Articles

The US is about to revolutionize naval combat


Members of the visit, board, search and seizure (VBSS) team operate a rigid-hull inflatable boat (RHIB) alongside guided-missile destroyer USS Gonzalez. | US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Pasquale Sena

After more than a decade of research and development, the US Navy stands on the edge of a paradigm shift.

A recent report from the Congressional Research Service puts these technologies in perspective:

"Any one of these new weapon technologies, if successfully developed and deployed, might be regarded as a "game changer' for defending Navy surface ships against enemy missiles. If two or three of them are successfully developed and deployed, the result might be considered not just a game changer, but a revolution."

In the slides below, see where the US Navy is at in fielding these revolutionary technologies, and how they will change the future of naval warfare.

The US Navy's defense dilemma

The DF-21D "Carrier Killer" missile batteries roll through China's 2015 military parade. The DF-21D is one of the weapons that poses a serious threat to the US's Navy today. | William Ide via Wikimedia Commons

Already, the onboard defenses on US Navy ships are some of the best in the world, but with growing threats from ever-advancing anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles from China and Russia, the US Navy is left with some bleak options.

1. Avoid operating in waters within range of advanced anti-ship cruise and ballistic missiles (the South China, the Black, and Baltic Seas to name a few).

2. Change the entire fleet structure to rely on smaller surface ships and submarines, and less so on large platforms like aircraft carriers.

3. Improve onboard missile defenses to effectively counter even the most advanced anti-ship missiles.

With the US's global network of allies and interests, the first option is unthinkable. The second option would vastly change the Navy's shipbuilding plans, dull the power-projection capabilities provided by US aircraft carriers and amphibious assault vessels, and cost a fortune.

Source: Congressional Research Service

The problem with traditional guns and defenses

Gunner's Mate 2nd Class Levi Horn observes as Operations Specialist 3rd Class Monica Ruiz fires a 50-caliber machine gun during a live-fire qualification aboard amphibious assault ship USS Boxer (LHD 4). | US Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Brian Caracci

"Powder guns have been matured to the point where you are going to get the most out of them. Railguns are just beginning," Tom Boucher, the railgun program manager for Office of Naval Research, said to AFP.

There are two problems with the Navy's current onboard missile defenses.

Firstly, traditional naval missile defenses rely on ammunition. So no matter how effective surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) or close-in-weapons systems (CIWS) are, they have a finite amount of rounds that can be depleted.

Secondly, "Navy SAMs range from about $900,000 per missile to several million dollars per missile, depending on the type."

Since SAMs protect the lives of US Navy sailors, these costs are acceptable, but still unsustainable throughout a prolonged conflict. Simply put, the missiles and rounds used to defend navy ships hugely tax an already strained defense budget.

Source: Congressional Research Service

Solid State Lasers

The Afloat Forward Staging Base USS Ponce conducts an operational demonstration of the Office of Naval Research (ONR)-sponsored Laser Weapon System (LaWS) while deployed to the Arabian Gulf. | US Navy photo by John F. Williams/Released

Solid State Lasers, (SSLs) spectacularly overcome the limitations of traditional defenses, while introducing a few limitations of their own.

Right now, naval planners are developing SSLs to provide defense against small boats and UAVs within the range of one to a few miles, "and potentially in the future for countering ASCMs and ASBMs as well."

The laser system offers brilliant advantages over traditional rounds both in depth of magazine and cost per shot.

An SSL can fire continuously until the ship supporting it runs out of fuel to generate electricity, which would take a long, long time. Additionally, the cost of firing an SSL is comparable to running a heavy duty appliance. The Navy cites the cost per shot of an SSL at around $1 per.

But SSLs rely on line of sight, and are therefore not all-weather weapons. Clouds, rain squalls, even particles in the atmosphere can sap effectiveness from the laser system. Additionally, it poses a threat to human targets, as it could blind them, and blinding weapons are prohibited by the Geneva convention.

Source: Congressional Research Service

Electromagnetic Railgun (EMRG)

One of two electromagnetic railgun prototypes on display aboard joint high speed vessel USS Millinocket (JHSV 3) in port at Naval Base San Diego on July 8, 2014. | US Navy photo

The EMRG uses magnetic fields created by extremely high electrical currents to "accelerate a sliding metal conductor, or armature, between two rails to launch projectiles at [speeds of] 4,500 mph to 5,600 mph," 30 or roughly Mach 5.9 to Mach 7.4."

The projectile, traveling at a mind-boggling 1.5 miles per second, rips through the atmosphere with such speed that the atmosphere around it, as well as the tungsten of the projectile itself, erupt into an awesome fireball despite the fact that no explosives are used.

With a range of up to 100 miles (in just a few seconds) the EMRG can take out distant targets as well as incoming threats.

Unlike the SSL, the EMRG fires physical rounds, and therefore has a much more limited magazine depth. However, the cost per shot of the inert rounds is a very small fraction of what today's guided missiles cost.

Source: Congressional Research Service

Hyper Velocity Projectiles (HVPs)

Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder, chief of naval research, shows off a Hypervelocity Projectile (HVP) to CBS News reporter David Martin during an interview held at the Naval Research Laboratory's materials testing facility. | US Navy photo by John F. Williams

In developing the revolutionary EMRG, the Navy realized they needed an equally revolutionary projectile— enter the HVP, a streamlined, percision guided round.

Though it was designed for railguns, the aerodynamic design of the HVP lends itself to other, existing applications. For instance, when fired out of the Navy's 5 inch or 155 mm guns, the HVP reaches speeds of around Mach 3— about twice as fast as a normal round, but about half as fast as the EMRG fires it.

The HVP has GPS coordinates entered into it, and once fired, the fins on the rear of the round guide the projectile towards it's target in any weather conditions.

HVPs are much more expensive than the normal rounds a Navy gun fires, but their speed means they can intercept missiles, which makes them a much cheaper alternative to guided missiles. Plus, as they are backwards-compatible with existing Navy platforms, HVPs could be deployed tomorrow if need be.

Source: Congressional Research Service

An affordable revolution in defense

Slide 5 from Navy briefing entitled "Electromagnetic Railgun," NDIA Joint Armaments Forum, Exhibition & Technology Demonstration, May 14, 2014, LCDR Jason Fox, USN, Assistant PM [Program Manager], Railgun Ship Integration, Distribution. | NAVSEA GraphicThis graphic shows how the US Navy can leverage HVPs and EMRGs to maintain their asymmetrical advantage over rising powers for years to come, without relying on million-dollar missiles.

Source: Congressional Research Service

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