The Navy plans to launch small boat attack craft raids against its futuristic Littoral Combat Ships to prepare a suite of integrated weapons systems and sensors for major ocean warfare — including missiles, guns, drones and inflatable boats.

The assessments are intended to help pave the way for moving the Navy’s Surface Warfare Mission Package (SUW) to operational status — as soon as this year, service officials said.

“SUW is all about countering high-speed maneuvering targets,” Capt. Ted Zobel, Mission Modules Program Manager, told Warrior Maven following a recent presentation at the Surface Naval Association Symposium.

Upcoming “fast inshore attack craft raid” events are intended as part of a formal Initial Operational Test & Evaluation plan for an-LCS mounted Surface-to-Surface Missile Module designed, among other things, to “counter potential swarms of attacked armed small craft,” a Navy statement late last year from Naval Sea Systems Command, Program Executive Office Unmanned and Small Combatants said.

The Missile Module is comprised of 24 ship-fired Longbow Hellfire Missiles, 30-and-57mm guns, 11-meter rigid hull inflatable boats, helicopters and vertical-take-off-and-landing ship-launched drones. The ship launched Hellfires, for instance, can utilize all-weather millimeter wave radar, inertial guidance or semi-active laser targeting to fire upon enemy ships, helicopters, fixed-wing assets or drones attacking the LCS. The concept with the overall module is to enable each platform to function as a “node” on a larger network.

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The Navy’s integration of Army-produced Hellfire missiles onto its LCS required extensive “Structural Test Fire” exercises, according to a February 2018 report from the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, Research, Development and Acquisition. The report, compiled as an “Annual Report for the Littoral Combat Ship Mission Modules” for Congress, stated that the LCS successfully withstood the “vibration, shock, noise, gases and other byproducts” from firing the Hellfires.

Zobel explained that the SUW is engineered to destroy small craft approaching at speeds up to 35 knots or more. The weapons are intended to reinforce one another and operate in a synchronized fashion.

Forward-operating drones, for instance, can send real-time images to helicopters and ship-based fire control radar, enabling faster response time. Armed helicopters can more quickly find and attack targets if they are identified and transmitted from other assets such as drones, submarines or ship-based sensors. By extension, all of these systems could cue deck-mounted small arms for the closer in threats, such as 30mm and 57mm guns. These warfare tactics, mirrored by larger platforms such as Carrier Strike Groups, are designed to create an integrated, layered defense system designed to provide defenses at different ranges and against a wide sphere of potential attack systems.

Small, fast-transport 11-meter inflatable boats are also regarded as an indispensable element of the Surface Warfare Mission Packages the Missile Module is engineered to support. Often used as rapid entry or small attack vehicles for Navy SEALs and other Special Operations Forces, these boats can provide ship crews with an ability to leave the ship and “engage” approaching small-boat attackers, providing yet another element of defense.

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Swarming small boat attacks are regarded as extremely serious combat concerns for Navy war-planners, who operate with a decided recognition that this kind of threat is quite substantial when it comes to both counterterrorism and major warfare on the open ocean. The strategy to counter small boat attacks against larger platforms is multi-faceted; multiple, fast-moving points of small missile and gunfire attack are naturally much more difficult to recognize and target. The intention with these tactics is to overwhelm, confuse or simply outnumber ship-defense weapons systems such as sensors, interceptors and deck-mounted guns.

This phenomenon can be explained in terms of what’s called “dis-aggregated” operations, if on a smaller scale than is typically thought of. Not only are a more dispersed group of small boats more difficult to target, but emerging networking technology can enable them to coordinate, share target information and stage integrated missions while farther away from one another. Navy and Marine Corps strategists, now planning for future amphibious warfare, are employing these concepts regarding ship-to-shore amphibious attacks. Dis-aggregated, yet closely networked attack nodes provide attacking commanders with a wider range of options and increase possibilities to defend against incoming shore attacks by avoiding a more condensed or linear ocean assault.

The proliferation of longer-range mobile guns, to include possible emergence of lasers, electronic warfare or boat-launched drone attacks, all make the prospect of facing swarms of armed, fast-moving small boats even more dangerous for surface ships. Furthermore, there is no reason small boats with manned crews could not carry and fire portable land weapons such as RPGs, Anti-Tank Guided Missiles aimed at ship structures or hand-launched attack drones filled with explosives.

Of potentially even greater concern, quite possibly, is the advent of unmanned small attack vessels unconstrained by any need to protect a manned crew. They could approach much closer, without having to avoid incoming fire from ship defense weapons. The U.S. Navy is already testing and developing a “ghost fleet” of unmanned small ships to perform a range of missions to include, reconnaissance, mine and submarine detection and of course forward-operating attack missions — firing weapons while manned crews remain at safer distances. The U.S. Navy, however, is of course no longer the only nation with the technological sophistication to develop and operate unmanned small boats. The current global threat circumstance is such that the US Navy recognizes it needs to know how to defend against these kinds of attacks.

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Pentagon officials have long expressed concern that small boat attacks could, for instance, be used by Iranian forces to stop the flow of naval traffic through the dangerous and narrow Strait of Hormuz — the only passage from the Persian Gulf into the open ocean. Concurrently, small attack craft could just as easily be launched on the open ocean by host ships launching offensive operations from safer distances. Not only could the boats perform sensing and reconnaissance missions, but they could of course also themselves become explosives or seek to jam a ship’s radar by flooding it with dispersed attack nodes.

These are the reasons the Navy is moving quickly to prepare its ship-based offensive and defensive weapons from these kinds of very serious threats.

The service is also arming its LCS fleet with a long-range, over-the-horizon Naval Strike Missile to extend the ship’s offensive attack reach. The Navy is also now advancing plans to arm the Littoral Combat Ship with an emerging ship defense soft-kill countermeasure able to identify, track and destroy incoming enemy torpedo fire, Navy officials said. The Navy plans to outfit its entire LCS fleet with the AN/SLQ-61 Lightweight Tow Torpedo Defense Mission Module (TDMM) as a way to fortify the ship’s ability to succeed in both shallow water and open or “blue” water warfare, Navy officials told Warrior Maven.

The new TDMM completed two days of at-sea testing several months ago in order to prepare for operational service on LCS ships. The technology uses an underwater acoustic projector, attached to a cable dropped from the ship’s stern to identify acoustic homing and wire-guided enemy torpedoes, service information describes.

The digitally-controlled system, traveling underwater beneath the ship, uses acoustic technology. In a manner quite similar to radar above the ground, the return signal, or ping, is then analyzed to determine the distance, shape and speed of an approaching enemy threat. In the case of the Navy, the “ping” is, of course, acoustic sound waves and not the electronic pings known to surface radar.

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"The torpedo defense capability the TDMM provides is envisioned for eventual deployment on all LCS ships, and potentially other small combatants," a Navy statement from earlier this year said.

Offered as a lighter-weight alternative to the currently-operational AN/SLQ-25 “Nixie,” the new TDMM is specifically engineered for smaller warships, such as the LCS, Navy statements said.

LCS Mission Evolution

The addition of this combat technology to the LCS is consistent with the Navy’s evolving strategy for the ship, which seeks to broaden its mission scope to incorporate a wider range of surface combat possibilities.

While the ship was conceived and developed as a multi-mission countermine anti-submarine surface warfare platform for littoral operations, the Navy is trying to move quickly to further arm the ship for major maritime combat as well.

Early concepts of the Navy’s LCS, as articulated in numerous papers, essays and Navy materials, sought to identify the ship as a “streetfighter” able to approach close-in, high-risk littoral areas with combat support, surveillance, land-attack and countermine systems. While much of this is still the case, the service has broadened the concepts of operation (CONOPs) for the ship — seeking to expand its combat missions into longer-range, open, blue-water warfare.

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The LCS’s shallow draft enables it to approach island and coastal areas inaccessible to larger, deeper draft ships, adding offensive and defensive weaponry to give commanders more options.

For instance, as an LCS approaches shallow waters, it may operate in a more autonomous, or disaggregated fashion and, therefore, be unable to rely upon combat protections from nearby larger ships.

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Accordingly, equipping the ship with improved defenses would better enable the platform to defend itself while operating more independently. This brings the added advantage of reducing the risk for other surface combatants, in part because the LCS is designed for high-risk countermine missions in littoral areas, allowing larger ships can remain at safer distances without being exposed to mines.

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