Private Aggressors Stress Test The Air Defenses On The Navy’s Newest Aircraft Carrier

This was the first full test of the troubled carrier’s integrated air defense system against actual mock aerial adversaries.

byJoseph Trevithick|
ATAC photo


F-21 Kfir and Mk 58 Hawker Hunter aircraft from the Airborne Tactical Advantage Company, or ATAC, recently helped the U.S. Navy stress test the air defense systems on its newest carrier, the USS Gerald R. Ford. ATAC is well known for providing those same aircraft as "red air" aggressors for aerial combat training exercises, but a huge portion of its work is actually flying against Navy ships, simulating incoming cruise missiles and hostile aircraft. You can read all about the company's operations and what its aircraft do in this piece that ran in Air Combat Magazine by our own Tyler Rogoway.

On Apr. 6, 2020, the Navy revealed that the tests of Ford's air defenses had taken place, but did not say when specifically they had occurred. The carrier is presently conducting carrier qualifications in the Atlantic Ocean as part of its ongoing post-delivery test and trials, which have run into a number of hurdles since the service formally commissioned the ship in 2017.

The sea-based developmental test, also known as SBDT 6B, was the first time the Ford's fully integrated combat system had faced actual mock aerial adversaries, in the form of ATACs F-21s and Hunters. 

One of ATAC's F-21s makes a pass by the USS Gerald R. Ford., USN
A flight of four of ATAC's Hawker Hunters approach the Ford., USN

The multi-part event including testing of the carrier's Dual Band Radar (DBR) integrated with the ship's two RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) launchers and its pair of RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) launchers, the latter of which are optimized for close-in defense. Simulated weapons were used to conduct mock engagements of the aircraft.

A sailor loads a device that simulates the launch of a RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM) into one of Ford's two launchers for this close-in defense weapon during the air defense systems test., USN

The DBR has been one of the major sources of problems for the Ford class in the past, which you can read about in more detail in this past War Zone piece. As it stands now, only Ford and the future USS John F. Kennedy will be equipped with this radar system. The second two ships in the class, the future USS Enterprise and USS Doris Miller, will have a variant of Raytheon's Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar (EASR). The Navy is now no longer sure it will even pursue the Ford class beyond these four ships.

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Earlier land-based testing of the DBR had shown the system had trouble tracking threats and cueing defensive systems to engage them and was regularly confused by background "clutter" that led it to display false information to operators. It even had difficulties accurately displaying the position of objects of interest. While the F-21s, Israeli offshoots of 1960s-era French-made Mirage fighter jets, and the Hunters, late model variants of a British design that first flew in 1954, are not particularly modern aircraft, they would still give testers a valuable opportunity to see how Ford's radar and other air defense systems performed against actual mock threats over the open ocean. 

Flying representative threat profiles and carrying radar emitters and electronic warfare pods, the Hunters and F-21s can simulate various subsonic and supersonic threats, respectively, including subsonic anti-ship cruise missiles. By using the contractor-owned and operated jets, the Navy also doesn't have to provide its own combat jets for these kinds of tests, which would pull pilots and planes away from other tasks and cost substantially more.

"SBDT is a stepping stone towards Ford’s Combat Systems Ship Qualification Trial (CSSQT), and follow-on operational tests by the Navy," U.S. Navy Commander William Buell, the officer in charge of the carrier's Combat Direction Center, which manages all of the ship's defensive systems, said following the testing. "Our SBDT operations ran very smoothly, which is a good indicator of future success on CSSQT."

A view inside the USS Gerald R. Ford's Combat Direction Center during the air defense systems test., USN

With an eye toward the future combat systems trial, the testing also included a "risk reduction scenario" to prepare for a future test event that involves a Beechcraft AQM-37 Jayhawk "high diving missile." The AQM-37 is an air-launched supersonic target missile that is capable of simulating supersonic anti-ship cruise missiles. A Jayhawk launch will be part of Ford's CSSQT.

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Ahead of the SBDT 6B, Ford had also certified various integrated combat systems including its Air Traffic Control Radar Beacon (ATCRB), Identification of Friend or Foe (IFF) interrogator, and its Cooperative Engagement Capability (CEC) networking systems. The ATCRB and IFF work together to positively identify friendly and hostile aircraft, as well as surface contacts, and to provide for general air traffic control of the airspace around the carrier during operations. The CEC systems, which you can read about in greater detail in this past War Zone piece, provides a powerful set of data links so the carrier can rapidly exchange targeting and other information with other Navy assets, including other surface ships and aircraft. 

"We use an [IFF] interrogator system to challenge aircraft transponders for identification," U.S Navy Operations Specialist 2nd Class Juannietagrace Okeli explained after the test. "The interrogator, cooperative engagement capability, and the Ships Self-Defense Systems (SSDS) work together to provide us the combat identification."

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“It was encouraging to see the results of our collective labor pay off and prove the warfighting capability of the class,” U.S. Navy Fire Controlman 2nd Class Sam Lantinga, said following the recent SBDT test. "Without these self-defense systems, Gerald R. Ford wouldn’t be able to deliver lethal effects to our nation’s adversaries."

Beyond the ESSM and RAM launchers, Ford also has three Mk 15 Phalanxes. These are gun-based close-in weapon systems (CIWS), each one of which is armed with a 20mm Vulcan cannon. The ship also has an extensive electronic warfare suite and systems to launch anti-missile countermeasures.

Protecting against air and missile threats has always been critical for major Navy capital ships, especially for aircraft carriers. These defensive capabilities have only become more vital as potential "great power" adversaries, such as Russia and China, increasingly field advanced anti-ship weapons, including long-range anti-ship cruise missiles and air and surface-launched anti-ship ballistic missiles. Hypersonic threats are also a growing concern.

In addition, smaller nations, and potentially even non-state actors, are increasingly employing more advanced anti-ship weapons that could be employed in the anti-ship role. While certainly less capable than those in service or in development in Russia or China, subsonic cruise missiles and short-range ballistic missiles still present challenges for a defender, especially when used en masse. America's adversaries could improve the effectiveness of these weapons by combining them with other assets such as small submarines, naval mining, suicide drones, and manned and unmanned suicide boats.

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Ford has unfortunately been beset by a host of persistent problems, including issues with its Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS), Advanced Arresting Gear (AAG), and Advanced Weapons Elevators (AWE), its powerplant, in addition to the aforementioned difficulties with its radar system. among others. Most recently, the Government Accountability Office, a Congressional watchdog, revealed that the carrier's toilets clog regularly and the associated sewage system needs regularly flushing at the cost of hundreds of thousands of dollars.

By every indication, the Ford is still far away from becoming capable of conducting actual combat operations, despite the Navy's best efforts. However, ensuring that its air and missile defenses work as intended is an important step in that direction. 

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