Navy Finding Offensive Uses For Defensive Systems to Support Distributed Lethality

December 1, 2015 5:06 PM
USS Preble (DDG-88) conduct an operational tomahawk missile launch while underway in a training area off the coast of California in 2010. US Navy photo.
USS Preble (DDG-88) conducts an operational Tomahawk missile launch while underway in a training area off the coast of California in 2010. US Navy photo.

The Navy is finding new uses for old defensive systems in an effort to both add offensive lethality to its ships and to better protect ships against evolving global threats, several admirals said Tuesday.

The surface navy in January unveiled a “distributed lethality” concept that would guide its operational thinking going forward: if every ship on the ocean has lethal offensive capabilities, no ship can be overlooked by the enemy, changing the enemy’s behavior. Many ships have strictly defensive missions – such as a cruiser protecting the aircraft carrier – but the Navy is now looking at how to put offensive systems onto those ships.

Vice Adm. Tom Rowden, commander of naval surface forces, said during a panel presentation at the America Society of Naval Engineers’ Combat Systems Symposium on Dec. 1 that he hopes engineers in Navy and industry will feel a greater urgency to explore “what the art of the possible is with respect to the weapons systems and weapons we have and how we might be able to use them in new and innovative ways to change the rules in the middle of the game.”

One recent example of this is taking a proven defensive system – the Standard Missile 6 air defense missile – and giving it offensive capabilities as well.

“There are systems that we’re using that we’re moving from defensive capability into a very aggressive offensive capability,” Program Executive Officer for Integrated Warfare Systems (PEO IWS) Rear Adm. Jon Hill said during the panel discussion, referring to the SM-6.

Surface Ship Weapons Office Program Manager Capt. Michael Ladner told USNI News in November that he was pursuing software-only upgrades to the missile that would allow it to take on other missions, which he said he could not discuss. But he said the new missions “focus on distributed lethality and shifting to an offensive capability to counter our adversaries’ [anti-access/area-denial] capabilities.”

Hill said the Navy was looking for additional over-the-horizon missiles, and “we’re going to start with what we can pull out of industry today and we’re going to extend that in the future.”

Director of Surface Warfare (OPNAV N96) Rear Adm. Peter Fanta said during the panel discussion that he is similarly looking at new uses for the Tomahawk land attack cruise missile.

“We still have a requirement for a Tomahawk cruise missile to attack surface ships sitting on the books – in fact, it’s been reiterated for the past 15 years that we still have that requirement,” he said.
“It’s amazing what you do when you dust off an old requirement and say I’m going to do this again. Let me put it this way: we know what the Tomahawk is capable of – the reason we got rid of it was because our sensors were not long-range enough to keep up with the range of the Tomahawk. Our sensors have evolved to the position now where we can track and target things out to the range of a Tomahawk, so now we have a need for something Tomahawk-esque to go out and reach out that far.”

Speaking to how this reuse of the Tomahawk missile would fit into the distributed lethality concept, Fanta said, “so imagine what happens when I’m carrying 3,000 Tomahawks at sea at any one time and they become dual-mission or multi-mission weapons. I don’t care which adversary you are on the face of the earth, 3,000 missiles coming at you at the same time is a really bad day. That’s the idea behind, can we make this thing do more than one [mission]. That’s what we’re talking about, evolving the capabilities that we have. I’ve got a great truck, it’s a big missile sitting inside my [vertical launching system] cells right now. What else can we do with it? How else can we make it work? What other things could we put on it or make it do?”

Fanta added that the Tomahawk missile will be in the fleet until the 2040s, so “I think I better figure out more things to do with it than just hit a spot on a beach.”

In addition to repurposing defensive systems to support the distributed lethality concept, the Navy is also finding new uses for defensive systems to further protect the fleet in a constrained budget environment.

In one example from earlier this year, the Navy needed a way to better protect its four Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) destroyers forward stationed in the Mediterranean Sea. Since the ships are so focused upward on searching for missile threats, they became vulnerable themselves to cruise missiles and other incoming munitions, Hill told USNI News in September. Rather than station another ship nearby to protect the BMD destroyer, Navy engineers realized they could install Raytheon’s Sea Rolling Airframe Missile (SeaRAM) anti-ship missile defense system onto the ships – even though SeaRAM had never been integrated with a destroyer or its Aegis Combat System before.

Without naming the specific new threat, Fanta said during the discussion that “a new threat pops up in the Eastern Mediterranean, we have a very low probability of kill against that new threat. Within six months, we had moved over $50 million. Jon Hill had found a contractor that was building a new asset. We redirected new mounts and new systems out to those destroyers. His testing folks decided how it could actually be done better, faster, cheaper and smarter. We shipped the mounts to the Mediterranean – never been done to do an install in the Mediterranean. And now we’re testing it in the Mediterranean in the Spanish ranges.

“We went from a probability of kill of very low to a probability of kill of pretty damn high,” Fanta continued.
“That’s engineers, money folks, training folks from [Rear Adm.] Jim Kilby – Jim Kilby set up a training regiment that actually taught them how to use it. That’s Tom Rowden talking about what we need where and how to get the ships actually in the fight and allow them to survive up to a coast that now gets a little more unfriendly.”

Fanta said that whole process would normally take seven or eight years, but instead the Navy responded quickly to a February urgent operational need and is now testing the solution at sea. If the Navy continues to respond to new threats in that same manner, he said, the service can outpace any threat in the world.

Kilby, commander of the recently stood-up Naval Surface and Mine Warfighting Development Center, said during the panel presentation that one of his warfare tactics instructors, a lieutenant, went out with the fleet to understand the new SeaRAM/Aegis destroyer combination and write the doctrine behind operating this new capability. Kilby signed the new doctrine two weeks ago, so as soon as the ships complete their testing the fleet will be ready to teach sailors how to operate this new combination.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

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