The Navy’s flagship USS Ford aircraft carrier attacked and destroyed enemy rocket-propelled drones, aircraft and surface threats with interceptor missiles, sensors and other ship defenses in a series of warfare preparation exercises designed to move the ship closer to major maritime warfare.
In the Atlantic Ocean, the Ford recently completed what’s called Combat Systems Ship’s Qualification Trials (CSSQT), a combat preparation phase involving simulated and actual live threats to assess the extent to which a large Ford-class carrier could defend itself in a great power ocean war scenario.
“[The] Ford faced off against rocket-propelled drones capable of speeds in excess of 600 miles per hour; towed drone units that simulate rockets; and remote-controlled, high-speed maneuvering surface targets,” a Navy report said.
Demonstrating this kind of defensive capability is both timely and extremely significant from a tactical perspective given ongoing discussions about the potential “vulnerability” of aircraft carriers in an increasingly high-tech, major power threat environment. However, much of the discussion, which is largely based upon the existence of extremely long-range Chinese “carrier killer” anti-ship missiles, regularly seems to overlook the growing technological sophistication of layered ship defense systems.
Newer kinds of integrated sensor networking, longer-range ship-based radar and things like artificial intelligence-enabled targeting technology or even emerging laser weapons, are fast changing the equation when it comes to protecting carriers and other larger surface ships at sea.
The recent CSSQT, as its called, seems specifically directed toward preparing the Ford for an entirely new sphere of enemy attacks using recently upgraded systems such as the Rolling Airframe Missile, Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles and the “Mk-15 Phalanx Close-In Weapon System [CIWS] to fire armor-piercing tungsten bullets,” according to the Navy report.
“The crew crushed it, firing off four missiles [two RIM-116 and two ESSM], and all of them were conducted with precision control by combat direction center watch teams, they executed perfectly,” CSSQT project officer, Larry Daugherty, stated in the Navy report. “All command and control decisions were made correctly, and the [systems] were engaged when they were supposed to be engaged and everything went out on time.”
Interestingly, some of the specific ship defense weapons mentioned in the Navy report have gone through substantial upgrades in recent years. This is part of an effort entirely aligned with the Navy’s multi-year effort to better arm its surface fleet with weapons able to destroy highly sophisticated enemies amid open ocean or “blue water” maritime combat. The now combat-ready upgraded SeaSparrow ESSM Block II missile, for example, is engineered with a special “sea skimming” mode enabling the interceptor to descend close to the surface to destroy enemy anti-ship missiles traveling parallel to the ocean just above the water. Instead of operating with purely an upward trajectory, the ESSM Block II can “skim” across the surface to take out an entirely new sphere of attacking enemy threats.
The Navy’s CIWS was, as mentioned, also used in the combat qualifications, another weapon which has undergone substantial upgrades in recent years. The CIWS system, which fires hundreds of small metal projectiles a minute toward incoming threats such as enemy drones, missiles or helicopters, has historically operated primarily as a counter air weapon. However, as far back as six years ago, the Navy has been working on a “1b” CIWS variant able to track and destroy approaching surface threats such as swarming small boats or even some approaching enemy missiles. The upgrades greatly expanded the ship’s defensive mission envelope to fight off newer kinds of attacks. CIWS is a last-line of defense, meaning it is expected to be used when other longer-range elements of a ship’s layered systems are no longer effective.
Carriers are often protected by destroyers and other warships traveling in a carrier strike group, yet they are also themselves increasingly being prepared as platforms capable of heavy combat on the open ocean.
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.