The naval MK 41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) hides missiles below decks in vertical slots, with key electronics and venting systems built in. A deck and hatch assembly at the top of the module protects the missile canisters from the elements, and from other hazards during storage. Once the firing sequence begins, the hatches open to permit missile launches of various types.
Lockheed Martin is the system’s prime contractor, and BAE Systems Land & Armaments also makes components and canisters for the MK 41 system.
A Naval Swiss Army Knife: The MK 41 VLS
The MK 41 VLS can hold a wide variety of missiles: anti-air and ballistic missile defense (Sea Sparrow, ESSM, Standard family), anti-submarine (VLASROC), land-attack (Tomahawk) and more. One simply drops different missile cannisters into the MK 41’s common interface. The acquisition and upgrade program is currently under the leadership of U.S. Navy Project Manager Mr. Toan Nguyen.
Lockheed notes that the MK 41 VLS is itself available in three different sizes to meet differing hull and mission requirements:
* The Strike length MK 41 is the largest system accommodating the widest variety of missiles, up to and including SM-3 ballistic missile defense and Tomahawk cruise missiles. In future, it also has the potential to carry Harpoon anti-ship missiles, if a VL-Harpoon is developed. Its capabilities cover every threat in naval warfare, including anti-air, anti-submarine, ship self-defense, land attack and ballistic missile defense.
* The Tactical length Mk 41 is over 7 feet shorter than the Strike length and can accommodate a variety of missiles up to approximately 18.5 feet in length. The SM-2 and Evolved SeaSparrow air defense missiles, and VL-ASROC anti-submarine missiles, will fit in a tactical length cell.
* The Self-Defense Launcher (SDL) is specifically designed for ship self defense. SDL is shorter and lighter than the other variants. Its size and weight are designed to accommodate smaller ships like corvettes and frigates, as well as aircraft carriers with limited deck and hull space.
More than 11,000 MK 41 VLS missile cells have been delivered, or are on order, for use on 186 ships and 19 ship classes, in 11 navies around the world. This system currently serves with the US Navy as well as the Australian, Canadian, Dutch, German, Japanese, New Zealand, Norwegian, South Korean, Spanish, and Turkish navies.
The system’s leading competitor is DCNS’ Sylver family of launchers. They equip the French Navy’s Charles de Gaulle nuclear aircraft carrier, the Franco-Italian Horizon Class frigates, the UK’s Type 45 destroyers and Saudi Arabia’s LaFayette-derived Sawari II frigates. In 2005 the Sylver launcher was selected for the multi-role Franco-Italian FREMM frigates, which have been ordered by France, Italy, Algeria, and Morocco.
The MK 41’s most recent Baseline VII upgrade was rolled out in 2004, upgrading the module’s electronics. Advances include cell-based architecture, commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) processors, a modern real-time operating system, programming written in the object-oriented C++ format, ethernet communications, and fiber optic channels, all within an open architecture approach. These changes opened the door to compliance with the US Navy’s Open Architecture Initiative, added RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile capability, and improved life cycle maintenance and future upgradability. Note that the RIM-162 ESSM can be “quad packed” in a Mk 41 launcher, allowing a single cell to contain 4 air defense missiles.
This Baseline VII configuration is currently fielded on new U.S. Navy destroyers (DDG 91 and later); efforts are underway to modernize the USA’s CG-47 Ticonderoga Class missile cruisers, and eventually older Arleigh Burke Class destroyers as well.
To learn more about the history of this program, click here.