Navy Destroyers Sport Large Satcom Domes On Their Flight Decks For Big Drone Exercise

The Zumwalt class stealth destroyer USS Michael Monsoor was spotted leaving San Diego yesterday with a large satellite communications dome temporarily installed on its flight deck. The appearance of this system on the ship came just a day after the U.S. Navy kicked off a huge experimental exercise focused on exploring new concepts for how unmanned platforms in the air, on the surface, and under the waves can work together with their manned counterparts. The Michael Monsoor is participating in this event, formally known as Unmanned Integrated Battle Problem 21, or UxS IBP 21, with an emphasis on serving as a key afloat command and control center.

Twitter user @CJR1321 grabbed pictures of the Michael Monsoor, also referred to by its hull number DDG-1001, with its new addition, head out of San Diego on April 20, 2021, sharing them with our friends over at @warshipcam, who in turn posted them on Twitter. That Navy also released pictures of its two Medium Displacement Unmanned Surface Vessels (MDUSV) sailing together out of San Diego Bay, with the destroyer in its current configuration visible in the background.

The Zumwalt class stealth destroyer USS Michael Monsoor spotted leaving San Diego on April 20, 2021, with a large satellite communications dome on its rear flight deck., @cjr1321 via @Warshipcam
The US Navy’s Sea Hunter MDUSV in San Diego on April 20, 2021, with the USS Michael Monsoor seen in the background with its new satcom dome., USN

The Michael Monsoor “will use the ship’s unique capabilities to command and control manned and unmanned forces to conduct long-range, multi-domain fires,” Navy Lieutenant Tim Pietrack, a spokesperson for the service, had told USNI News in March as part of a larger discussion of the UxS IBP 21 experiment. UxS IBP 21 officially started on April 19 and is scheduled to run through April 26. You can read more about it, in general, in The War Zone‘s initial reporting here.

The addition of a more robust satellite communication systems onto the Michael Monsoor for this event would make good sense in this context. While we don’t know the exact extent of the networking additions to the destroyer, the dome looks extremely similar, if not identical to those used in the Orbit AL-series of maritime very-small-aperture satellite terminals, or VASTs.

A picture of the AL-7208 VSAT dome and the antenna that sits inside. Other Orbit AL-series terminals use this same dome., Orbit

“The AL-7208 stabilized VSAT antenna system is a 2.4m (96″) linear & circular Ku & C-Band antenna providing Global Satellite TV & Data services, from Shore to Mid Ocean,” according to Orbit’s website. “Designed for both military & commercial applications, AL-7208 is deployed aboard cargo & cruise ships, tankers, fishing boats, oil & gas rigs, patrol & combat vessels, and various other marine vessels around the world and, supports a wide range of satellites and polarizations. The AL-7208 is an efficient, proven, robust and reliable marine stabilized satellite TV antenna systems guaranteeing worldwide coverage for uninterrupted high quality satellite reception, even under extreme weather conditions.” It is, of course, important to point out that we cannot see inside the dome to know exactly what kind of antenna is installed.

It’s also interesting to note that @CJR1321 also spotted the Arleigh Burke class destroyer USS Spruance, another UxS IBP 21 participant, with a similar large satcom dome in a temporary position on its flight deck. That ship is also one of a growing number of Arleigh Burkes equipped with the Optical Dazzling Interdictor, Navy (ODIN) laser directed energy weapon, which is designed to blind electro-optical and infrared optics, including sensors on aircraft, ships, and submarines, including aerial drones, which present real and growing threats to the service’s fleets. It can also be employed against seekers on incoming missiles, throwing them off course.

Added network connectivity would mesh well with the already robust sensor fusion and command and control capabilities found on the Michael Monsoor, as well as her two sister ships, the USS Zumwalt and the future USS Lyndon B. Johnson. The current configuration of these ships includes a dual X and Ka-band satellite communications system, linked to a low-profile dome on top of the deckhouse, as well as extremely-high-frequency (EHF) and ultra-high-frequency (UHF) communications systems with their antennas fitted to the side of that same superstructure. Two more Tactical Common Data Link (TCDL) antennas are at the very front of the top of the deckhouse.

An infographic showing the various existing antennas, among other features, on the DDG-1000s., David Heath/USN

It’s not clear what level of satellite communications functionality the Michael Monsoor has at present, though the dome associated with the X-Ka-band system is present on the ship. In July 2020, the Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) had announced that it had hired Ball Aerospace to develop a “low-observable [stealthy] SATCOM antenna system that can support multiple links in the S-, C-, X-, Ku-, K-, Ka- and Q-band signals” for these destroyers. It’s unclear if this meant that the Navy had decided not to fit the ships with the planned X-Ka-band antenna at all.

Regardless, the addition of the system on the ship’s rear flight deck, as well as the appearance of a similar system on Spruance, make clear that additional satellite communications bandwidth is necessary for this experiment.

All of the information from whatever communications systems are presently installed on the Michael Monsoor, along with data from the destroyers’ radars and other sensors, as well as offboard platforms, then feeds into their sci-fi-esque Ship’s Mission Center (SMC). The SMC has an advanced and largely unique combat system, distinct from the better known Aegis system, which has a Linux-based computing backend called the Total Shipboard Computing Environment (TSCE) at its core. It has more in common with larger land-based command centers than traditional Combat Information Centers (CIC) on Navy ships.

The SMC, which you can read more about here, is designed to be readily reconfigurable in terms of capabilities in order to allow the relatively rapid integration of new systems and general functionality. That seems to be exactly what we’re seeing here with the addition of this extra satellite communications system on the ship’s stern.

A view inside the USS Michael Monsoor‘s Ship’s Mission Center during a demonstration ahead of the start of UxS IBP 21., USN

With all this in mind, UxS IBP 21 looks set to underscore the ability of the Michael Monsoor and her sisters to operate as command and control platforms, a role that could be even more important as the Navy works to field more and more unmanned aircraft, surface, and underwater vehicles as time goes on. The DDG-1000s with their stealthy design and other features are more survivable than their less stealthy counterparts, such as the Navy’s Arleigh Burke class destroyers, which also makes them particularly well suited to acting as a command and control node for unmanned systems operating in and around contested territory.

The Navy has already been working hard in recent years to better define the expected roles and missions of the DDG-1000s. At present, the Zumwalt and the Michael Monsoor are both assigned to a development unit, Surface Development Squadron One, or SURFDEVRON. The Lyndon B. Johnson is set to join them when it is commissioned, though it’s not clear when that will happen. 

Despite their assignment to this squadron, the Navy insists it plans to deploy all three of these destroyers operationally as time goes on. It’s also worth noting that the service’s pair of MDUSVs are also part of SURFDEVRON, further underscoring interest in pairing the DDG-1000s, as well as other manned surface vessels, with unmanned systems.

The Navy’s two MDUSVs in San Diego on April 20, 2021. The USS Michael Monsoor with its satcom dome is seen in the background., USN

The development and procurement of the DDG-100s, overall, is a saga that dates back to the 1990s. The service had originally expected to buy 32 of these ships, before a combination of factors led to this being trimmed back to just three. In addition to the aforementioned issues surrounding the less-than-stealthy antennas that now adorn the ships, there have been other controversial decisions made over the years regarding these ships, including ones concerning their radars and armament. The Navy notably has no plans to buy any actual ammunition for their 155mm Advanced Gun System main guns, rending them dead weight, with various discussions now underway about alternative weapon options, including the addition of new hypersonic missiles. There is even the possibility that their radar systems and their proprietary combat system software could be replaced, with versions of the Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar (EASR) of the Aegis combat system.

As it sits now, the total program cost, including the purchase of the three ships, has risen to over $26 billion.

All told, the UxS IBP 21 experiment looks set to be very important for the Navy when it comes to exploring how the DDG-1000s will be employed in future operations, in addition to the event’s core focus on helping to lay the groundwork for adding more unmanned capabilities to future naval operations.

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Joseph Trevithick Avatar

Joseph Trevithick

Deputy Editor

Joseph has been a member of The War Zone team since early 2017. Prior to that, he was an Associate Editor at War Is Boring, and his byline has appeared in other publications, including Small Arms Review, Small Arms Defense Journal, Reuters, We Are the Mighty, and Task & Purpose.