Secret Is Out: How F-35s and U.S. Warships Will Kill Drones and Missiles
America and its allies are practicing the art of sharing threat and targeting data against a variety of flying threats.
Recently, U.S. Army missile defense assets, Dutch F-35 stealth fighters and joint multi-domain command and control systems destroyed enemy drone targets and knocked out cruise missile attacks during an international collaborative exercise. That war game was intended to test, assess and replicate the kinds of technologies needed to ensure base defense.
Operating as part of a Combined Joint All Domain Command and Control (JADC2) exercise over the Baltic Sea and on the European continent, U.S. and allied forces conducted a specific “mission thread” intended to test the defenses of Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Base defenses, drawing upon joint, integrated Army-Air Force tactics, weapons and technologies, is taking on new urgency in light of the growing international drone and drone swarm threat. These drones are precisely the kind of attack scenario the Pentagon’s JADC2 is intended to address.
As part of the exercise, a Dutch F-35 operated as an aerial sensor node connecting targeting data to ground control centers and the 10th Army Air Missile Defense Command. When addressing the merits of the JADC2 combat preparation training, Air Force General Jeffrey Harrigian, Commander, U.S. Forces Europe, and Africa, cited the pressing need to connect platforms across domains as sensor-nodes in an integrated combat “web” or mesh of platforms involving ground-based air defenses, drones and fixed wing surveillance and attack assets.
“As you look at how we are set up, there is an integrated air and missile umbrella that lives over Europe. As we got into the nuances of our bases, we felt we needed to understand how we defend ourselves. That starts with domain awareness and leveraging all the sensors that are available to us, some are available to us from our partners,” Harrigian told reporters at the 2021 Air Force Association Symposium.
Harrigian seemed to be referring to what could be thought of as a kind of multi-layered defense, linking longer and shorter-range sensors to one another as part of an integrated threat identification system. This integration would be crucial to finding and establishing a continuous target “track,” reducing sensor-to-shooter time and getting commanders threat data with the longest possible response or counterattack time window.
“Closer in we are looking at radars and Electro-Optical Cameras, recognizing the second piece of it would be the Command and Control circumstances and how we get a common operational picture supported by machine learning,” Harrigian said.
Targets approaching from beyond the horizon, for instance, could be apprehended by space assets or even F-35s functioning as an aerial sensor “relay” node. In this type of threat circumstance, a longer-range ground-fired interceptor missile or even air-to-air weapon could be used to destroy incoming fire at safer standoff distances. This kind of networking, connecting otherwise disparate nodes to extend command and control ranges, is already deployed in some respects. For example, the now-deployed Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air system (NIFC-CA) currently protecting destroyers and Carrier Strike Groups uses Hawkeye surveillance planes or F-35s to detect an enemy anti-ship missile from beyond the horizon. That system then relays that threat data to ship commanders, providing a much-improved time window with which to choose an optimal response or defensive posture. Picking up on the threat data, the Navy destroyer then fires a precision SM-6 interceptor missile armed with a dual-mode seeker enabling in-flight maneuverability to track and destroy the approaching threat long before it gets too close to the Navy ships its defending.
This concept informing NIFC-CA seems somewhat aligned or analogous to Harrigian’s thinking about taking multi-domain connectivity operations to yet another level wherein base defense systems can simultaneously draw upon ground-based radar, air assets and various “effectors,” shooters or weapons best suited to respond to the attack. Perhaps with closer in threats, interceptors such as Phalanx area weapons shooting out hundreds of small projectiles or precision-guided interceptors might be a preferred solution. In yet other threat scenarios, perhaps those in urban areas where additional fragmentation generated by an explosive interceptor might imperil civilians, non-kinetic options such as lasers or electronic jamming might be preferred. All of these options pertain to the single, unifying tactical concept fundamental to the Pentagon’s JADC2 massive, rapid real-time information sharing intended to, as Harrigian puts it, “quickly connect any sensor to any shooter.”
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.