The US Navy’s ship-integrated Aegis Combat System has made several critical breakthrough steps forward in recent years. Software upgrades have helped enable the radar and fire control system to simultaneously conduct ballistic and cruise missile defense and also succeed in demonstrating an ability to intercept mock-ICBM targets with an SM-3 Block IIA just beyond the earth’s atmosphere.
Now, the Aegis system is taking new steps and demonstrating an ability to destroy incoming, lower-flying sea-skimming attacking cruise missiles. This is quite significant, as cruise missiles often fly at low altitudes parallel to the surface as a way to fly below the radar aperture or field of regard available on most ships.
Aegis is Showing Off What It Can Do
The service released a video a few months back showing its SM-2 interceptor missile destroying a GQM-163 mock cruise missile target, a significant element in the Navy’s ongoing efforts to strengthen and better network its layered system of ship defenses. The successful intercept may involve further software upgrades or technical adaptations to Aegis radar, the most recent variant being Baseline 10.
The Navy has also in recent years put through a “technical insertion” upgrade to further enhance the capabilities of Aegis Baseline 10. As an integrated system involving advanced, highly-sensitive radar, fire control technology and advanced computing, Aegis relies heavily upon software to improve functionality.
Aegis Can Be a Game-Changer
Not only can new Aegis applications perform air and cruise missile defense in tandem with ballistic missile defense simultaneously, but can now increasingly coordinate larger numbers of interceptor missions. Aegis radar hit new interceptor ranges with the emergence of its upgraded SM-3 Block IIA variant which not only improves size but also upgrades target discrimination through software enhancements. Most recently, the SM-3 Block IIA succeeded in intercepting an ICBM-like target just as it finishes the mid course phase and begins to re-enter the earth’s atmosphere.
The SM-6, an interceptor for closer-in medium-range targets, has also greatly improved in recent years with its dual-mode seeker able to send its own ping forward to adjust in flight to moving targets. With this technology, the SM-6 can adapt its course to changing targets without needing to rely upon a ship-based illuminator, a technology that has proven effective during use in the Navy’s Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air technology.
NIFC-CA, which has been deployed since 2015, uses Aegis radar and fire control in coordination with an aerial gateway sensor such as a Hawkeye or F-35 to find and track incoming enemy anti-ship missiles from ranges beyond the radar horizon and otherwise undetectable within the field or regard or aperture of most standard ship-based radar.
Once the aerial gateway sees the approaching threat, it can relay information to shipboard command and control at which point Aegis radar can cue and fire off an SM-6 interceptor to track and destroy the approaching enemy missile before it even enters a ship’s radar field of regard. This has been paradigm-changing for the Navy in terms of ship-defenses and protection for Carrier Strike Groups, and Navy weapons developers have considered offensive uses for NIFC-CA as well.
An SM-2, which was used to destroy the sea-skimming threat in a Navy video, is often used for even closer-in threats than an SM-6. It would be interesting and quite significant to learn what, if any, software or technical upgrades have improved SM-2 targeting and guidance systems. An ability to track and intercept a low-flying, sea skimming anti-ship missile closer in as it closes in on a ship adds a critical and arguably much needed element of layered ship defenses.
This kind of application of an SM-2 likely builds upon, extends or improves the mission also performed by the Navy’s Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block II, an upgraded ship-defense interceptor capable of tracking and intercepting in sea skimming mode as well.
Kris Osborn is the Military Affairs Editor of 19FortyFive and President of Warrior Maven – Center for Military Modernization. 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.