Published in the November/December 2020 Issue – The air defence threat-and-response equation exists increasingly in integrated layers. Armada looks at two examples of how Western navies use missiles to defend against and deter the integrated air threat.
The expanding levels of naval missile capabilities deployed in the maritime operating environment are both cause and effect of the increasing levels of naval operational focus on such capabilities. Indeed, such developments sit at the centre of increasing naval operational activity levels that are the at-sea manifestation of the returning state-based rivalry in strategic theatres across the world.
The Asia-Pacific region was the first theatre to stage the return of state-based rivalry at sea. From around 2008, China pursued its ambition to build its regional presence at sea; various regional and extra-regional navies have since sought to respond. Today, different navies are operating national and multinational task groups across the region, as countries seek to develop presence and demonstrate power in areas of interest.
Task group operations are central to such developments, and in debates about defending such groups against missile attack. Western naval task groups, particularly those operating in the Asia-Pacific region, have for some time been focused on developing high-end surface-to-air (SAM) missile capabilities to deal with the perceived anti-ship ballistic missile (ASBM) threat. Increasingly in recent years, the broad anti-ship missile (ASM) threat is coming in the form of cruise missiles (ASCMs). Such missiles can be air-, ship-, or submarine-based. Western navies are focused on this threat, including the uncertainty over whether an incoming ASCM is conventional or nuclear. Adversaries’ surface ships or submarines are a primary area of focus for Western navies who, in return, are developing their own ASCM capabilities, particularly to deter surface ship-based ASCM threats.
The primary strategic concern for Western navies is the capability developments and operational activities of China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN).
In May 2020, the PLAN’s lead aircraft carrier Liaoning completed one of its latest deployments, operating in the South China Sea, but was also reported to have sailed close to Japanese and Taiwanese waters. According to reports in the Global Times, the carrier was accompanied by two pairs of escorts: two Type 052D Luyang III-class destroyers and two Type 054A Jiangkai II-class frigates. Global Times also reported in May that Liaoning’s sister carrier, Shandong, was conducting its first testing and training missions at sea.
China’s escort ship fleet, along with its submarine flotilla, carries a range of different ASCM capabilities. These include the YJ-12, YJ-18, YJ-62, and YJ-83 missiles. These and other systems bring a mix of ranges and a mix of sub- or super-sonic capabilities. China is also reported to be developing hypersonic ASCMs.
Western navies also are routinely operating task groups in the Asia-Pacific theatre. Several groups came together at the US Navy (USN)-hosted Rim of the Pacific 2020 (RIMPAC 2020) exercise, off Hawaii in August, for a scaled-back version of the annual event (due to COVID-19). Ten participating navies generated 22 surface ships and one submarine.
The Royal Australian Navy (RAN) sent four ships, in a maritime task group (MTG) based around HMAS Hobart, one of the RAN’s three new guided-missile destroyers (DDGs) that bring specialist anti-air warfare capability within a wider, multi-mission role. Hobart was the first RAN DDG to deploy to RIMPAC and was joined by the ANZAC-class guided-missile frigates HMAS Arunta and Stuart. The three surface ships were supported by the tanker HMAS Sirius. According to an Australian Department of Defence (DoD) report on 27 August, the group was conducting a regional presence deployment through South-East Asia and the Pacific, including RIMPAC participation.
The RAN is developing different MTG constructs, based either around a Hobart-class DDG or one of its two Canberra-class amphibious assault ships. The RAN’s emerging task group presence is one of the most prominent maritime capability developments in the region.
In parallel with this developing task group comes the need to defend them and other ships they operate with. Consequently, significant elements of the RAN’s participation at RIMPAC focused on countering the different layers of missile threat, addressing both the threat from incoming missiles and the presence of hostile launch platforms with the RAN’s own layers of responses.
In terms of dealing with incoming missiles, Hobart became the first RAN DDG to conduct a live firing at the exercise. According to the Australian DoD report, this involved the ship’s Raytheon Standard Missile-2 (SM-2) capability. Arunta successfully fired its Raytheon Enhanced SeaSparrow Missile (ESSM) SAM system, its first ESSM exercise firing since completing the ANZAC Midlife Capability Assurance Programme upgrade: Arunta was the first ship to complete this programme (in mid-2019), and was the first post-upgrade ANZAC to participate in RIMPAC. In a DoD YouTube video, Arunta’s commanding officer, Commander Troy Duggan, stated: “We defended the ship using ESSMs against high-speed, remote-controlled drones, demonstrating the lethality of the upgraded ANZAC-class frigate.”
In terms of dealing with the platforms that deliver the missile threat, an Australian DoD spokesperson told AMR that Stuart successfully fired two Boeing Harpoon missiles and co-ordinated the missile firings of three other ships during the exercise’s SINKEX serial. The RAN’s ANZAC frigates carry the Harpoon Block II ASM.
The RAN’s surface fleet is also embarking widely the new Sikorsky MH-60 Romeo Seahawk helicopter which operates from both the DDGs and the ANZACs. It contributes to RAN anti-ship capability with its Lockheed Martin Hellfire air-to-surface missile. At RIMPAC. RAN MH-60Rs conducted successful Hellfire missiles firings
Maintaining and enhancing operational capability and agility is key for navies like the RAN, given continual enhancements and evolutions in the threats they face. “Regional military modernisation, including a range of advanced technologies such as stealthy, long-range, high-speed weapons and advanced strike capabilities, have significant implications for maritime operations,” said the spokesperson. An effective air-defence capability is essential for surface combatants to protect deployed forces, contribute to the broader joint force integrated air and missile defence [IAMD] capability, [and support] force projection in an increasingly complex maritime environment.
While Hobart was busy enhancing its air-defence capabilities, the destroyer’s two sister DDGs – HMA Ships Brisbane and Sydney – sailed together for trials, testing the RAN’s fit of the USN’s Co-operative Engagement Capability (CEC). All three DDGs are fitted with CEC: Australia is the first country outside of the United States to receive and successfully test its CEC capability.
In adding another component to Australia’s ability to respond to air-defence and other threats, “CEC combines data from multiple sensors into a single, real-time, composite picture and provides a secure communications capability between Australian and US [CEC-]equipped ships and aircraft,” the spokesperson said. “CEC enhances weapon capability by enabling a unit to detect and, if needed, engage a threat identified by another ship or aircraft. CEC and other real-time sensor fusion capabilities will form part of the Australian and allied Joint Integrated Fire Control Capability that will enable the fully networked joint force vision.” Such joint and wider combined integration of sensors and shooters will be increasingly critical in Western naval efforts to deter and defend against the missile threat.
Aegis Combat System
For many Western navies, like the RAN and the USN, another central element of this integrated capability for countering the missile threat is the Aegis combat system. On 1 September, Australia announced planned upgrades for the Aegis components of the RAN’s air-defence capability.
According to the RAN: “The Aegis combat system upgrade will align the Hobart-class destroyers and the [forthcoming] Hunter-class frigates with the USN Aegis Baseline 9 capability, providing access to the Aegis Common Source Library.”
Hobart-class Aegis upgrade work is planned to commence in 2024, said the spokesperson: work will occur in Australia, with the government scheduled to consider location options in 2021.
A RAN statement reads: “The Aegis Common Source Library will enable rapid capability insertion activities to take place, through increased levels of system virtualisation and open architecture, in order to counter emerging threats.” Such an evolution of the Aegis combat system means that adding new features to the common source library will be similar to adding ‘apps’ to a smartphone.
“Additional functionality introduced by Baseline 9 includes improved [IAMD] capability,” the a RAN spokesperson. “As forecast in the government’s Force Structure Plan 2020, the Aegis combat system upgrade will enable the Hobart class to employ current and future advanced maritime guided weapons, including extended range SAMs, subject to government consideration.”
The Force Structure Plan 2020, published in June, said the Australian government would continue with investment to support “sustainment and upgrades to the three Hobart-class destroyers to maintain these as leading-edge air warfare platforms to protect deployed naval forces.” The plan also noted Australian focus on developing a replacement for the DDGs in the longer term, following completion of build-work on the Hunter-class frigates, with the DDG replacement platforms designed “to sustain the navy’s air warfare capability”. According to the RAN, the Hunter-class frigates are due to begin entering service in the late 2020s; regional media reports suggest the last of the nine new frigates is scheduled for delivery in 2042.
Air-defence capability provides what could be seen as the defensive deterrent element, denying an adversary successful missile strikes. The offensive deterrent element, designed to deny an adversary the ability to operate launch platforms, can be provided by other emerging systems.
Kongsberg’s Naval Strike Missile (NSM) is being delivered to the USN for its Littoral Combat Ships (LCSs) through a Raytheon-Kongsberg strategic partnership.
Under a May 2018 contract, box-launched NSMs will equip the USN’s two LCS variants, the Freedom and Independent classes. With a range greater than 100 nautical miles (nm), NSM will provide over-the-horizon reach to deliver precision anti-ship strikes, providing improved lethality for LCS but also bolstering both LCS and wider task group survivability both by deterring adversaries and being able to defend against them with stand-off precision strike capability.
Kongsberg’s NSM/Joint Strike Missile (JSM) family may appear in the Asia-Pacific region in various forms. NSM is already operational there, with the Independence-class LCS USS Gabrielle Giffords, forward deployed at the time on a rotational deployment, becoming in September 2019 the first LCS to receive its full NSM fit.
The USN has also chosen NSM for its future frigates and amphibious shipping. Underlining the increasing levels of ‘blue/green’ integration at sea, the US Marine Corps (USMC) is also looking to invest in an NSM capability to provide a mobile, land-based system delivering both defensive and offensive support in expeditionary operations.
Another regional LCS platform taking NSM will be the Royal Malaysian Navy’s (RMN’s) six Maharaja Lela-class ships. These LCSs are based on French company Naval Group’s Gowind 2500 design.
NSM’s air-based counterpart JSM will also operate in theatre, having been selected for Japan’s F-35 fighter aircraft. Hans Kongelf, Kongsberg’s Defence and Aerospace Missile Division vice president for Marketing, told Asian Military Review that JSM had been specifically designed to be slim enough to fit the F-35’s internal weapons bay.
Designing JSM as a slim weapon could, in the future, provide other capability options for Asia-Pacific navies. NSM is deployed in box launchers as a coastal defence system ashore or a surface ship-based anti-ship/land-attack system at sea. Norway and Germany have entered into a strategic partnership to develop naval and other capabilities: under this arrangement, NSM will be fitted to the German Navy’s surface fleet; a version of NSM could also equip the new Type 212 Common Design submarine the two countries are building together. As the weapon will need to be fired from the boat’s 533mm standard-sized torpedo tubes, the JSM airframe would be used to provide a submarine-based NSM capability. The development of a submarine-launched NSM may be of interest to several Asia-Pacific navies operating established or emerging submarine forces.
What NSM brings is a rapid response, low-observable, sea-skimming, high-speed manoeuvring capability, able to use an infra-red seeker and autonomous target recognition to find, fix, and strike specific targets. Its land target set, said Kongelf, is air-defence sites including command-and-control nodes.
One of the major recent strategic developments in the Asia-Pacific theatre is China’s development of an anti-access/area denial (A2/AD) strategy to restrict in particular the maritime movement of US and partner forces. Overlaid atop this strategy in any regional conflict will be levels of congestion, confusion, and complexity, likely including the denial of data and network access. Here, Kongelf pointed to NSM’s ability to operate independently in a denied environment, using its self-contained guidance and target recognition capability.