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by Kris Osborn

The Navy's SeaRAM ship-based defensive missile succeeded in attacking and destroying an aerial drone designed to mirror an anti-ship missile target as part of a Littoral Combat Ship's Combat System Qualification Trials, service officials said. 

The test, which took place aboard the Navy's USS Jackson LCS off the coast of California, was designed to test the ship's ability to track and disable high-speed maneuvering surface targets and defeat long range anti-shipping air threats, a Navy statement said. The assessment also included the firing of the LCS' 57mm gun against fast attack craft.

Arming the Surface Fleet With SeaRam

The qualification testing was intended to fortify a broader Navy effort to further arm its surface fleet with SeaRam missiles, defensive weapons engineered to fire from the MK-49 Guided Missile Launching System, or GMLS.

In recent months, the Navy has begun arming forward-deployed destroyers with the emerging SeaRam ship-defense weapon able to track and destroy attacking enemy missiles, drones, aircraft, small boats and other threats, officials said.

The SeaRAM weapons system, designed to fire Rolling Airframe Missiles out of a Close-in-Weapons System, is planned to operate on the USS Porter, USS Carney, USS Ross and USS Donald Cook, Navy officials have said.

“SeaRAM combines two highly successful U.S. Navy systems: the MK 15 Close-In Weapon System (CIWS) and the MK 31 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) launching system,” the Navy official said.

The SeaRAM system builds upon the infrastructure and radar of the Close-in-Weapons-System, or CIWS. CIWS' Phalanx weapon fires a 20mm cannon at close-in threats such as small boats. The SeaRAM is part of a layered ship-defense system designed to identify and destroy longer-range approaching enemy threats, such as anti-ship missiles, drones, small boats and helicopters.

The idea is to supplement and build upon the defensive power of the CIWS, an area weapon which fires multiple projectiles from a Phalanx gun system to destroy approaching air and surface threats; SeaRAM increases the envelope of attacking threats a ship can defend against and hits targets at farther ranges than CIWS. Navy officials tell Scout Warrior they are very enthusiastic about SeaRAM, as it is the kind of weapon that enables ships to operate in a higher-threat environment.

“SeaRAM combines the RAM's accuracy, range and high maneuverability with the Phalanx Block 1B's high-resolution search-and-track sensor systems and rapid-response capability to give our ships enhanced defense-in-depth vs. a variety of potential threats,” a Navy spokesman added.

The CIWS ship self-defense weapon can fire 4,500 rounds per minute; the SeaRAM weapon replaces the gun with larger, longer-range Rolling Airframe Missiles.

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“SeaRAM takes the defense envelope on a ship and expands it further out away from the ship. Rolling Airframe Missiles have a longer range than a gun and have the capability to engage multiple targets simultaneously,” Rick McDonnell, Program Director of Close-In Defense Solutions at Raytheon Missile Systems, told Scout Warrior in an interview last year.

Unlike the CIWS weapons which, as an area-defense weapon, uses a 20mm cannon to shoot down threats close to a ship, SeaRAM fires a Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) from an 11-missile battery, Raytheon officials explained.

“The RAM Block 2 missile completed a series of successful tests against subsonic and supersonic targets during its development, culminating in the program achieving Initial Operational Capability (IOC) in May 2015. Testing has utilized both the MK-49 launcher and the SeaRAM launcher during test scenarios emulating real-world threats,” a Navy official explained.

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The SeaRAM system is being installed on ships of the LCS class and can be incorporated into amphibs, carriers and other ships. It is one of a menu of options being considered to increase surface ships' self-defense capabilities.

SeaRAM on the Littoral Combat Ship

The USS Jackson's exercise was not the first time the SeaRAM weapon was demonstrated from a Littoral Combat Ship.

During a previous test more than a year ago aboard LCS 2, the SeaRAM missile engaged and destroyed an aerial drone. This was the first shipboard firing of the new weapon, which emerged from extensive planning, assessment, modeling and simulation, Navy officials said.

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U.S. Navy

The Rolling Airframe Missile is what defense experts call a “fire and forget” missile, meaning it uses an RF or radio frequency detection technology along with a heat-seeking infrared sensor to find its way toward an approaching threat in order to intercept and destroy it.

The SeaRAM also provides an advantage to the Littoral Combat Ship because it is a self-contained system, meaning it uses its own radar, software and sensors without needing to occupy other technologies or systems on the ship.

“SeaRAM will take out cruise missiles, maneuvering UAS (unmanned aircraft systems or drones) and other surface threats. What you really gain is a layered defense ability and an independent radar so that you gain a lot of situational awareness as well as increased range,” McDonnell said.

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The Navy is developing two distinct variants of the Littoral Combat Ship – a trimaran hull variant called “Independence” and a flat-bottomed ship called the “Freedom” variant.

The SeaRAM is already installed on many of the trimaran hull Independence variants of the LCS and is slated to be integrated onto the Freedom variants starting with LCS 17.

Navy officials also said SeaRAM will be integrated onto its now-in-development fleet of Frigates - those more survivable variants of the LCS which emerged out of the Small Surface Combatant program.

SeaRAM is designed as an integral part of a layered ship-defense apparatus engineered to build-in redundancy and increase the likelihood that approaching enemy fire is destroyed.

For example, a Navy destroyer would likely use a Standard Missile-3, or SM-3 to defend against an attacking long-range ballistic missile threat flying through space toward a target. Medium range anti-ship missiles or sea-skimming enemy rockets could be destroyed by an SM-2 or SM-6 interceptor. Threats a bit closer could be taken out by an Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, or ESSM, or SeaRAM before a Close-In-Weapons-System strikes down approaching fire.

Arming destroyers and the Littoral Combat Ship with SeaRAM can easily be interpreted as being part of the Navy's larger "distributed lethality" strategy wherein the service seeks to arm its surface fleet with a much larger number of offensive and defensive weapons.

The idea is to help the Navy return more fully to a focus on "blue water" combat against potential "near-peer" adversaries following a decade of ground wars wherein the Navy expended more effort on things like counter-piracy, Visit Board Search and Seizure and counter-terrorism.