The U.S. Navy’s Aegis program was born as the solution to a physics problem: Given that hostile variable-geometry wing Soviet Tupolev Tu-22M Backfire bombers travel at speeds approaching Mach 2, what would a ship-based radar and missile system need to do to hurl an object into the air to intercept an object flying at almost twice the speed of sound?
The Navy’s answer took to sea in 1983 when USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) — an adapted version of the Navy’s tried and true Spruance-class destroyer —commissioned into the service with one of the largest air-search radars ever seen on a warship at the time.
Thirty years after Ticonderoga, the basic components of the Aegis system on cruisers and destroyers have remained largely the same — the SPY-1 radar and the contents of vertical launch systems — but the threats have gotten faster and deadlier.
In the past ten years, the Navy has tweaked Aegis to find and hit ballistic missile targets at speeds up to ten times as fast as Backfires at altitudes that end at the bottom reaches of space.
“We’ve gotten pretty darn good at ballistic missile defense because of the flexibility in the Aegis system to accept that additional mission area, far beyond what the originator and forefathers of Aegis thought [possible],” Capt. Jim W. Kilby,
deputy for ballistic missile defense, Aegis, destroyers and Future Surface Combatants (N96F) for the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations (OPNAV), told USNI News in an April interview.
But the Navy says the threats are still getting tougher — and there are more of them.
The service has long warned of the rise of easily accessible inexpensive guided missiles and other anti-access area denial defenses emerging throughout the world, which the service needs to combat.
The Navy is now working to blend that ballistic missile defense (BMD) mission with the legacy “classical” anti-air warfare mission and an emerging threat of cruise missiles, in a blend of capabilities the Navy has dubbed Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD).
“Ships and strike groups are going to be forced to contend with the simultaneity of a ballistic missile and a cruise missile at the same time and how do we align ourselves to do that to project power, do the missions assigned and protect the force and continue to do that over a sustained period of time?” Kilby said.
“The ability and the necessity for us to embrace this integrated air and missile defense world we’re going to be in is the genesis of the thought process.”
The first steps for IAMD are part of the latest upgrade to the Aegis combat system — Baseline 9.
The upgrade — in four separate versions — will add computer hardware and (on some versions) a new signal processor on Aegis ships and the Aegis Ashore ground installations to provide the combat systems the options to track and fire at aircraft, cruise missile threats or belligerent ballistic missiles.
“In the older BMD baselines I set up my radar and depending how far the threat was and complex the threat was would generate how much of my radar I need to apply to that mission,” Kilby said. “Now I have the ability to change modes from a BMD only to an IAMD mode to an air defense mode so I can more discretely allocate that radar to do what I need it to do.”
The four versions are:
9A: Upgrade for Ticonderoga-class cruisers that does not include BMD capabilities.
9C: Upgrades Arleigh Burke guided missile destroyers with the Lockheed Martin Multi-Mission Signal Processor that will allow the destroyers to switch between BMD and the air defense role.
9D: Is a variant of the 9C program for new construction ships, starting with the planned John Finn (DDG-113).
9E: Is the Baseline 9 variant for the Navy’s Aegis Ashore program.
“Now you have the computing horsepower board these ships with the new computers and new consoles, which allows an increase in the multi-mission capability,” Jim Sheridan, Aegis program manager for Lockheed Martin told USNI News in an April interview.
The software for the system will come from a common source software library and run on commercial-off-the-shelf IBM Blade severs that would be recognizable to most IT pros.
NIFC-CA: ‘A Big Deal’
While Baseline 9 can give destroyers more flexibly to fight anti-air threats for individual ships, the systems upgrades — paired with the new Standard Missile (SM) 6 — are rapidly expanding the reach of the ship’s weapons systems for an entire battle group.
Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air—or NIFC-CA (pronounced: nifk-kah) seeks to blend the Navy’s surface weapon systems with carrier-based aircraft to create a targeting web of sensors tied together with high volume data-links.
“NIFC-CA is a big deal,” Capt. Andrew Hesser, skipper of USS Chancellorsville (CG-62) — the first Baseline 9 cruiser — told USNI News on a visit to the ship pierside at Naval Station San Diego, Calif., in March. “It’s a hugely important capability because it extends the battle space.”
The SM-2 — which debuted with Ticonderoga — has a range of about 100 miles, while the new SM-6 can fire beyond the range of the sensors on the ship, though the Navy wouldn’t get specific on the SM-6 ranges.
“You need to be able to see the target because organic sensors can’t target out over the horizon so easily because of the curvature of the earth, and the height of the radar,” Hesser said. “If you can get targeting, the SM-6 can engage it.”
Chancellorsville was in the midst of testing the new Baseline 9 configuration when an errant Northrop Grumman BQM-74 target drone struck the ship during its Combat System Ship Qualification Trials in November.
“The first CSSQT event resulted in the drone mishap so we didn’t get a chance to shoot the 11 missiles we had on board that we were scheduled to fire and we’ve had to take time out to repair the ship,” Hesser said.
The lead for Baseline 9 testing shifted to the East Coast following the mishap.
The current round of testing will culminate in the deployment of the first NIFC-CA capable carrier strike group with the deployment of USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN-71) later this year.
Baseline 9 and the new NIFC-CA paradigm offer a potentially new lease on life for the Aegis platform while the Navy begins development effort for the new Raytheon Air Missile Defense Radar which will equip the service’s Flight III Arleigh Burke destroyers.
As the Navy continues to develop NIFC-CA, it’s currently tied to a carrier centric model that relies on aircraft — primarily the Navy’s new E-2D Advanced Hawkeye radar aircraft — to provide the target tracking information to the ships and their SM-6s.
“One of the limitations of NIFC-CA is the E-2D,” Hesser said.
“You can do NIFC-CA shots with two Baseline 9 ships. Now it doesn’t really optimize its extended range capability; you need an airborne sensor and that sensor is the E-2. But there are a limited number of E-2s and one of the issues with doing NIFC-CA is getting the E-2 out on station.”
The use of sensors other than on the ship will also result in changing procedures on how the ships employ their weapons and how to position other assets to help create a viable sensor net.
“If I’m an Aegis ship and I have to conduct an organic engagement, I used to have to go through a set of procedures to make sure that my track data was good enough to fire that missile and consummate that engagement,” Kilby said.
“Now if I’m using another sensor, I have to talk to that other sensor. I have to talk to that other sensor way in advance. ‘Hey, I’m thinking about doing this? Are you in a position to do that? You need to move or relocate.’ It enters a level of coordination we’ve never had to execute before and a level of integration between aircrews and ship crews.”
NIFC-CA will also change how the strike group fights and trains as a whole.
“That’s the power of NIFC-CA, the ability for all of these disaggregated forces to act together for a greater composite unit strength than the individual ones applies, as we have in the past,” Kilby said. “[But] when I introduce that capability, I have to address it in pipeline training before I show up to my ship.”
The Navy has conducted NIFC-CA war games and will conduct additional training as part of the workups for the Roosevelt CSG deployment — but the service has been reluctant to go into details on the practical training.
Kilby and N96 are already thinking about how to make the ability of the Baseline 9 ships less reliant on the assets of the carrier strike group and still get the maximum punch from the system.
Among the ideas include creating an organic unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for Aegis ships with the necessary data links to provide the tracking and targeting data to the ship’s systems.
“When I think about the future of integrated fires, I don’t pin it to a single key platform,” he said.
“We started out with a Tomahawk weapon system that’s very different from the weapon we have today.”
N96 has been working with OPNAV’s air arm to look at ways NIFC-CA can extend the utility of the concept for individual ships.
Turning a Corner
The most recent IAMD push from the Navy is the clearest direction the surface forces have established after a decade of starts and stops.
In the 2000s, the Navy was focused on developing two high-end surface warfare combatants — the Zumwalt-class DDG-1000 destroyer and the next-generation cruiser (CGX) — as part of then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s transformation doctrine.
The Navy cancelled the CGX based on the incredible expense of the planned ships and limited the DDG-1000 to three hulls.
High-end surface warfare took a backseat to the land wars in Iraq and Afghanistan
Aside from the success of the BMD missions, the Aegis program made the most headlines due to problems in the force.
The 2010 final report of the Fleet Review Panel of Surface Force Readiness (short-handed as the Balisle Report, after panel leader, retired Vice Adm. Philip Balisle) found the condition of the Aegis systems fleet wide suffering due to lack of parts, training and lack of qualified personnel.
“That was the biggest klaxon at the time and that brought everyone’s focus to bear,” Kilby said.
In 2011, the Navy kicked off the Aegis wholeness project and four years after the Balisle report, the Navy claims the day-to-day Aegis woes are largely behind them.
What remains to be seen is how well the Navy can integrate the new surface capabilities into the fleet.
“We are entering for the first time into the world of integrated air and missile defense,” Kilby said.
“Let’s get good at it.”