The F-35's Distributed Aperture Sensor (DAS) has performed airborne identification and target tracking of a ballistic missile in a test off the coast of Hawaii as part of ongoing development of the 5th-generation aircraft's ability to conduct airborne ballistic missile defense missions.
Northrop Grumman and the Pentagon's Missile Defense Agency conducted a demonstration, using a ground-based DAS and a DAS-configured gateway aerial node to locate a ballistic missile launch and flight path. Target tracking information was sent using advanced data links to relay information between the aerial gateway and ground-based command and control locations.
According to Northrop engineers and weapons developers involved with the test, a sensor on the ground transmitted its tracking information to the DAS-equipped Airborne Gateway, which formed a three-dimensional space track which could be transmitted to San Diego.
U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Sean Sweeney
"DAS can perform its mission whether airborne in an F-35 or other aircraft, as well as on the ground or in a ship. In this case, the two DAS sensors in the air and on the ground, respectively, were able to individually recognize the ballistic missile event and generate a two-dimensional track," Northrop experts told Warrior.
Described as multi-function array technology, the DAS system uses automated computer algorithms to organize and integrate target-relevant data from missile warning systems, radar, night vision and other long-range sensors; the array is able to track a BMD target from the air at distances up to 800 nautical miles. Such a technology, quite naturally, enables a wider sensor field with which to identify and track attacking missiles.
"DAS communicated precise BMD data from Pacific Missile Range in Hawaii to a test-bed location in San Diego. Seconds after launch, the DAS sensor categorized the rocket and located a ballistic missile launch," said John "Bama" Montgomery, 5th Generation Derivatives and Improvements, Northrop Grumman. "This re-organizes, re-imagines and re-shapes the battlespace."
Although the test was in 2014, it has only now been determined that the F-35 can perform BMD - due to years of analysis and test data examination, Northrop developers said. Such a defensive technical ability is of great relevance currently, as many express concern about North Korea short and medium range ballistic missile threats.
An airborne DAS, networked with ground-based Patriot and THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) weapons, could offer a distinct tactical advantage when it comes to quickly locating incoming missile threats. Air sensors in particular, could be of great value given that, in some envisioned threat scenarios, it is unclear whether there would be enough interceptors to counter a massive North Korean ballistic missile barrage into South Korea. Accordingly, air based detection and target tracking, it seems, could go a long way toward better fortifying defenses - as they might increase the time envelope during which command and control could cue interceptors to locate and destroy attacking enemy missiles.
Using early applications of artificial intelligence, computers and aircraft relied upon advanced algorithms to organize sensor information - which was then transmitted to a pilot.
As a key element of the F-35s much-discussed "sensor fusion technology," the DAS draws upon a 360-degree sensor field of view generated by six cameras strategically placed around the aircraft. The sensor autonomously fuses data from all of the sensors into a single field of view for the pilot.
"With an automated picture, we can get the pilot everything he needs without him needing to go through every step," Bama said.
Using F-35 DAS sensor technology, emerging technology can perform BMD sensing functions without needing to rely purely upon space-based infrared systems. Using LINK 16 and other data-link technologies, an F-35 can relay targeting data to other 5th and 4th-Generation aircraft as well as ground stations. Montgomery explained that MDA laboratory-generated detection, tracking and discrimination algorithms were able to provide 3-D tracking information.
An MDA statement said program officials have been evaluating system performance based upon telemetry and other data obtained during the test.
The first of two Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptors is launched during a successful intercept test.
As part of this emerging technical configuration, it has been determined that the F-35s DAS can perform a wide range of non-traditional ISR functions to include not only BMD but other kinds of air or ground-fired enemy weapons. This includes an ability to detect artillery fire, enemy fighter aircraft, incoming air-launched missiles and, of course, ground launched rockets and missiles.
"DAS provides imagery. Instead of looking through a tube, this is a broader perspective of the combat environment, allowing a pilot to act more decisively. It provides a protective bubble to ensure that no aircraft can approach an F-35 without the F-35 knowing it is there," Montgomery added.
Weapons developers describe this technical advance in terms of something entirely compatible with ship-based Aegis radar, which is also configured to perform BMD functions. Aegis radar was used to track the ballistic missile target as well.
In fact, F-35 BMD sensor technology aligns closely with the Navy's now-deployed Naval Integrated Fire Control - Counter Air (NIFC-CA), an integrated system which uses ship-based Aegis radar, an airborne platform relay sensor and an SM-6 missile to track and destroy approaching enemy cruise missiles at distances beyond the horizon.
The concept is to give commanders a better window for decision-making and countermeasure applications when faced with approaching enemy fire. The Navy's layered ship defense system, involving SM-3s, ESSMs, SeaRAM, Rolling Airframe Missiles and closer-in systems such as Close-in-Weapons System using a phalanx area weapon, can best track and destroy targets when a flight path of an attacking ballistic missile can be identified earlier than would otherwise be the case.
The Navy and Lockheed have specifically demonstrated this system using an F-35 as an airborne sensor relay platform. NIFC-CA can be used both offensively and defensively, as it draws upon the SM-6s active seeker which can discern and attack fast-maneuvering targets.
The Navy is already building, deploying and testing a fleet of upgraded DDG 51 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with NIFC-CA - as a way to bring an ability to detect and destroy incoming enemy anti-ship cruise missiles at farther ranges from beyond the horizon.
Demonstration shows capability to extend the battlefront using Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA). (Image via Lockheed Martin)
The technology enables ship-based radar to connect with an airborne sensor platform to detect approaching enemy anti-ship cruise missiles from beyond the horizon and, if needed, launch an SM-6 missile to intercept and destroy the incoming threat, Navy officials said.
NIFC-CA has previously operated using an E2-D Hawkeye surveillance plane as an aerial sensor node; it has also been successfully tested from a land-based "desert ship" at White Sands Missile Range, N.M. from an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. Should the Navy's future plans materialize, the system would expand further to include the F/A-18 and F-35C.
NIFC-CA gives Navy ships the ability to extend the range of an interceptor missile and extend the reach sensors by netting different sensors of different platforms -- both sea-based and air-based together into one fire control system, Navy developers told Warrior.
NIFC-CA was previously deployed on a Navy cruiser serving as part of the Theodore Roosevelt Carrier Strike Group in the Arabian Gulf.
Operating NIFC-CA from an F-35B improves the sensor technology, reach, processing speed and air maneuverability of the system; previous tests have also assessed the ability of the system to identify and destroy air-to-air and air-to-surface targets. A report from earlier this year from the U.S. Naval Institute news quoted Lockheed officials saying an "at-sea" assessment of this NIFCA-CA/F-35 pairing is planned for 2018.
NIFC-CA has previously operated using an E2-D Hawkeye surveillance plane as an aerial sensor node; the use of an F-35B improves the sensor technology, reach, processing speed and air maneuverability of the system; the test also assessed the ability of the system to identify and destroy air-to-air and air-to-surface targets. A multi-target ability requires some adjustments to fire-control technology, sensors and dual-missile firings; the SM-6 is somewhat unique in its ability to fire multiple weapons in rapid succession. An SM-6 is engineered with an "active seeker," meaning it can send an electromagnetic targeting "ping" forward from the missile itself - decreasing reliance on a ship-based illuminator and improving the ability to fire multiple interceptor missiles simultaneously.
Unlike an SM-3 which can be used for "terminal phase" ballistic missile defense at much farther ranges, the SM-6 can launch nearer-in offensive and defensive attacks against closer threats such as approaching enemy anti-ship cruise missiles. With an aerial sensor networked into the radar and fire control technology such as an E2-D Hawkeye surveillance plane or F-35, the system can track approaching enemy cruise missile attacks much farther away. This provide a unique, surface-warfare closer-in defensive and offensive weapons technology to complement longer range ship-based ballistic missile defense technologies.
Once operational, this expanded intercept ability will better defend surface ships operating in the proximity or range of enemy missiles by giving integrating an ability to destroy multiple-approaching attacks at one time.
NIFC-CA is part of an overall integrated air and missile defense high-tech upgrade now being installed and tested on existing and new DDG 51 ships called Aegis Baseline 9.
The guided missile destroyer USS Arleigh Burke DDG 51, left, approaches the guided missile destroyer USS James E Williams DDG 95. (Image U.S. Navy)
The system hinges upon an upgraded ship-based radar and computer system referred to as Aegis Radar –- designed to provide defense against long-range incoming ballistic missiles from space as well as nearer-in threats such as anti-ship cruise missiles, he explained.
Developers said integrated air and missile defense provides an ability to defend against ballistic missiles in space while at the same time countering air threats to naval and joint forces close to the sea.
The NIFC-CA technology can, in concept, be used for both defensive and offensive operations, Navy officials have said. Having this capability could impact discussion about a Pentagon term referred to as Anti-Access/Area-Denial, wherein potential adversaries could use long-range weapons to threaten the U.S. military and prevent its ships from operating in certain areas -- such as closer to the coastline.
Having NIFC-CA could enable surface ships, for example, to operate more successfully closer to the shore of potential enemy coastines without being deterred by the threat of long-range missiles.
Defensive applications of NIFC-CA would involve detecting and knocking down an approaching enemy anti-ship missile, whereas offensive uses might include efforts to detect and strike high-value targets from farther distances than previous technologies could. The possibility for offensive use parallels with the Navy's emerging "distributed lethality" strategy, wherein surface ships are increasingly being outfitted with new or upgraded weapons.
The new strategy hinges upon the realization that the U.S. Navy no longer enjoys the unchallenged maritime dominance it had during the post-Cold War years.
During the years following the collapse of the former Soviet Union, the U.S. Navy shifted its focus from possibly waging blue-water combat against a near-peer rival to focusing on things such as counter-terrorism, anti-piracy and Visit, Board Search and Seizure, or VBSS, techniques.
More recently, the Navy is again shifting its focus toward near-peer adversaries and seeking to arm its fleet of destroyers, cruisers and Littoral Combat Ships with upgraded or new weapons designed to increase its offensive fire power.
The current upgrades to the Arleigh Burke-class of destroyers can be seen as a part of this broader strategic equation.
The first new DDG 51 to receive Baseline 9 technology was the USS John Finn or DDG 113. The ship previously went through what's called "light off" combat testing in preparation for operational use and deployment.
The very first Arleigh Burke-class destroyer, the USS Arleigh Burke or DDG 51, is now being retrofitted with these technological upgrades as well.
NIFC-CA technology is also being back-fitted onto earlier ships that were built with the core Aegis capability. This involves an extensive upgrade to combat systems with new equipment being delivered. This involves the integration of new cabling, computers, consoles and data distribution systems.
Existing destroyers and all follow-on destroyers will receive the Aegis Baseline 9 upgrade, which includes NIFC-CA and other enabling technologies. For example, Baseline 9 contains an upgraded computer system with common software components and processors, service officials said.
A DDG 51 destroyer, which was bought instead of the CG(X). | U.S. Navy photo by Journalist 2nd Class Patrick Reilly
In addition, some future Arleigh Burke-class destroyers such as DDG 116 and follow-on ships will receive new electronic warfare technologies and a data multiplexing system which, among other things, controls a ship's engines and air compressors, developers said.
The Navy's current plan is to build 11 Flight IIA destroyers and then shift toward building new, Flight III Arleigh Burke-class destroyers with a new, massively more powerful radar system.
The new radar, called the SPY-6, is said by Navy officials to be 35-times more powerful than existing ship-based radar.
Flight III Arleigh Burke destroyers are slated to be operational by 2023.