Opinion: U.S. Navy Entering New Future of Electronic Warfare

October 29, 2014 11:15 AM - Updated: October 30, 2014 10:24 AM
An artist concept of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) and both variants of the Littoral Combat Ship using the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP). Lockheed Martin image
An artist concept of USS Gerald R. Ford (CVN-78) an Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer, USS Zumwalt (DDG-1000) and both variants of the Littoral Combat Ship using the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP). Lockheed Martin image

In the ever-evolving saga of defense budget cuts and sequestration, the cruise missile threats to our surface fleet are not standing still. As we have seen in instances ranging from the Israeli patrol boat INS Hanit attacked off of Lebanon in 2006 to the cat and mouse games that are played during each and every Strait of Hormuz transit of U.S. Navy forces, the anti-ship cruise missile threat is growing and we cannot afford to lose our advantage to counter these multi-dimensional threats.

The U.S. led the way in cruise missile defense with the development of the AN/SLQ-32 electronic warfare suite. Conceived in the 1970’s, the “Slick-32” was a combination electronic jammer, target system and detector focused on the emerging cruise missile threat of the 1980s. Instead of destroying a missile with another missile — or a hail of bullets — like the Navy’s close-in defense systems, the Slick-32 used the electromagnetic spectrum by jamming or deploying decoys to confuse enemy missile’s guidance system.

There were several modifications made to the system over the years to include upgrades to the threat library and various decoy launching systems.

Then, U.S. Navy had one prime enemy, the Soviet Union. The threat to our surface ships was long range cruise missiles from Backfire bombers and Slava class guided missile cruisers. The battles were going to be fought at great distances and in deep ocean basins.

Today the landscape has changed. When I deployed to the Arabian Sea in the early 80’s, it was almost impossible to think that we would deploy a carrier strike group in the Persian Gulf.

It was too shallow and there was not enough space to maneuver to launch and recover aircraft. How times have changed. Today our maritime forces are operating regularly in the littorals and the reaction time to counter today’s threats is measured in seconds.

During the Cold War we employed long-range maritime aircraft to see the threats hundreds of miles over the horizon. In today’s littoral battle space the threats could come from shore based batteries or fast patrol boats with little warning.
Our ability to counter these threats must be swift and precise; there is little time for error.

Realizing that the gap between our capabilities to defend our combatants and the threat of anti-ship missiles was decreasing, the Navy has fully funded the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP). This program is designed to replace the AN/SLQ-32 hardware with the most up-to-date technology to meet the multi-threats of the future.

The SEWIP program will play a major role in our increased war fighting capabilities for our maritime forces as the U.S. Navy pivots the Asia – Pacific region. The new system will address current gaps and emerging new threats where adversaries pose a growing threat of anti-access/area denial (A2/D2) to our maritime forces.

Additionally, SEWIP will enhance the surface warfare community’s ability to maintain dominance in the electromagnetic spectrum with improved sensors and threat matrix upgrades. Like its predecessor, SEWIP is designed with a built in capability for enhanced block upgrades. Block II will focus on improved Electronic Support Measures (ESM) while Block III will be designed for Electronic Attack (EA) to meet a broad range of threats using false target generation.

Like most program requirements today, the SEWIP is scalable for surface combatants ranging from the Littoral Combat Ship (LCS) to the Aegis cruiser and plans are being made for international sales in the future.

These first contract awards are a great start, but the Navy can do more. It has been a long time since the Navy has fully funded EW programs and the enemy is starting to catch up with us. The service needs to maintain EW funding and not make it a bill-payer for other programs and get the capability to fleet as soon as possible.

Rear Adm. Terry McKnight, USN (Retired)

Rear Adm. Terry McKnight, USN (Retired)

Rear Adm. Terry McKnight served as commander, Expeditionary Strike Group 2, from 2008 to 2009 and was the first commander of Combined Task Force 151. He is the author of “Pirate Alley – Commanding Task Force 151 off Somalia.”

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