The Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Carney (DDG-64) made a two week visit to the tense Black Sea region recently alongside USS Ross (DDG-71), with the mission wrapping up in recent days. It was the first time that two American surface combatants were patrolling the largely enclosed body of water since Exercise Sea Breeze 2017 that occurred last July. One of the vessels, USS Carney, was photographed sporting a new piece of advanced hardware as it transited the Bosphorus Strait—the latest "Block II" configuration of the U.S. Navy's Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SWIP).
There are many versions of the AN/SLQ-32 ("Slick 32"), a system which has been in service in one form or another for nearly 40 years. It is not only an integral and critical part of ship's combat system and defenses but it is also a major node in America's sprawling electronic intelligence gather apparatus which keeps tabs on potential enemies' electronic order of battle through myriad of platforms and weapon systems.
Later and more elaborate variants of the AN/SLQ-32, like the AN/SLQ-32V5, even include active jammers arrayed around the ship—a peripheral system largely known by its nickname "Sidekick." This gives the vessel extended 360 degree jamming capability and is meant to counter the growing threat of ever more complex anti-ship missile systems proliferating around the globe.
The new Block II variant of the system introduces the beginning of a whole new level of hardware and expanded capabilities. Instead of the old "Slick 32" enclosure that features a hodgepodge of sensor and jamming arrays, the new system (AN/SLQ-32V6) uses a unified array that is far more capable when it comes to geolocating (interferometry), identifying, and classifying threats. It also leverages an enhanced back-end control system that is tied into the ship's combat system and defenses—namely its decoy control system—as well networked with other external assets.
The domain of U.S. Navy electronic warfare is a shadowy one, and even conceptual publication of details surrounding these systems and the hardware they are based on is somewhat limited. But Joe Ottaviano, Lockheed Martin’s SEWIP program director, stated the following about the enhanced system:
"This latest Block 2 upgrade will ensure the AN/SLQ-32 system allows the system to continue to outpace the threat and establishes a framework to easily install future upgrades... Preliminary results from the ships testing have been very exciting and exceeding our expectations. The system is providing detection capabilities that allow the warfighter to see the enemy before being seen.”
The next major leap in SEWIP capability will come in the form of the SEWIP Block III, which will build on Block II's advanced passive detection abilities by introducing a high-end electronic attack capability as well as other ancillary functions, including possibly long-range, high-bandwidth communications using a new active electronically scanned array (AESA) emitter.
In other words, Block III will add to Block II's hardware to give American surface combatants an independent, high-end electronic warfare capacity, which will allow the unified system to not only detect, geolocate and classify potential threats at long ranges, but also actively deceive or even destroy those threats using advanced "soft kill" tactics.
We are not simply talking about old-school jamming here. AESA arrays have a secondary electronic attack capability that goes beyond traditional forms of confusing or blinding an enemy's radar or communications system. They can potentially fire powerful pinpoint beams of RF energy that can cause physical damage to targeted radar components and especially the sensitive radar seeker heads mounted on many anti-ship missiles.
Other targets for such a system can include drones or even enemy aircraft and ships within the system's effective range, which would be extensive. Using the system against enemy communications nodes is also a possibility. By its very nature it could also perform other more traditional radar functions and may end up being a backup for a ship's primary combat radar system.
Because AESA arrays are so agile and precise, they can execute multiple functions at one time and could provide multiple forms of electronic attack against multiple targets simultaneously. Such a capability represents a massive leap in protection for American fighting ships, and also gives vessels a new offensive magazine to draw upon in some scenarios.
With all this in mind, if SEWIP block II is a ship's electronic ears, SEWIP Block III will be its electronic fists.
Retired Navy commander Bryan Clark, now with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, told Breakingdefense.com the following about SEWIP Block III's capabilities.
“SEWIP Block 3 brings active electronic attack across a wider frequency range…with digital processing that will facilitate new ‘intelligent’ EW processing that will enable the system to react to signals it has never seen before... SEWIP Block 3’s AESA array enables it to be a passive sensor, communication array, or a radar... It could also confuse or obscure aircraft and ship radars as part of the Navy’s new electromagnetic maneuver warfare concept."
These systems will be increasingly networked among other vessels and assets that are part of any American naval armada. The evolving SEWIP roadmap also includes distributing pieces of the surface-fleet's electronic warfare and electronic surveillance apparatus off-vessel as well. The integration of an Advanced Offboard Electronic Warfare (AOEW) pod system to be flown aboard MH-60 Seahawk helicopters would allow AN/SLQ-32 architecture to obtain data from areas far over the horizon that are inaccessible to shipboard systems.
According to Defensesystems.com, Joe Ottaviano, Director of Electronic Warfare at Lockheed Martin said the following about the AOEW pod system:
"The pod gives you additional reach-back capability. You get a look well over the horizon that will be communicated back to the ship. Depending on what the solution is, you could actually decide to provide some type of response. You can see the adversary well before he can see anything in the fleet."
The Marines in particular have been very aggressive about fielding podded electronic surveillance and electronic warfare systems on various platforms, usually referred to as Intrepid Tiger II. But those systems weren't designed to be integrated directly with SEWIP.
With SEWIP Block III now in development, SEWIP Block IV will supposedly include electro-optical and infrared capabilities for long-range identification and targeting. This will probably include a staring distributed aperture system for close to medium range detection, tracking, and situational awareness, as well as longer-ranged systems for target discrimination and targeting, like upgraded versions Mk 20 electro-optical sensor system currently fielded on American destroyers and cruisers. These systems could be especially useful when trying to detect and counter low-observable (stealthy) missiles and drones that use passive homing techniques like imaging infrared, and thus give off no RF emissions to home in on.
Although USS Carney is far from the newest destroyer in America's inventory, it's is no mystery why it was prioritized to receive such an upgrade. Alongside her three sister ships forward deployed to Rota, Spain, they find themselves operating independently in some of the globe's nastiest areas with little support—namely the Black Sea.
This body of water is dominated by Russia's Black Sea Fleet and would become a super anti-ship missile engagement zone should hostilities erupt. Based in the region, Russia has aircraft tasked with chucking anti-ship missiles, shoreline cruise missile defenses, and dozens of ships, from small corvettes to destroyers, bristling with anti-ship missiles both new and old. As such, the U.S. Navy vessels tasked with regularly operating in this area have received fast-tracked defensive upgrades.
These upgrades include the installation of a Mk15 Phalanx close-in weapon system forward and a SeaRAM self-contained Rolling Airframe Missile launcher aft. You can read more about this unique configuration here.
With the severity of the potential threat in mind, it makes sense why USS Carney, and likely the ship's pier-mates will be on the leading edge of the latest electronic warfare and other defensive upgrades available now, and in the foreseeable future.
Don't expect the Navy to slow down anytime soon on evolving shipboard electronic warfare systems or enhanced close-in defenses. Quite the contrary. It has already been announced that the service will be fielding operational defensive laser systems in the near term as well as laser dazzlers that can blind unmanned vehicle and missiles optical sensors.
But these directed energy systems alone won't stop the threat of large barrages of advanced cruise missiles or even a swarming attack by small drones. The latter of which may not be able to sink a vessel, but it could result in a "mission kill" by taking out a fighting ship's sensors and other key components.
As it sits now, a "cocktail approach" is being quickly expanded on in an attempt to counter these increasingly varied threats to American surface combatants. From kinetic options in the form of new multi-million dollar long-range missiles, to upgraded rapid-reacting medium range missile systems, to new types of close-in defenses, the Navy is moving quick to bolster its naval defenses. But "soft kill" systems like SEWIP Block III provide an indispensable, and maybe the most realistic way of enhancing a ship's survivability against a major attack as it can react instantly in every direction, in multiple ways, and it is not limited by magazine depth.
Considering the rapid pacing on maritime threats around the globe, and especially those posed by rising peer-state competitors, don't be surprised if the Navy is already on its way to developing SEWIP Block V within just a handful of years. But in the meantime, SEWIP Block II has now been deployed into Russia's backyard, giving the Navy a much sharper ability to detect, locate, classify, and monitor regional emissions and, if necessary, an enhanced ability to react in the best way possible defensively should an attack occur.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com