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Opinion: Expanding the Distributed Lethality Web

An F-35B Lightning II takes off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD-1) on May 25, 2015. US Navy Photo

An F-35B Lightning II takes off from the flight deck of the amphibious assault ship USS Wasp (LHD-1) on May 25, 2015. US Navy Photo

The U.S. Navy’s Aegis Weapon System revolutionized fleet air defense at the height of the Cold War. The 1983 commissioning of the first Aegis guided missile cruiser USS Ticonderoga (CG-47) and the 26 cruisers that followed provided the Navy with unrivaled capability at a time when an expansionist Soviet navy was bent on challenging the United States on the world’s oceans.
Armed with a variety of anti-ship cruise missiles launched from aircraft, surface ships, and submarines, the Soviet fleet focused on destroying aircraft carriers—the “crown jewels” of the U.S. Navy. In response, Aegis was the “shield of the fleet,” capable of detecting, tracking, and sorting through hundreds of contacts and engaging numerous targets simultaneously out to unprecedented ranges. Without doubt, Aegis ushered in a Navy-wide revolution at sea.

In mid-2016, 33 years since the Ticonderoga joined the fleet, the Navy has 86 Aegis cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class (DDG-51) destroyers in service. Aegis shields the fleet at sea and also forces and installations ashore against hostile aircraft and cruise missiles. Further, the Aegis defensive envelope has expanded exponentially to defeat ballistic missiles. Importantly, concepts like Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) and Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) are poised to re-revolutionize capabilities of the nation’s Aegis warships.

And this has implications for the Navy’s Distributed Lethality Task Force as it looks to expand offensive sea control capabilities and operations to hold our adversaries’ naval forces at risk – particularly the resurgent Russian and rising Chinese navies.

The most recent Aegis upgrade is Baseline 9 with the IAMD capability that enables a single surface warship to conduct ballistic missile defense and anti-air warfare simultaneously. Baseline 9 also connects the NIFC-CA architecture that is now at sea in growing numbers of surface warships. NIFC-CA uses Aegis radar, an airborne sensor – the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye airborne early warning (AEW) aircraft – and surface-to-air Standard missiles to detect, track, and engage airborne threats well beyond the horizon. Instead of working with traditional, two-dimensional, linear “kill chains,” naval strategist Norman Polmar explained that Aegis/IAMD/NIFC-CA “kill-webs” will permit various naval platforms to have access to sensors and targeting data – using highly advanced on-board, external, naval, and national sensors – rapidly and through secure links. It is the essence of distributed lethality.

A key component of the “kill web” in the near term is the SM-6 surface-to-air missile, which is now entering service. “We are going to create a brand-new capability,” according to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter. “We’re modifying the SM-6 so that, in addition to missile defense, it can also target enemy ships at sea at very long ranges.” Using both active and semi-active guidance, enabling offensive attacks that can discriminate between adversary and friendly/neutral targets, the Navy successfully tested the surface-to-surface-mode SM-6 in January 2016. And, the service is now introducing the SM-6 anti-ship modification into Baseline 9 Aegis warships.

The E-2D Advanced Hawkeye AEW aircraft link in the IAMD/NIFC-CA “kill web” is inextricably tied to the Navy’s nuclear-powered aircraft carriers (CVNs). These carriers deploy with four or five E-2 Hawkeyes, fourth-generation F/A-18 Hornet/Super Hornet fighter-attack aircraft, and helicopters. This has spawned proposals that Marine Corps fifth-generation F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) complement the CVN/E-2D Advanced Hawkeye in the Aegis/IAMD/NIFC-CA “kill web.”

Much like Tico’s debut in 1983, when the Marine’ F-35B JSF reached initial operational capability in July 2015 it marked yet another revolution at sea.

“A flying computer and sensor network that displays everything to the pilot on a helmet,”

Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert Work remarked. “I don’t consider it a fighter plane. I consider it a flying component of an air combat network. And the reason why we believe it is going to be so effective is because of the way it sucks in all the data and presents it to the pilot.”

The F-35B is a short takeoff/vertical landing (STOVL), supersonic, stealthy multi-role aircraft that will operate from the Navy’s nine large-deck amphibious assault ships (LHAs and LHDs) and from austere facilities ashore.

Using the F-35 as an airborne relay node or sensor to complement the E-2D Advanced Hawkeyes seems to be a winning proposition. What Deputy Secretary Work called “a flying component of an air combat network,” F-35 sensors include the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar capable of air-to-air operations, air-to-surface operations, and a broad spectrum of highly classified electronic warfare and intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions. The Distributed Aperture System (DAS) is a sensitive and discriminating array of six sensors that gives the pilot data not just from in front of the aircraft, but directly below, above and to the sides: 360-degree situational awareness. The aircraft’s Electro-Optical Targeting System (EOTS) carries out air-to-air and air-to-ground infrared searching, tracking and targeting.

An E-2D Hawkeye, assigned to the Tigertails of the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 125, prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) on April 28, 2015, while operating in U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. US Navy photo.

An E-2D Hawkeye, assigned to the Tigertails of the Carrier Airborne Early Warning Squadron (VAW) 125, prepares to launch from the flight deck of the aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt (CVN 71) on April 28, 2015, while operating in U.S. 5th Fleet area of operations. US Navy photo.

That said, one of the key challenges the Navy/Marine Corps team will have with F-35Bs on LHA/Ds compared to operating JSFs off a carrier is the lack of an E-2D to adequately connect the command element afloat and the aircraft in real time. The F-35B can complement the E-2D by providing target cueing data so that the E-2D can use its own sensor to locate and ID the target and generate a target-quality track; however, the F-35B without the Advanced Hawkeye does not have the command and control capability (like the E-2D or Aegis combat system) or the manpower to sufficiently ID targets and command and control multiple engagements. For example, while fitted with Link 16, the F-35B does not have Cooperative Engagement Capability, and there is no plan for the aircraft to get the CEC “box.”

Still, the increasing capabilities of the Aegis system – including advanced missile-defense weapons—coupled with F-35B aircraft operating from amphibious ships and the F-35C Navy variant JSF embarked on CVNs contribute to the evolving Distributed Lethality (DL) concept. DL will provide the U.S. Navy with needed offensive sea-control effectiveness to counter the “rising” Chinese and “resurgent” Russian threats to U.S. and allied naval forces. Indeed, “blending” Aegis with F-35B/C would result in the DL whole being significantly more than the sum of its individual parts.

The DL concept calls for a new approach for how the nation might use its naval air, surface and submarine forces as potential adversaries acquire advanced capabilities to control the sea in crisis and conflict. Expanding the offensive lethality of surface forces – which can be geographically distributed throughout maritime operating areas – will add another dimension to U.S. warfighting capability. And, shifting naval surface forces to the offensive to conduct lethal expanded sea-control operations will directly contribute to carrier/expeditionary strike group mission success.

“Distributing the lethality of the force allows you not only to continue to win today, but well into the future,” according to Vice Adm. Thomas Rowden, Commander of Naval Surface Forces. “It ensures that our adversaries and potential adversaries understand that we have a Navy that can execute sea control well. To be able to do that and do it effectively,” he explained in the U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, “you have to be able to execute not only the defensive operations but also significant offensive operations. That’s really where we are going.

Upgraded Aegis, advanced weapons, IAMD and NIFC-CA and the F-35 look to alter the strategic calculus for both offensive and defensive warfighting, thus meeting Vice Adm. Rowden’s intentions.

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller in February 2016 said that he wants to see amphibious forces participate in missions outside of traditional amphibious operations. The introduction of the F-35B brings a fifth-generation capability to the Marines several years before the Navy’s F-35C carrier variant reaches the Fleet. He said that previously, in a crisis, people would look to the aircraft carrier to respond. Now “with all due respect to the carrier strike group,” he suggested, “the next question’s going to be, where are the F-35s…. where are those Marine jets?

The Director of Expeditionary Warfare (N95) in the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations, Maj. Gen. Christopher Owens, emphasized the requirement to develop new concepts of employment that exploit the unique capabilities of both the JSF-enhanced amphibious ships and the carrier strike group. “As you look at having fifth-generation fighters aboard amphibious big decks before we have them aboard CVNs, we need to look at how we integrate the F-35Bs into the larger naval campaign – how to exploit what that aircraft provides without having the equivalent of an E-2 on the amphib. For instance, how can we pair up the amphibious big decks with the carrier strike groups to provide that fifth-generation capability to the larger fleet and integrate with the fourth-generation capability that is resident on the CVNs?”

“You can never replace the capability that a carrier strike group delivers,” Vice Adm. Rowden underscored to the Proceedings. “But I do think it’s important to understand what other tools may exist in the form of AFPs [Adaptive Force Packages]. … Imagine an AFP centered around an ARG [Amphibious Ready Group]. With the ARG’s current capabilities – including what’s flying off the decks of the ships, the Marines on board, and also the combat systems that are significant in our [San Antonio-class] LPD-17s and our large-deck amphibs – we also have to think ahead as we start to bring the F-35B into the force and understand what contributions it might bring to an adaptive force package that could perhaps be augmented by some of our guided-missile destroyers.”

The Republic of Korea destroyer ROKS Sejong the Great (DDG-991), front, the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73), left, the Republic of Korea corvette ROKS Yeosu (PCC-765), top, and the guided-missile destroyer USS Momsen (DDG 92), right, steam in formation during a maneuvering exercise in the Sea of Japan on May 25, 2016. US Navy photo.

The Republic of Korea destroyer ROKS Sejong the Great (DDG-991), front, the guided-missile destroyer USS Decatur (DDG 73), left, the Republic of Korea corvette ROKS Yeosu (PCC-765), top, and the guided-missile destroyer USS Momsen (DDG 92), right, steam in formation during a maneuvering exercise in the Sea of Japan on May 25, 2016. US Navy photo.

That transformation has already begun. In April 2016, a three-destroyer surface action group (SAG) – USS Decatur (DDG 73), Momsen (DDG 92) and Spru­ance (DDG 111) – deployed to U.S. 7th Fleet area of responsibility to test the DL concept. In late 2017, the F-35B will first deploy with the first expeditionary SAG comprising a big-deck amphib and a handful of cruiser or destroyer “shooters,” according to Adm. Scott Swift, U.S. Pacific Fleet commander.

“I think this is going to revolutionize where we are with expeditionary strike groups,” Adm. Swift noted. “The [2016] three-ship PAC SAG…will pave the way for another SAG, just like this one, attached to the large-deck amphib so that it will become what I’m calling an ‘Up-Gunned ESG’.”

There’s an international dimension to the Aegis/JSF “blend.” In addition to the U.S. Navy, five world navies operate or are acquiring Aegis warships:

  • Australia is building three Hobart-class destroyers
  • Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force has four Kongo and two Atago DDGs
  • Republic of Korea navy operates three Sejong the Great DDGs and has reviewed acquiring another three while pursuing as many as six KDX-IIA DDGs
  • Royal Norwegian Navy operates five Fridtjof Nansen frigates
  • Spain has five F-100 Alvaro de Bazan frigates

According to Lockheed Martin, “Joint coalitions with fleets of fully interoperable F-35s will have the capacity to operate with unimpeded collaboration, while maintaining security and air superiority.” The planned quantities of all three variants are as follows:

  • Australia, 100
  • Canada, 65
  • Denmark, 30
  • Israel, 33
  • Italy, 90
  • Japan, 42
  • Netherlands, 37
  • Norway, 52
  • South Korea 40
  • Turkey, 100
  • United Kingdom, 138
  • United States, 2,443

As Dr. Robbin F. Laird explained, “Aegis and the Joint Strike Fighter, as well as the interaction between them, demonstrate how the United States is using military technology to strengthen America’s worldwide network of alliances. To begin with,” he continued, “the programs are designed to strengthen the economic interdependence of America’s allies across the globe, with each nation embracing comparative advantages in producing various parts for the Aegis and JSF, as well as further innovating them. At the same time, systems like the F-35 and Aegis inherently foster greater interoperability between the militaries that use them.”

This insight will be important as DL wargames and experimentation include allies and maritime partners to help flesh out concepts of operations and tactics.

For example, an AFP/SAG/ESG comprising a large-deck LHA/LHD embarking F-35B strike-fighters, Aegis guided missile cruisers or destroyers, and perhaps an LPD-17 amphibious transport dock ship operating within the Aegis/IAMD/NIFC-CA/JFS “kill web” offers potentially game-changing results––complementing what the carriers bring to the equation.

To paraphrase a “bottom-line bumper-sticker” popular during the early years of the Aegis shipbuilding program: Aegis and the F-35B––don’t leave homeports without them.

 

  • the US will never buy more than 1000 airframes.

    • Trapperpk

      Of what? The F-35A, F-35B or F-35C? Follow the Marine ship build program and 200 F-35B’s is inadequate. The Navy will have probably 400 C’s and the Air Force alone needs over 1,000 for all its fourth generation fighter replacements. Maybe the build number could be for only 2,000 during the next 10 years for which 180 copies already exists. Beyond 2026, the count will rise with new upgrades on all F-35’s types along with new future funding.

  • Curtis Conway

    “…the F-35B without the Advanced Hawkeye does not have the command and control capability (like the E-2D or Aegis combat system) or the manpower to sufficiently ID targets…”.
    This activity is performed by software for the most part. The operator QA(s) that automated activity and either authorizes the engagement or not. A CEC software module could easily reside in the computer and facilitate engagements. Once again we have a combat system capability that is only understood as it resides in a specific configuration, rather than from a ‘capabilities’ standpoint. If the quality [timely tracking] data and specific function [fire control] can be serviced, then we should strive to make it happen in a new software construct.

    This “…“blending” Aegis with F-35B/C would result in the D[istributed] L[ethality] whole being significantly more than the sum of its individual parts.” . . . is recreating what once existed with the F-14 and Aegis (Link-4A) only with greater fidelity, baud rate, and the ability to share a weapon. This is not new. It just has a greater quantity of accurate fire control data within this engagement-ended construct, instead of just exchanging data and sharing it with the fleet so everybody else could get a local track and shoot.

    Vice Adm. Rowden’s Adaptive Force Packages augmented with a DDG-51 or two, would provide a force the adversary will ignore to its own detriment. This additional versatility in the fleet provides greater lethality to that battle force construct via the capabilities of the F-35B Combat System. With our fleet as small as it is, and growing ‘SO Slowly’, we simply must have innovative ways to provide more lethality with the aircraft (and their combat systems) we have, and the F-35B is the newest, available, and most capable in the short term. The F-35B is the only STOVL platform we have with this capability, short of another VSTOL/STOVL radar platform that can shoot. I suspect we will have a new “F-35 Orbit” of two aircraft that provides an OTH picture that will transpire in the short term.

    …and new build F-22s upgraded with GFE from the F-35 program will be much less expensive than 6th Generation Fighter development, and come along faster than a new development project. This new F-22 can use the more efficient, powerful Versatile, Affordable Advanced Turbine Engines (VAATE), which will also power the new bomber, and possibly be the upgrade for the F-35 down the road. We have some real core systems that can provide a lot across the board in a nearer term that we can probably afford.

    • r3mu511

      Re. CEC on the F-35: note that CEC uses a phased array antenna w/ 360 degree coverage as data exchange is via paired, highly directional transmissions. Thus for a F-35 to participate as a CEC node it would need antenna apertures giving full 360 degree coverage since the F-35’s physical location in the network may at times require it to form a transmit/receive pair to the side or behind it’s position.

      • Secundius

        It’s Called: “Compass Call”, CAEW – Conformal Airborne Early Warning, Phased Radar Array…

        • r3mu511

          ^That’s for a combo AEW+EW suite. We’re talking about if/how an F-35 would get CEC capability (presumably by acquiring an equivalent of the USG-3 CEC antenna).

          • Secundius

            There was TALK about Integrating a AESA Pod into the Fuselage of the F/A-35’s. Probably as part of the Ordnance Delivery System. The “Compass Call” would Probably Do Better on an Airframe like the MV-22C Osprey. Airborne Detection Range is ~200nmi…

          • r3mu511

            ^Was a CEC antenna mentioned as a possible capability to be added to that external F-35 pod?

          • Secundius

            As I Recall, it Wasn’t meant to be Externally Mounted. But Actually STAY Inside the Confines of the Weapons Bay or AS Part of the Fuselage Itself…

          • r3mu511

            ^Did they include CEC functionality in that proposal?

          • Secundius

            Not by Acronym NO, BUT was Spelled Out as Early as 2012. If CEC you’re referring to is Cooperative Engagement Capbility(ies)…

          • r3mu511

            Yep, that’s the one. Very interesting, do you have a link/url? I’ld like to read up on that F-35 proposed project.

          • Secundius

            Not Specifically NO. It was in a Copy of Aviation Week & Space Technology Magazine dated sometime around 2012. I was a Hospital Patient at the Time, and Friends brought me Magazines of Interest to Read while Recovering from an Accident…

          • r3mu511

            Ah ok, thanks anyway. Perhaps an easier way to give the F-35 CEC capability might be to use it’s MADL capability together w/ an E-2D. Since MADL already provides the F-35 w/ a highly directional, narrow beamwidth, low sidelobe data comm capability, while the E-2D already has an airborne USG version antenna for CEC data comms, then it might be easier to just add MADL to the E-2D (since it is a relatively large airframe and is not concerned about LO). That way an F-35 can xmit data via MADL to the E-2D (w/o the F-35 compromising it’s LO/VLO capab or at least limiting the chance of compromsing it), and the E-2D can then relay the data into the CEC network.

          • Secundius

            WHY WOULD IT? 35% of the Structural Airframe is Composite Carbon, ANY CAEW or AESA Phased Radar Would See Right Through the Aircraft…

          • r3mu511

            Are you asking why might data link xmission compromise the F-35 LO/VLO capab? Mainly b/c if the E-2D did not have MADL, and the F-35 had to use Link-16 to communicate w/ the E-2D, the fact that Link-16 is not a highly directional, low sidelobe, narrow beamwidth rf link would increase the chance of an enemy ESM detecting the Link-16 xmission from the F-35 (hence compromising LO/VLO). Otoh, if the E-2D had MADL, then b/c this is highly directional there is less of a chance an enemy ESM would detect an F-35 xmitting data to the E-2D.

          • Secundius

            Detection is the Vagrancies of ANY Conflict/War! Unless you Have a Gyro-Stabilized Communications System, Transmission Detection is Going to be You’re Number One Headache. “Bg-Fi” (a type of Li-Fi Signal), is probably going to be your Best Bet. In the Communications Warfare Department, and A Major Headache for the Enemy Especially in Detection and Deciphering. Because you can Disguise the Signal to Look Like Background Noise…

      • CharleyA

        May the F-35 can fly in circles – the whole program seems to be in a holding pattern.

    • CharleyA

      Yea, the 2B software in the F-35Bs now in service is not capable of providing theses service, and probably will not be enabled until Block 4.x (some 3F capabilities are being shifted to the right) sometime in the 2020s. This opinion piece seems a bit like reading an SLD blogpost, and even quoted one of their principals. BTW, Lockheed Martin funds SLD. Imagine that.

  • r3mu511

    86 Aegis ships in the USN? I believe that should be 84 ships: 22 Ticos and 62 Burkes. DDG-113 to -119 are still in the works.

  • Ed L

    F-35B can complement the E-2D by providing target cueing data. interesting sort of like being a Forward Observer, reporting back what they see. All on a data link.

    • r3mu511

      Problem is the F-35 datalinks are via Link-16 and MADL, while the E-2D links are via Link-16 and CEC-DDS. If the F-35 xmits via Link-16 it might compromise it’s LO/VLO capab since Link-16 is a nearly omnidirectional xmission w/c might be intercepted by enemy ESM (unlike MADL and CEC-DDS w/c are highly directional, narrow beamwidth, low sidelobe data comms). So it’s either they give the F-35 CEC-DDS, or they give the E-2D MADL.

  • PolicyWonk

    I would like to see our LPD-17 and LX(R) classes enhanced to include VLS and some Aegis capability as well. These are (and will be) substantial ships with plenty of space that could accommodate a considerable number of missiles (or other weapons, such as directed energy variants) to the mix.

    If every ship is to become a shooter, then these amphibs can add considerably to ARG defense.

  • 02144pomroy

    Aegis was the “shield of the fleet,” capable of detecting, tracking,
    and sorting through hundreds of contacts and engaging numerous targets
    simultaneously out to unprecedented ranges. Without doubt, Aegis ushered
    in a Navy-wide revolution at sea…….until………….Russian Sukhoi Su -24 with the newest jamming complex paralyzed
    in the Black Sea the most modern American combat management system
    “Aegis” installed on the destroyer “USS Donald Cook”. Pavel Zolotarev,
    Deputy Director, Institute of USA and Canada, shares details.