Lockheed Martin's F-35: The U.S. Navy's Secret Missile Defense System?
A Marine Corps F-35B used its on-board sensors to function for the first time as a broad-area aerial relay node in an integrated fire-control weapons system designed to identify, track and destroy approaching enemy cruise missiles from distances beyond-the-horizon, service officials announced.
A Navy "desert ship" at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. designed to replicate maritime conditions, used ship-based radar to connect the F-35B sensors to detect enemy missiles at long ranges and fire an SM-6 interceptor to destroy the approaching threat.
The emerging fire-control system, called Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air, or NIFC-CA, was deployed last year on a Navy cruiser serving as part of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group in the Arabian Gulf, Navy officials told Scout Warrior, last year.
NIFC-CA has previously operated using an E2-D Hawkeye surveillance plane as an aerial sensor node; the use of an F-35B improves the sensor technology, reach, processing speed and air maneuverability of the system; the test also assessed the ability of the system to identify and destroy air-to-air and air-to-surface targets.
"This test was a great opportunity to assess the Navy’s ability to take unrelated technologies and successfully close the fire control loop as well as merge anti-surface and anti-air weapons into a single kill web that shares common sensors, links and weapons," Anant Patel, major program manager for future combat systems in the Program Executive Office for Integrated Warfare Systems, said in a written statement.
The test was a collaborative effort across the Navy and Marine Corps, White Sands Missile Range and industry partners leveraging a U.S. Marine Corps F-35B and the U.S. Navy’s Aegis Weapon System
"This test represents the start of our exploration into the interoperability of the F-35B with other naval assets," said Lt. Col. Richard Rusnok, VMX-1 F-35B detachment officer in charge.
A multi-target ability requires some adjustments to fire-control technology, sensors and dual-missile firings; the SM-6 is somewhat unique in its ability to fire multiple weapons in rapid succession. An SM-6 is engineered with an "active seeker," meaning it can send an electromagnetic targeting "ping" forward from the missile itself - decreasing reliance on a ship-based illuminator and improving the ability to fire multiple interceptor missiles simultaneously.
Unlike an SM-3 which can be used for "terminal phase" ballistic missile defense at much farther ranges, the SM-6 can launch nearer-in offensive and defensive attacks against closer threats such as approaching enemy anti-ship cruise missiles. With an aerial sensor networked into the radar and fire control technology such as an E2-D Hawkeye surveillance plane, the system can track approaching enemy cruise missile attacks much farther away. This provide a unique, surface-warfare closer-in defensive and offensive weapons technology to complement longer range ship-based ballistic missile defense technologies.
Once operational, this expanded intercept ability will better defend surface ships operating in the proximity or range of enemy missiles by giving integrating an ability to destroy multiple-approaching attacks at one time.
“NIFC-CA presents the ability to extend the range of your missile and extend the reach of your sensors by netting different sensors of different platforms -- both sea-based and air-based together into one fire control system,” Capt. Mark Vandroff, DDG 51 program manager, told Scout Warrior in an interview last year.
NIFC-CA is part of an overall integrated air and missile defense high-tech upgrade now being installed and tested on existing and new DDG 51 ships called Aegis Baseline 9, Vandroff said.
The system hinges upon an upgraded ship-based radar and computer system referred to as Aegis Radar –- designed to provide defense against long-range incoming ballistic missiles from space as well as nearer-in threats such as anti-ship cruise missiles, he explained.
"Integrated air and missile defense provides the ability to defend against ballistic missiles in space while at the same time defending against air threats to naval and joint forces close to the sea,” he said.
The NIFC-CA system successfully intercepted a missile target from beyond the horizon during testing last year aboard a Navy destroyer, the USS John Paul Jones. The NIFC-CA technology can, in concept, be used for both defensive and offensive operations, Navy officials have said. Having this capability could impact discussion about a Pentagon term referred to as Anti-Acces/Area-Denial, wherein potential adversaries could use long-range weapons to threaten the U.S. military and prevent its ships from operating in certain areas -- such as closer to the coastline. Having NIFC-CA could enable surface ships, for example, to operate more successfully closer to the shore of potential enemy coastines without being deterred by the threat of long-range missiles. In particular, NIFC-CA is the kind of technology which, in tandem with other sensors and ship-based weapons, could enable a larger carrier to defend against the much-discussed Chinese DF-21D "carrier-killer" missile. The emerging DF-21D is reportedly able to strike targets as far as 900 nautical miles off shore.