

Of eight missiles fired, just two hit their target causing moderate damage to the one destroyer while the second remained undamaged. The rest were shot down enroute and a few were knocked down by the close in weapon systems which you can see in the screenshots above. Multiple vectors for attack did cause some of those close in weapons to engage one missile at the expense of another so that did help.

We returned to base with Requiem executing a near perfect landing. Meanwhile, I made a poor approach and ultimately slammed into the back of the carrier. CASE III landings at night are a true challenge!

Learning the Harpoon

Attacking ships in DCS World face many challenges and some benefits that all need to be weighed.

First, attacking a modern guided missile destroyer like the Type 052 is a real challenge in general. Armed with defensive missiles, powerful radar, and close in weapon systems, getting a missile through to these ships is difficult.

Next, we have the AGM-84D Harpoon which in its original guise has been around since the late 1970s. It’s a capable missile but with its sub-sonic speeds its one that is not too difficult to intercept. By comparison, the supersonic RB-15F carried on the DCS: AJS-37 Viggen is far more effective at breaking through these defenses. So the only way to get through is with volume.

We also face some challenges with the AI. I’m not sure if this is a problem with the way that Liberation campaign encodes its missions or if its DCS AI struggling with all of the variables that an anti-ship mission entails, but for whatever reason we’ve not yet been able to get the AI wingmen to engage the enemy ships at the same time as we did or at all. So of the flight of four, two humans and two AI, only the humans were able to coordinate a strike.

The Harpoon is easy to deploy fortunately and its a survivable platform for the launching aircraft. No matter if its the BOL or R/BL together with the Hornet’s radar in SEA mode, the Harpoon is very straightforward. Designate a target or set a bearing and then release the weapon. With its range of 120 nautical miles, the Harpoon can be launched well outside of the engagement range of enemy ships which also means that the Hornet is highly survivable as an anti-ship airplane.

It’s also easy, via the Hornets MFDs, to toggle the different modes between high, medium and low altitude approaches and then also to select what the terminal attack is. Is it a pop-up attack or a sea skimming straight in approach. Additional methods are possible including multiple vectors although those need more setup.

In future missions, which will undoubtedly feature more anti-ship measures against these well defended targets, the keys appear to be volume of fire (i.e. finding ways to get more missiles inbound to target at once) and working to draw the air defenses into firing on targets that they can’t hit. We’ve found that the destroyers will fire missiles at Hornets, ones that have already unleashed their missiles, because the AI does not yet understand or reason through the different threat levels.

Bringing Hornets to the edge of the engagement envelope and drawing as much fire as possible may be a method to help get the missiles through. Eight missiles against two destroyers may offer as little as just one hit… if we’re lucky.

So, there’s a lot to continue to refine and in this Liberation campaign where anti-ship missions are going to be common, we’re going to have to tackle these as the campaign goes on. More effect will be key!


8 Comments Add yours

  1. Mike says:

    the F-18 is the only aircraft that can carry the harpoon right now. They tested in the 16 but it wasnt a capability that they kept. we need that A6


    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      We need the A-6 and the AI to open fire with tons of Harpoons ☺️


      1. Mike says:

        once we get the P-3/ P-8 .. and subs… and a functional link 16 system there will be other options


  2. CanadaOne says:

    I thought the Harpoons were borked and I haven’t tried them in ages. I’ll give it another go.


    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      Oh they work. They are just difficult to be effective with.


  3. Kevin says:

    Great write up. I played a very similar scenario on Liberation a couple weeks ago. I was getting discouraged that the anti-ship AI Hornets were not engaging, as well as everything I threw at the ships getting shot down. As you said flooding it is key, but very difficult with AI. I even tried tossing a bunch of TALDs, but their glide speed is quickly outpaced by the faster Harpoons.


  4. Colonel Akir Nakesh says:

    A flight of 4x B-52s work great. You need to set them up for anti-ship missions in the air wing creation at the beginning of the campaign, though. I can’t get my AI wingmen to shoot at anything either. I’m guessing you are doing the Pacific Repartee campaign and don’t have access to B-52s though, in that case I set up as many Hornet squadrons set to anti-ship as I can. 16 Hornets at 4x Harpoons each = 64… it’s ridiculous but at least AI-only flights seem to launch.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. ShamrockOneFive says:

      The massed Hornet approach might work! No B-52s available to us.


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