The great advantage of American warships has long been their ability to absorb punishment and to keep fighting. In the modern era, however, the best defense is electronic: The most powerful (non-nuclear) warhead can’t hurt even the flimsiest ship if its targeting system is deceived into hitting empty water instead. Such defensive deception is precisely the purpose of shipboard jammers, and unlike hull armor, such electronics can be easily added to existing ships.
Most US ships are still using 1970s-vintage electronic defense, chiefly something called the AN/SLQ-32 (“Slick 32”), which have fallen dangerously behind rapid, globally available advances in electronics. Potential adversaries like Russia and China can equip their anti-ship missiles with targeting radars using frequencies too high for current US defenses to even detect. US Pacific Command is particularly concerned
“Certain countries on the Eurasian land mass are building weapons that a SLQ-32 will not detect,” Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for resources, Vice Adm. Joseph Mulloy, said at this week’s McAleese Associates/Credit Suisse conference. If US ships face these new missiles without an electronic warfare upgrade, he said, “you will never know when something bad is coming, [and] it’s coming in at a supersonic speed.”
That threat is driving the Navy’s $5 billion-plus, multi-phase Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program. “I’m buying as many SEWIP advanced modules as I can,” Mulloy said.
SEWIP Block I mainly replaces 1970s-vintage displays and other obsolete components. The Lockheed Martin-built Block II, which has been tested on the destroyer Bainbridge and — in a somewhat scaled-down version — the Littoral Combat Ship Fort Worth, will upgrade the sensors that detect enemy radar beams. Block III, for which the Navy awarded a $267 million contact to Northrop Grumman in February, will bring the fun part: new jammers.
What does this all mean militarily?
“In layman’s terms,” said Capt. Small, who overseas the program for Naval Sea Systems Command, “with SEWIP Block II and the SEWIP Block I [upgrades], I don’t think there’s anything out there we can’t detect any more, and detect at ranges where they need to be detected. With SEWIP Block III, there will not be anything that we know of that we can’t jam and jam effectively.”
Dominating the Spectrum?
At least in terms of ship self-defense, Capt. Small told me, “I usually talk about us essentially dominating the spectrum with SEWIP Block III.”
That’s a remarkable claim considering the high-level anxiety about electronic warfare in the Department of Defense. “We have lost the electromagnetic spectrum,” the Pentagon’s chief of research and engineering, Alan Shaffer, warned last fall. A Defense Science Board study identified spending shortfalls of $2 billion a year in EW. And the outgoing Chief of Naval Operations, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, has pushed hard (including in our pages) to revive electronic warfare to cope with high-tech adversaries like Russia and China.
The cutting edge of the Navy EW effort — and the only dedicated jamming aircraft in the US arsenal — is the EA-18G Growler jet, which carries cutting-edge sensors and, soon, a Next-Generation Jammer. SEWIP is more modest. Since ships can’t fly, a shipborne jammer will never have as long a range or as wide a field of view as a high-altitude airborne one, so it’s generally a defensive system rather than offensive. Electronic self-defense, however, is increasingly crucial as anti-ship missiles proliferate — even Hezbollah has used one — and Navy officers fear they won’t have enough interceptors to shoot down every incoming threat.
Relying more on electronic warfare for self-defense and less on anti-missile missiles will take something of a culture shift, said Small.
“It’s a tough thing,” he said. “There’s something satisfying about blowing something up, and it can be less satisfying to change a radar picture and cause someone not to launch. Then how do you know that you’re being effective with EW? Whereas, when you blow something up, you know you’ve been effective.”
But SEWIP Block III will be much more effective than the SLQ-32 system it replaces, Small said. For starters, the hardware won’t be 40 years old. SLQ-32 jammers use microwave tubes: SEWIP will have arrays of solid-state digital receivers and transmitters, similar to an AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar. That makes SEWIP much easier to maintain — “you pull the card, you replace the card,” Small said — and much more reliable, since any one element that fails is just one of hundreds or thousands in the array.
The new technology is also much more adaptable. Instead of needing new hardware to deal with a new threat, you often can just rewrite the software. So instead of being a once-and-done upgrade, Small said, SEWIP will allow continual improvement to keep up with potential adversaries.
It’s when you start connecting SEWIP with other systems, however, that you start creating entirely new options for what the Navy calls “Electromagnetic Maneuver Warfare.”
All Warfare Begins In Deception
By using the same electrically scanned array technology as the latest radars, SEWIP opens the possibility of what the Office of Naval Research calls an “integrated topside” (INTOP). Instead of a ship’s structure being cluttered with traditional antennas, each dedicated to a specific function — detection, jamming, radar, communications — electrically scanned arrays could switch from one function to another as needed. A ship with INTOP could conceivably repurpose its SEWIP arrays to help its Air and Missile Defense Radar detect a threat, then have the AMDR provide extra jamming power to help SEWIP stop the attack.
There’s even more potential here than the Navy really realizes, argued a former top aide to the Chief of Naval Operations. “It opens up a whole set of operating concepts that we really haven’t thought about,” retired Cdr. Bryan Clark, now at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told me. As SEWIP, AMDR, and other electronically scanned arrays are fitted to more and more ships, he said, “you could end up with a fleet in the mid to late 2020s that can do much more comprehensive and sophisticated forms of electronic warfare… over a large area.”
The Navy’s invested heavily in inter-ship networks to coordinate missile fire, but when it comes to electronic warfare, each ship is largely on its own. Even with SEWIP, a ship has to detect enemy radars with its own onboard sensors and defeat them with its own jammers. What EW information ships want to share has to go over the same networks as everything else.
“Link-16’s oversubscribed,” said Clark. “You don’t have enough bandwidth on these datalinks to use them for electronic warfare as well as all the things they’re doing already.”
But with the right software, Clark said, an electronically scanned array designed for jamming could provide wireless communications as well. It could even do both at the same time with different parts of the array. Combined with INTOP, SEWIP could provide the bandwidth necessary to coordinate electronic warfare across the fleet, not just defend an individual ship. This would allow a kind of “networked electronic warfare,” he said, where multiple ships, manned aircraft, and drones all combine their EW efforts to deceive not just a single radar but the entire enemy force.
“I would want to have multiple jammers and deception systems coming at them [at once],” painting a consistent but false portrait of the war zone, Clark said, “so the picture they’re seeing from all of their radars is incorrect.” The Air Force and intelligence community call this spoofing.
“All warfare is based on deception,” Sun Tzu once wrote. If you could pull off this kind of theater-wide electronic scam — and that’s a big “if” — you wouldn’t just protect individual warships: You could win a war.