An attacking enemy anti-ship missile can approach from hundreds of miles away beyond the visible horizon, making them less detectable to line-of-sight radar systems and other kinds of ship-integrated threat sensors. But what if they could not only be seen, but destroyed, at much farther ranges? Wouldn’t ship defenders have a vastly improved ability to stop a potentially catastrophic attack?
This is the rationale informing a recent Navy experiment off the coast of San Diego, Calif., where the service broke new ground using drones, missiles and manned platforms together to track and eliminate an enemy target.
“The U.S. Navy launched a missile at a long-range target successfully as a part of Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21 off the coast of San Diego, April 25,” a Navy report stated. “Integrated manned and unmanned systems established a track for the launch.”
Range is the key issue here, along with mesh networking and multi-domain information relay involving unmanned systems, as ship-fired interceptors have for quite some time been able to follow radar and fire-control guidance to destroy attacking threats. This strike, however, was described in the Navy report as “beyond line of sight.”
The target intercept used an “Extended Range Active Missile” SM-6 launched from a Navy destroyer, the USS John Finn.
The human-machine interface element of this is also quite significant, as the Navy has been operating a beyond-line-of-sight intercept system for several years now called Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA). The NIFC-CA connects ship-based radar with an aerial sensor node such as an E2D Hawkeye or even an F-35 stealth fighter jet to relay sensor information to the ship from beyond the horizon to ship-based fire control to launch an SM-6 interceptor. The system, first deployed on Navy destroyers in 2015, is intended to locate and destroy attacking threats such as anti-ship missiles from ranges beyond the horizon. Naturally this extends the crucial time window with which ship commanders can determine the best response to an incoming enemy attack. Which interceptor or element of a ship’s layered defenses are best for this particular threat? A ship commander with more time can optimize defensive maneuvers, therefore increasingly the likelihood the ship will survive.
This recent test appears to take NIFC-CA-type technology to a new level by integrating unmanned systems into a target relay ship combat system, breaking new ground with manned-unmanned teaming and maritime warfare. The Navy has demonstrated that it can use an F-35 jet as an “aerial node” to help locate and transmit target specifics to ship commanders able to launch a guided SM-6 missile toward the intercept. This long-range strike, however, involved networking with unmanned systems, suggesting the use of newer kinds of multi-domain information processing and transmission technology.
The particular unmanned systems used in the recent launch, or details regarding the target hit, were not cited in the Navy report likely due to security reasons. Perhaps the intercept or strike used an aerial drone or unmanned surface vessel of some kind to gather, organize and send target specifics. Clearly the manned-unmanned connectivity spans multiple domains, including undersea and surface, according to the Navy report.
“The week-long event involves surface, subsurface, and aerial unmanned assets, operating with littoral combat ships, guided-missile destroyers, guided-missile cruisers, submarines and helicopter squadrons,” the Navy essay states.
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.