Navy Air Defense Mission in the Red Sea Makes Case for Directed Energy Weapons, Says VCJCS Grady

May 1, 2024 6:58 PM
Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Adm. Christopher Grady. DoD Photo

Downing Iranian-supplied missiles and drones with multi-million dollar SM-2 missiles to protect shipping in the Red Sea and Gulf of Aden is a bad exchange that must change, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said Wednesday.

“It has been an air-defense fight” in which the Navy and Air Force, along with allies and partners in Operation Prosperity Guardian, have largely prevailed in demonstrating “how we bring defense in depth,” Adm. Christopher Grady said during a U.S. Naval Institute-CSIS Maritime Security Dialogue.

To change the cost-benefit equation, he wants more directed energy systems deployed “where a drop of fuel becomes a weapon” to destroy attacking unmanned systems.

For the Navy, in particular, he said Red Sea operations have shown how “the ships, carrier and air wing” can “learn quickly and fast” in responding to evolving threats that have included ship hijackings, unmanned surface and subsurface vessels’ attacks, in addition to missile and unmanned aerial vehicle strikes.

But “the solution [in the Red Sea] is not a military solution,” he said, referring to the larger conflict between Israel and Hamas that began in October. The fighting in Gaza shows no signs of ending soon. The Iran-backed Houthis in Yemen, when they began attacking merchant shipping heading to and from the Suez Canal, said their strikes would be limited to vessels delivering goods to Israel.

As months passed, the attacks became indiscriminate, including on U.S. Navy ships participating in Operation Prosperity Guardian, an international effort by more than 20 nations like the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia, to protect merchant shipping in the region.
“I would like to see more from concerned stakeholders,” Grady added.

As part of Prosperity Guardian, the U.S. and U.K. have carried out airstrikes on suspected missile launch sites and assembly facilities in Yemen that have produced mixed results. Since the first attacks in the fall, an estimated 70 percent of the maritime traffic that routinely passed through those waterways have changed course to sail around Africa rather than risk a transit near Yemen.

The Houthis have now extended their missile attacks into the Indian Ocean, according to press reports.

“I don’t know if [the Houthi missile and unmanned systems’ attacks] deter” merchantmen from sailing in those waters, but they have forces commercial shipping companies to consider what routes to take, Grady said.

When asked to evaluate how air defense worked on April 13, when Iran retaliated against Israel for targeting Iran’s Syrian embassy, Grady said that like the Aegis destroyers, Israel, allies and partners “did their jobs.”

Iran fired more than 200 drones and cruise missiles, but only a few made it through Israeli defenses.

“Years of training together” paid off in knowing “who’s going to shoot what, when. You don’t do that overnight,” he added.

As for the impact of Iran firing “one-way drones” on Israeli targets, he said they were “not very successful.”

Grady said Ukraine’s need for air defense is an area “that concerns me most.” The $60 billion aid package passed after a six-month delay in Congress is coming at a time when Russia has adopted a “we’re coming after critical infrastructure and the electric grid” strategy to alter the course of the war in its third year.

The package also addresses immediate needs, like artillery and 155 mm shells, long-range munitions, electronic warfare systems and unmanned capabilities.

Grady said both the Russian and Ukrainian militaries “are learning organizations” and understand the value of “never underestimating your enemy” to adapt. The war has seen forces “weaponizing” iPhones and employing unmanned systems in the air and on the water.

While both sides still use the Soviet tactic of “shoot and then move,” relying heavily on artillery to clear the way for an infantry assault, unmanned aerial vehicles have stymied Russia’s massed armor attacks from the beginning, he said.

The increased use of electronic warfare to jam GPS targeting has also changed throughout the war. “Early on, we didn’t see EW,” but now “it’s certainly one of the battlefield characteristics” in Ukraine, Grady said.

With 18 months left to serve in his position, Grady said he wants to strengthen the joint requirements process. Grady said he and his two immediate predecessors have taken steps to reduce the stovepiped process of committing to individual service-specific systems and shift to a portfolio approach in the Pentagon and on the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, which includes all of the service vice chiefs.

The combatant commanders’ need for hardware and software quickly versus the services looking at the future creates “a constructive tension” over requirements, he said. Grady wants to “put teeth in the JROC,” where the services would follow through on its decisions.

“Traceability” through a “scorecard” would allow the secretary of defense and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs to see if and how a gap is closed. During his remaining time in office, he doesn’t expect to see a change in the Goldwater-Nichols law that restructured the services’ and Pentagon’s role.

John Grady

John Grady

John Grady, a former managing editor of Navy Times, retired as director of communications for the Association of the United States Army. His reporting on national defense and national security has appeared on Breaking Defense,,,, Government Executive and USNI News.

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