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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

Lasers, longer-range maneuverable interceptor missiles, over-the-horizon attack systems and paradigm-changing hypersonic missiles will all fire from US Navy surface ships decades into the future. Laser-driven ballistic missile defense from surface ships is even emerging as a possibility.

These evolving attack systems, including upgraded and proven, highly effective weapons such as Tomahawks, SM-3s, SM-6s and high-impact, drone and helicopter-killing lasers, will likely keep upgrading well into the future. However, there will likely be even larger, longer-range, and more lethal new weapons emerging in future years as well. The Navy and Missile Defense Agency are working on power-scaling of lasers and how they integrate with Aegis radar and fire control systems to perform ballistic missile defense missions. Could ship fired lasers travel all the way into space? Does not seem beyond the realm of the possible.

Vertical Launch Systems 

For this reason, industry and the Navy are correctly looking to supplement, build upon and enhance very effective Vertical Launch Systems on Navy surface ships. New weapons, propulsion technologies and energetics are rapidly emerging, generating a need for new innovative launcher technologies. In the near term, this means engineering ways to support a fast-arriving generation of ship-launched hypersonic weapons. This is the fundamental premise and concept of operation informing Northrop Grumman’s innovative EJECT launch technology, a system engineered to supplement VLS and support hypersonic missile as well as other emerging larger ship-fired missiles and weapons.

“The bottom line is that the Navy's surface ship launcher technology is kind of at a crossroads here. The current system was designed nearly half a century ago, and while still an elegant solution, the technology is aging. And when you look at the future, large surface combatants for example, DDG(X), the Navy’s next surface combatant is being designed now and will be at sea late into the century. The Navy needs a launcher that enables increased lethality and has the flexibility to address new threats,” Roy Pascal, Senior Program Manager at Northrop Grumman, told Warrior in an interview.

Video Above: A next generation destroyer called DDG(X) is designed to sail alongside existing DDG 51 destroyers

Pascal explained Northrop Grumman’s innovations to supplement VLS, which he called a very “elegant system.” Building upon this, Pascal added that the technological emphasis is to build upon ‘hot-launch’ technology by leveraging mature eject technology.

“Eject technology as you know is supported by either a compressed air system or a gas generator able to pressurize the volume beneath the missile, in its canister. This pressure then injects the missile out of the launcher [canister] at which time the missile ignites and flies away to perform a mission. In contrast to that, on surface ships, the Navy exclusively uses hot launch technology. Hot launch technology requires the missile's booster to be ignited within the launcher, such that the missile flies out under its own power,” Pascal said.

Emerging threats continue to generate a need for larger and more energetic or explosive weapons, given that enemy weapons are longer-range, more precise and increasingly capable of attacking a wider envelope of threats. This is the circumstance Northrop Grumman is hoping to address and be in front of. Enemy weapons, such as China’s DF-21 and DF-26, may increase a need for surface ships to operate at greater distance from its target.

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“The current surface ship launch technology is at its limit, and this is where eject technology comes in. Systems need to reach farther and faster. There's been a long-term trend of missiles getting larger and more energetic to address this need. And we don't see this trend ending anytime soon,” Pascal said.

Pascal explained some of the key technologies woven into the innovation behind Northrop Grumman’s technology and the new margin of difference it may provide:

“If you were to imagine launching a large missile off a ship, the thermal loads from the booster become immense and very difficult to manage. The missile releases this tremendous plume, which contains all kinds of damaging particulates, which then impacts the launcher, the ship’s deck, and any electronics in the area, for example, radars; those sorts of things that can get fouled with these particles. These plumes can be 100 feet in length and are very damaging. As you strive to launch larger, more powerful missiles, that plume gets worse. So fundamentally EJECT technology addresses these shortcomings,” said Pascal.

The key result of this technology is that there becomes little to no constraints upon missile size or energy due to the launcher, because, as Pascal explained, the boosters are not ignited until well above the platform.

“The plume impacts are greatly reduced, which is why Northrop Grumman believes that EJECT technology is the right technology for the future fleet. The plume impacts are greatly reduced and the plume lasts for a shorter duration of time impacting the platform. Though it is worth pointing out, we're not advocating replacement for the existing VLS system,” Pascal explained.

Mk-41 VLS

A RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) was launched from the Mk-41 VLS aboard a Royal Norwegian Navy Fridtjof Nansen class Frigate

The intent with the technology is to not only present near term options for the Navy but also approach the development of EJECT with a modular, open architecture technical framework to enable evolving and consistent modernization over time. For instance, Northrop Grumman engineers are exploring the prospect of different canister or launcher shapes to, as Pascal explained, “optimize for whatever payload you are shooting.”

“Eject technology canisters are typically cylindrical. And while existing VLS canisters are rectangular, it doesn't have to be constrained. We've looked at trapezoidal shaped canisters, for example. The point being is that you can adapt and optimize for whatever payload you're shooting,” Pascal said.

A modular approach relies upon and engineers a set of interfaces and technical standards such as common IP protocol to enable interoperability and continued maturation of the systems as new breakthroughs continue in coming years. Adaptability is the conceptual core of this approach.

The operational concept behind EJECT is grounded in a firm belief that the Navy does need a different launcher to improve lethality and flexibility for Navy surface ships in the future. In a broader sense, Northrop Grumman’s weapons innovations are intended to support the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy to support longer range, more lethal attack across disaggregated yet heavily networked forces.

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.

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President

Kris Osborn, Warrior Maven President, Center for Military Modernization