Air Defense: Cooperative Engagement Capabilities


December 9, 2019: Over the last few years, the United States has been testing its CEC (cooperative engagement capabilities) to prove that the concept works. So far it does. CEC takes advantage of the widespread adoption of digital communications and, within nations, using that to enable air, land and sea forces to share target information in real-time. CEC allows allies to obtain a better picture of the combat zone they are operating in, and deal more effectively with threats. To make CEC work with a multi-national force, all the participants must have, as with the Internet, a common data channel and agreed upon procedures for who gets first shot at what target. In combat, this can mean everything from low flying UAVs, as well as cruise missiles and helicopters in addition to conventional aircraft at various altitudes. A growing number of systems can handle ballistic missiles and even low orbit space satellites. To survive in combat the CEC data links must be robust (jam-resistant and encrypted). Not all nations have the most robust comms and that is something any CEC arrangement has to take into account.

The most recent CEC test was in May 2019 and had ships from several NATO navies, many using different weapons, take out similar targets. This CEC included NATO AWACS aircraft, mainly to ensure no unauthorized ships or aircraft wandered into the zone off Scotland being used for this live-fire exercise. In combat situations, AWACS airborne radar would share with ship and land-based radars to supply situational and target information. The May test involved ships firing air defense missiles at slow and fast-moving targets. For example, in one case a French frigate used Aster 15 missiles to take down a high-speed target while a Canadian ship used Evolved Sea Sparrow missiles to take down a similar one.

The NATO force involved had 13 warships from Britain, Canada, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Spain and the United States. This CEC exercise also gave the joint data links a heavy workout by using a lot of communications between ships and supporting aircraft.

In early 2017 there was a similar CEC exercise in the Pacific where Aegis equipped warships from the United States, South Korea and Japan participated in a LINKEX (trilateral missile warning informational link exercise) off the east coast of South Korea. This exercise was to verify if all three destroyers (a U.S. Burke, a South Korean Sejong and Japanese Kirishima class) could indeed communicate and coordinate using their Aegis anti-missile system to defeat an enemy ballistic missile attack. Details of the LINKEX were not released, as that would let a potential enemy (namely North Korea, Iran, China or Russia) know just how well the linked warship anti-missile systems worked. Apparently well enough to seriously degrade the effectiveness of an attack using a lot of ballistic missiles.

This international LINKEX was possible because Japan and South Korea spent nearly half a billion dollars to install the Baseline (BL) 9 software and hardware upgrade on five of their Aegis equipped warships. BL 9 not only enables ships to use the anti-missile features of Aegis but includes IAMD (integrated air and missile defense) which allows all IAMB ships to share Aegis related information with other IAMD equipped ships. This enables IAMB ships to instantly share target information as well as deciding quickly who will fire on which incoming missiles or aircraft. When trying to destroy incoming ballistic missiles seconds count. All these instantaneous digital communications are what the Internet generation of naval officers expect and this sort of combat connectivity is being achieved in all the services. Not only that but the United States has been holding similar successful link exercises between army, navy and air force units.

What is different about Aegis is that it is a major naval system used by a growing number of countries. The U.S. currently has 84 Aegis equipped warships, many of them also receiving similar BL 9 upgrades. There are more than twenty Aegis equipped ships in service or under construction with five allied navies (South Korea, Spain, Japan, Norway and Australia), usually with the anti-missile and IAMB upgrades. Japan and South Korea want IAMB because that enables these ships to network with American Aegis ships to create a more effective defense against Chinese or North Korean ballistic missile attack. Aegis equipped ships are well suited for this because they can quickly move to where they might be needed and it was that capability that caused many other nations to build Aegis equipped warships as well as most of the updates.

One of the recent upgrades for foreign Aegis users is the new (since 2015) SM-6 (Standard Missile 6) anti-aircraft missile, which is more capable than the older SM-2 and SM-3 and is getting more new features. For example in early 2016 the U.S. Navy revealed that it had successfully modified its new SM-6 so that it could hit surface ships. In a CEC situation AWACS radar can sport surface ships, as can photo satellites or any number of UAV or manned reconnaissance aircraft. SM-6 provides another anti-ship weapon to use in these situations.

At first many wondered how effective this could be given that warhead of the 1.3 ton SM-6 missile weighs less than a hundred kilograms (220 pounds). Actually more than the warhead is involved but the amount of explosives is small. What makes a big difference is that the warhead and a large part of the missile hit the ship from above moving faster than a rifle bullet. In early 2014 the U.S. Navy tested the SM-6 against a recently retired American frigate; a 4,000 ton ship. While the exact results of the “SINKEX” (sinking exercise where a retired warships is used as the target) are classified it was not a surprise (to anyone who could do the math) that the warhead traveling at high speed did a lot of damage to the frigate. The damage was so great that the frigate was judged to be out of action had the SM-6 hit occurred in wartime. The U.S. Navy wants to buy nearly 2,000 SM-6s by the mid-2020s. SM-6 missiles cost $4.3 million each and will replace many of the SM-2 missiles currently carried by American and allied warships.




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