The Navy’s ongoing Pacific Fleet maritime warfare assessments continue to break new ground with the use of manned-unmanned systems integration to strike targets at previously unreachable ranges, demonstrating emerging technology which shows both offensive and defensive maritime combat power possibilities.
A long-range SM-6 missile was launched from a destroyer to eliminate what a Navy report calls a “long-range target” during a series of ongoing events aimed at evolving new paradigms for manned-unmanned systems maritime warfare. Both drones and manned platforms established a “track for the launch,” a Navy essay explains.
While many details of the actual SM-6 intercept, apart from the fact that it involved manned-unmanned networking, were not included, the apparent success of the launch raises interesting questions about the extent to which this kind of connectivity could be leveraged for both offensive and defensive operations. There certainly would be numerous applications when it comes to defensive intercepts, as drones could help guide interceptor missiles more precisely to approaching ballistic missile targets. At the same time, there is no reason to presume this kind of extended information relay could not also be used for offensive maritime warfare operations as well. Perhaps an aerial drone operating hundreds of miles from surface ships could identify targets for long-range ship-fired weapons.
With this in mind, the use of an SM-6 seems significant as it is used in the Navy’s Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) system which uses an aerial relay node to find enemy targets from beyond the horizon and link targeting data with ship-based fire control. For instance, the NIFC-CA began to identify incoming anti-ship missiles at previously undetectable ranges. However, the successful maturation and deployment of the system has introduced new questions about whether it could be used offensively.
The answer to this appears to be—so far—a clear yes. If an aerial sensor can find approaching targets to destroy, then it certainly might also be able to locate points for attack. An SM-6 is uniquely capable of this kind of multi-mission operational envelope, because it has not only received numerous guidance and range enhancing software upgrades, but it also makes use of a dual mode seeker. A dual mode seeker is able to help maneuver the missile and, if needed, change course in flight to hit a maneuvering target because it has its own built-in seeker able to send its own electronic “ping” forward, therefore removing a need to rely upon a ship-based illuminator.
This greatly enhances target-guidance flexibility by virtue of extended networking. If, as this ongoing Navy event suggests, the service is increasingly able to employ drones and other unmanned platforms to expedite and improve this process, many new attack possibilities are likely to emerge moving forward.
The range dimension to this seems to, perhaps quite deliberately, align with the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy based upon the recognition that future maritime warfare will need to be more dispersed, disaggregated and networked to operate in extremely high-threat modern great power war environments. Certainly, a less condensed force is a less vulnerable one when it comes to averting enemy fire. At the same time, the Navy strategy is based upon two key additional principles: first, enemy forces are expected to use much longer-range precise weapons and sensors operating across vast distances, and, second, this threat creates the need for secure multi-domain networking.
Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Masters Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.