Rolling Airframe Missiles To Arm Arleigh Burke Destroyer Fleet

New point defenses, which come amid growing missile and drone threats, are just one Navy modernization effort for the Arleigh Burke class.

byJoseph Trevithick|
The US Navy is looking to add RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles to the arsenals of most of its Arleigh Burke class destroyers, and is pushing ahead with other more substantial upgrades for those ships, too.


The U.S. Navy plans to add RIM-116 Rolling Airframe Missiles (RAM) to the arsenals of its Arleigh Burke class destroyers to boost their defenses against incoming cruise missiles, drones, and other air and surface threats. RAM launchers will take the place of existing 20mm Vulcan cannon-armed Mk 15 Phalanx Close-in Weapon Systems (CIWS), but the exact final configuration will differ depending on the sub-class of ship. This all comes as the service is continuing to move ahead with a much more dramatic set of upgrades for at least a portion of its move prevalent surface combatant class that includes new radars, electronic warfare suites, and more, under the Arleigh Burke Destroyer Modernization 2.0 program.

Details about the Navy's plans to add RAM systems to more of its Arleigh Burke class destroyers in the coming years were included in the service's 2025 Fiscal Year budget request, which it rolled out last month. A small number of Burkes already have the ability to employ these missiles, something we will come back to later.

Yesterday, Navy Captain Tim Moore, the Program Manager for the Destroyer Modernization 2.0 program, also known as DDG-51 Mod 2.0 or DDG 2.0, separately provided an update on that effort to The War Zone and other attendees at this year's iteration of the Navy League's annual Sea Air Space conference. The hull number for the USS Arleigh Burke, the first ship in this class, is DDG-51.

The Navy currently has 73 Arleigh Burke class destroyers, broken down into three main subclasses (Flights I, II, and III). The Flight II subclass itself has a number of subvariant configurations. There is only one Flight III Burke, the USS Jack H. Lucas, in service currently.

The USS Jack H. Lucas, the US Navy's first Flight III Arleigh Burke class destroyer. USN

All Flight I and Flight II Burkes, as well as the first seven Flight IIAs, were delivered with two Phalanx CIWSs, one in front of the main superstructure and another toward the stern. All subsequent ships in the class have been fitted with just one of those close-in defense systems located atop the rear superstructure.

"The MK-49 launcher will be utilized on DDGs [Arleigh Burkes] with the latest [Aegis] combat system and the SeaRAM launcher will be utilized on DDGs that do not have a combat system that is compatible with the MK-49," according to the Navy's 2025 Fiscal Year budget request. "The launchers will replace the currently installed Phalanx Close-In Weapon System (CIWS)."

The Mk 49 is a 21-round RAM launcher that is integrated with the combat system of the ship it is installed on and, by extension, that vessel's onboard sensors. SeaRAM, which utilizes components from the Mk 15 Phalanx, is a self-contained system that includes an 11-round RAM launcher, search and tracking radars, and electro-optical and infrared cameras that also help with target identification, acquisition, and engagement.

One of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford's Mk 49 launchers fires a RIM-116 Rolling Airframe MIssile during qualification trials. USN
A SeaRAM system. Raytheon

RIM-116 missiles are primarily intended as short-range point defense weapons against incoming cruise missiles. RAMs can also be employed against other kinds of aerial threats, such as drones, as well as certain ones on the surface like small boats.

The original RIM-116A variant of the RAM, which first entered service in 1992, was designed to home in on an incoming threat by detecting its radio-frequency emissions, before switching over to an infrared seeker in the terminal phase. The infrared seeker was derived from the one used on the FIM-92 Stinger short-range surface-to-air missile, while other components were leveraged from variants of the AIM-9 Sidewinder air-to-air missile.

An improved RIM-116B RAM Block 1 was subsequently introduced in the early 2000s that added an infrared-only guidance mode option to improve its effectiveness against threats not pumping out radio-frequency emissions, such as missiles with imaging infrared seekers. The missiles could still be employed in the original guidance mode, as well as in one in which the missiles were launched with their infrared seekers immediately active, but could switch over to passive radio-frequency homing if a suitable signal was detected.

The Block 1 missiles were followed in 2015 by a RIM-116C Block 2 variant with a further improved guidance package, as well as better overall performance. Further upgraded Block 2A and 2B subvariants have since been developed. The latter of these, also known as the RIM-116E, has an improved infrared seeker and a data link that allows missiles to intercept threats collaboratively during a salvo launch.

Today, Mk 49 RAM launchers and SeaRAMs are found on a variety of Navy ships, including all Nimitz class aircraft carriers and the USS Gerald R. Ford, as well as all amphibious warfare ships. As of 2023, at least eight Arleigh Burke had already received SeaRAMs, as well as additional electronic warfare capabilities, as part of what is known as the 'Rota' configuration for destroyers in this class forward based at Rota, Spain. Those ships also retained a Phalanx CIWS on their forward mounts. In recent years, some Burkes have also been receiving laser dazzlers or more powerful laser directed energy weapons installed in the pedestal area in front of their main superstructures, where the Phalanx was originally designed to go.

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It is unclear if any remaining Arleigh Burke class destroyers with two Phalanx CIWSs will retain one of those systems, will receive two RAM/SeaRAM launchers (which seems unlikely), or will see one of their Phalanx systems simply be deleted without being replaced as part of the upgrade process. The Navy's 2025 Fiscal Year budget request also only lays out plans to convert 72 ships and it is unclear what the plan might be for the close-in defense configuration on the new Flight IIIs. The service's latest budget request does not say when the last of these modifications are expected to be completed, either. The War Zone has reached out to the Navy for additional information and clarification.

RIM-116s do offer significant advantages over the 20mm shells CIWSs fire, including when it comes to how far away from a friendly ship they can engage threats and how rapidly they can do so. The guidance packages and other features on RAMs, especially newer variants, offer additional flexibility against a variety of threat types. The missiles are extremely agile and fast allowing them to better engage hard maneuvering and fast targets.

Still, both Mk 49 and SeaRAM launchers need to be reloaded manually by personnel working exposed on the deck, just like Phalanx. There are a limited number of ready missiles in those launchers, especially SeaRAM with just 11 missiles, which could lead to those systems being overwhelmed in higher-volume attacks, including ones involving drone swarms, an ever-growing threat. This isn't any worse, and, in some cases, it is significantly better, than the operational realities of Phalanx. It has between 20 and 30 seconds worth of ammunition for its Vulcan cannon, depending on the rate of fire. You can read more about Phalanx and its capabilities, specifically, in this recent War Zone piece.

Members of the aircraft carrier USS Gerald R. Ford's crew remove a RIM-116 missile from a Mk 49 launcher during qualification trials. USN

In addition, defenses like RAM launchers and Phalanx are designed to be components of a larger layered array of defensive capabilities, and are generally viewed as the last lines of defense. For many Navy ships, the integration of short to medium-range RIM-162 Evolved Sea Sparrow Missiles (ESSM) has also helped provide additional protection that blends with the last line of defense mission of close-in weapon systems.

The Navy's proposed Fiscal Year 2025 budget says the service is moving ahead with the broader "procurement and installation of [RAM] launchers on in-service DDGs" now "in accordance with [the] recent Naval Capability Board decision to outfit the Arleigh Burke class destroyers with increased terminal defense capabilities."

Not said is that the service's Arleigh Burkes, as well as other warships, face ever-growing threats from increasingly advanced anti-ship cruise missiles, including very fast types. In any future higher-end conflict, especially one in the Pacific against China, American naval vessels could expect to see very high volumes of those weapons headed their way. Those capabilities also continue to proliferate, even to non-state actors like Iranian-backed Hezbollah and Houthi militants in Lebanon and Yemen, respectively. The creation of the aforementioned Rota configuration was prompted in the first place by concerns about the threats posed by newer supersonic Russian anti-ship missiles in and around the Mediterranean Sea. While Russia is the primary threat, Hezbollah, for instance, is known to have a limited number of these weapons.

The proliferation of stealth technology is also a major concern. While not featuring the high speed of some of their counterparts, low-flying, subsonic, low-observable cruise missiles can be very hard to spot and track on radar. This problem gets far more pronounced when used as part of a layered attack which could see many forms of anti-ship weapons coming at a ship at once. RAM, with its infrared seeker capability, is well suited for dealing with close-in stealthy anti-ship missiles that 'leak' through a defensive network.

After years of being largely ignored, as The War Zone has often highlighted, drones have now fully emerged in the mainstream consciousness as another very real threat in the maritime and other domains. China, in particular, is very actively developing and fielding drone swarm capabilities to overwhelm opponents at sea and on land. At the same time, lower-tier drones, including one-way kamikaze types, can still present significant dangers. The Navy is now actively looking for additional counter-drone defenses for various ships in its fleets beyond the Burkes.

At least a portion of the Navy's Arleigh Burke class destroyers are set to get even more substantial defensive upgrades and other new capabilities as part of the DDG 2.0 program. There are four components to this package, the AN/SLQ-32(V)7 Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) Block III electronic warfare suite, the AN/SPY-6(V)4 radar, an improved version of the Aegis Combat System, and substantial new thermal management capabilities to support all the additional electronics.

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Four Flight IIA Arleigh Burkes are being put through the DDG 2.0 modernization process now: the USS Pinckney (DDG-91), USS Chung Hoon (DDG-93), USS James E. Williams (DDG-95), and USS Halsey (DDG-97). The upgrades are being added in two phases.

The first phase involves upgrading the Aegis system and the integration of the AN/SLQ-32(V)7. Installing the SEWIP Block III involves major structural alterations to the ship's main superstructure, in the form of two large fully-enclosed sponsons on either side. These completely change the ship's outward appearance, as The War Zone has explored in detail in the past.

USS Pinckney with the new AN/SLQ-32(V)7 SEWIP Block III electronic warfare suite, as evidenced by the massive new sponsons on either side of its main superstructure. @SanDiegoWebCam via @WarshipCam

In the second phase, the ships will receive the AN/SPY-6(V)4 radar and what is essentially a huge air conditioner called the High-Efficiency Super-Capacity (HES-C) chiller. These upgrades will also require additional structural alterations to the ships. The AN/SPY-6(V)4 offers major boosts in performance and reliability over the existing AN/SPY-1D radar on Flight IIA Burkes, as you can learn more about here.

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The HES-C is often glossed over in discussions about the DDG 2.0 package, but it is an absolutely critical component.

"So, installing in the first phase the SLQ-32(V)7, we're good. We bring in the extra power requirement and demand from the SPY-6, we have to increase our cooling capacity," Captain Moore, the DDG 2.0 Program Manager, said yesterday in response to a question from The War Zone. "The legacy ACs we have on board cannot handle both the [SPY-6] radar and SLQ-32(V)7."

This, in turn, raises questions about the overall power generation capacity of Burkes getting these upgrades. Concerns about the ability of these ships to support increasingly power-intensive upgrades have come up in the past.

"I don't want to get into capability and capacity in this forum. ... [But] we have to take into account the power margin," Captain Moore also said. "We are in a decent place with that to support ... what we're doing on the Mod 2.0 program."

The DDG 2.0 upgrade work has not already been without other hurdles, too. USS Pinckney is the furthest along, having completed the first phase. The USS Chung Hoon and USS James E. Williams are now in that phase, while the USS Halsey is set to start undergoing that initial part of the process soon. The experience with Pinckney is already providing valuable lessons learned.

The USS Chung Hoon, another one of the Arleigh Burkes currently going through the DDG 2.0 modernization process. USN

Based on experience with Pinckney, "what we've done, what we instituted across our shipyards, is the LIDAR scanning – getting the actual shape, [the] dimensions of our ships hulls, in order to fit the sponsons up properly. It's been a huge success as we moved into Chung Hoon and James E. WIlliams," Moore explained. "Having the sponsons fabricated off ship, [and] matching that up to those LIDAR scans by each one of our repair yards, has ... [contributed] to the success of us not having the problem with respect to tolerances that we saw on USS Pinckney."

A third-party contractor was also brought in to build a model of an adapter plate that will be key to the installation of the AN/SPY-6(V)4 radar. "What we're looking at here is how can we get this [the adapter plate] on faster, better, more efficient[ly]... we were [also] able to find out some critical flaws with the design that we were able to then roll into our ship design drawings right before we do the installation," Moore added. He declined to elaborate on exactly what those flaws were.

The USS James E. Williams. USN

Moore said the hope is that the improvements in the production of various components, especially, will increase the amount of fabrication work that can be done in advance elsewhere. He also pointed out that a key goal for the DDG 2.0 program is reducing the overall amount of time the destroyers have to stay in shipyards to receive the upgrades. The Navy is already struggling with a massive backlog when it comes to more routine maintenance for surface ships, as well as submarines, as well as limited overall available shipyard capacity. These are significant issues that The War Zone has previously explored in extensive detail, and in comparison to China's exponentially larger shipyard capacity

Overall, the DDG 2.0 program's experience with these initial four Flight IIA Burkes will inform how the Navy proceeds with these modernization efforts on additional ships in this class.

The USS Halsey. USN

The Navy is now actively looking beyond the Arleigh Burke to new future class of destroyers currently referred to as DDG(X). However, plans for that program have been pushed back and work on the first DDG(X) is now expected to start in the 2032 Fiscal Year.

Regardless, in the meantime, the Navy's Arleigh Burke class destroyers are still set to receive other upgrades, including different kinds of RIM-116 missile launchers to further expand their defense capabilities.

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