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By Kris Osborn

Allowing Navy ships to operate in closer proximity to enemy weapons.

The Navy is building and testing a fleet of upgraded DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with a series of next-generation technologies -- including an ability to detect and destroy incoming enemy anti-ship cruise missiles at farther ranges from beyond the horizon.

The new fire-control system, called Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air, or NIFC-CA, is now deployed on a Navy cruiser serving as part of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group in the Arabian Gulf, Navy officials told Scout Warrior.

The technology enables ship-based radar to connect with an airborne sensor platform to detect approaching enemy anti-ship cruise missiles from beyond the horizon and, if needed, launch an SM-6 missile to intercept and destroy the incoming threat, Navy officials said.

The airborne sensor, which can help relay threat signals from beyond-the-horizon, can be an E2-D Hawkeye surveillance plane or another air platform. Some industry sources have even suggested that the platform could be an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter due to its advanced sensors and communications technology.

NIFC-CA presents the ability to extend the range of missiles and sensors by netting different sensors of different platforms -- both sea-based and air-based together into one fire control system, Navy officials explained

NIFC-CA is part of an overall integrated air and missile defense high-tech upgrade now being installed and tested on existing and new DDG 51 ships called Baseline 9.

The system hinges upon an upgraded ship-based radar and computer system referred to as Aegis Radar –- designed to provide defense against long-range incoming ballistic missiles from space as well as nearer-in threats such as anti-ship cruise missiles, he explained.

“Integrated air and missile defense provides the ability to defend against ballistic missiles in space while at the same time defending against air threats to naval and joint forces close to the sea,” he said.

The NIFC-CA system successfully intercepted a missile target from beyond the horizon during testing last year aboard a Navy destroyer, the USS John Paul Jones. The NIFC-CA technology can, in concept, be used for both defensive and offensive operations, Navy officials have said.

Having this capability could impact discussion about a Pentagon term referred to as Anti-Access/Area-Denial, wherein potential adversaries could use long-range weapons to threaten the U.S. military and prevent its ships from operating in certain areas -- such as closer to the coastline.

Having NIFC-CA could enable surface ships, for example, to operate more successfully closer to the shore of potential enemy coastlines without being deterred by the threat of long-range missiles.

For example, the Chinese DF-21D anti-ship cruise missile is purported to be able to reach ranges of 900 nautical miles. Without proper defensive technology, this so-called “carrier-killer” weapon could force U.S. Navy carrier strike groups to operate further from the coastline. With an operational defensive system such as NIFC-CA, this might no longer be the case.

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SM-6 Missile

The SM-6 missile provides an integral part of the NIFC-CA system; the missile has a much longer range than many closer-in ship defenses such as the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile, Rolling Airframe Missile, SeaRam, SM-2 interceptor or Close-In-Weapons-System. In addition, the SM-6 is engineered with what’s called an “active” seeker in addition to a “semi-active” seeker. This means the missile itself can send an electromagnetic “ping” forward to help guide itself toward a target instead of merely passively receiving signals and needing additional guidance from a ship-based illuminator.

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“The active component of the seeker allows you to go after the target that might be doing more than what you expect. The threat might start to weave, bounce up and down in altitude. The SM-6 will have an ability to make those changes to go pursue those threats,” Thadeous Smith, Raytheon Business Development Manager, SM-6, told Scout Warrior in an interview.

One the SM-6 uses its active seeker, it is possible to launch another missile and have more missiles in-flight at one time, Smith added.

“The SM-6 gives you the advantage to attrite things further out with the added seeker and an over the horizon capability to potentially engage targets that maybe your ship does not even see,” he explained.

At least 250 SM-6 missiles have been produced as part of a Navy plan to acquire as many as 1,800 across the fleet. The Navy and Raytheon are now conducting some Follow-On-Test-and-Evaluation of the missile as a way to finalize its preparation for operational service and potential combat.

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Distributed Lethality

Defensive applications of NIFC-CA would involve detecting and knocking down an approaching enemy anti-ship missile, whereas offensive uses might include efforts to detect and strike high-value targets from farther distances than previous technologies could. The possibility for offensive use parallels with the Navy’s emerging “distributed lethality” strategy, wherein surface ships are increasingly being outfitted with new or upgraded weapons.

The new strategy hinges upon the realization that the U.S. Navy no longer enjoys the unchallenged maritime dominance it had during the post-Cold War years.

During the years following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy shifted its focus from possibly waging blue-water combat against a near-peer rival to focusing on things such as counter-terrorism, anti-piracy and Visit, Board Search and Seizure, or VBSS, techniques.

While these missions remain important, the Navy is again shifting its focus toward near-peer adversaries and seeking to arm its fleet of destroyers, cruisers and Littoral Combat Ships with upgraded or new weapons designed to increase its offensive fire power.

The “distributed” portion of the strategy suggests the fleet will, at times, distribute or disperse itself over a wider area to minimize or spread-out its target signature to potential adversaries and also make use of emerging longer-range precision weapons which can hold enemies at risk from safer distances.