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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) 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).  NIFC-CA connects ship-based radar with an aerial sensor node such as an E2D Hawkeye or even an F-35 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 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 Navy report 

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. 

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The Navy’s ongoing Pacific Fleet maritime warfare assessments continue to break new ground with the use of manned-unmanned systems integration to strike targets at previously unreachable ranges, demonstrating emerging technology which shows both offensive and defensive maritime combat power possibilities. 

A long-range SM-6 missile was launched from a destroyer to eliminate what a Navy report calls a “long-range target” during a series of ongoing events aimed at evolving new paradigms for manned-unmanned systems maritime warfare.  Both drones and manned platforms established a “track for the launch,” a Navy essay explains.”

While many details of the actual SM-6 intercept, apart from the fact that it involved manned-unmanned networking, were not included, the apparent success of the launch raises interesting questions about the extent to which this kind of connectivity could be leveraged for both offensive and defensive operations.  There certainly would be numerous applications when it comes to defensive intercepts, as drones could help guide interceptor missiles more precisely to approaching ballistic missile targets. At the same time, there is no reason to presume this kind of extended information relay could not also be used for offensive maritime warfare operations as well. Perhaps an aerial drone operating hundreds of miles from surface ships could identify targets for long-range ship-fired weapons. 

With this in mind, the use of an SM-6 seems significant as it is used in the Navy’s Naval Integrated Fire Control - Counter Air system which uses an aerial relay node to find enemy targets from beyond the horizon and link targeting data with ship based fire control. The concept of NIFC-CA began to identify incoming anti-ship missiles at previously undetectable ranges, however the successful maturation and deployment of the system introduced new questions about whether it could be used offensively. 

The answer to this appears to be a clear yes. If an aerial sensor can find approaching targets to destroy, then it certainly might also be able to locate points for attack. An SM-6 is uniquely capable of this kind of multi-mission operational envelope, because it has not only received numerous guidance and range enhancing software upgrades, but it also makes use of a dual mode seeker.  A dual mode seeker is able to help maneuver the missile and, if needed, change course in flight to hit a maneuvering target because it has its own built-in seeker able to send its own electronic “ping” forward, therefore removing a need to rely upon a ship-based illuminator.  

This greatly enhances target-guidance flexibility by virtue of extended networking. If, as this ongoing Navy event suggests, the service is increasingly able to employ drones and other unmanned platforms to expedite and improve this process, many new attack possibilities are likely to emerge moving forward. 

The range dimension to this seems to, perhaps quite deliberately, align with the Navy’s Distributed Maritime Operations strategy based upon the recognition that future maritime warfare will need to be more dispersed, disaggregated and networked to operate in extremely high-threat modern great power war environments. Certainly a less condensed force is a less vulnerable one when it comes to averting enemy fire. At the same time, the Navy strategy is based  upon two key additional principles … enemy forces are expected to use much longer-range precise weapons and sensors operating across vast distances, creating a need for secure multi-domain networking. 

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

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.