This Is What The Navy's New Shipboard Electronic Warfare System Can Actually Do
SEWIP Block III is much more than just a naval electronic warfare system. Northrop Grumman's Mike Meaney breaks down its real potential for us.
The battle to control the electromagnetic battlefield is jumping into warp speed and these capabilities are especially important for protecting warships against many types of threats, from ever more advanced anti-ship missiles to swarms of drones. The Navy is now on the precipice of receiving the most revolutionary upgrade in electronic warfare capability for its surface fleet in a very long time via the AN/SLQ-32(V)7 Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program Block III, or SEWIP Block III, electronic warfare system.
This system combines the advanced passive detection capabilities of SEWIP Block II with the ability to make active, powerful, and highly precise electronic attacks on multiple targets at once. Beyond its core functionality, it can do much more, as well, including acting as a communications node and even a radar system. It is also designed to be able to be upgraded for decades to come. So, we are talking about a quantum leap not just in defensive, but also offensive electronic warfare capability for the Navy's surface fleet.
With all this in mind, we were fortunate to talk with Mike Meaney, Northrop Grumman's Vice President in charge of the SEWIP Block III program, all about what this system is capable of, how its physically large form will be integrated onto destroyers, and potentially other ships, and much more.
We covered an amazing amount of ground with plenty of new information. So without further ado, here is our exchange:
Tyler: Can you tell us a bit about what SEWIP Block III actually is and the status of the program?
Mike: SEWIP stands for Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program… And the Navy has procured it in three blocks. Block One, is some displays and processing upgrades they did. Block II, is an electronic support measures subsystem that is used to kind of surveil the RF [radio frequency] environment, to identify where the emitters are, and kind of identify what might be a threat to the ship. Block III, is what we produce, which is the electronic attack sub-system. And what it's really designed to do is be that non-kinetic weapon that the ship's captain and crew can use to defeat anti-ship missiles and any other RF threats facing the ship.
That is such a key role, and as a non-kinetic weapon, you basically have an unlimited amount of ‘bullets’ you can use to defeat those anti-ship missiles. Again we can engage multiple targets simultaneously… It’s a true force multiplier.
So when this threat comes at the ship, it can be a very lethal threat, so the ship's crew and captain have a decision to make, "Do I take it out with a kinetic weapon, like a missile? Or do I allow my non-kinetic system to take it out with these non-kinetic bullets?" if you will… That’s the force multiplier effect that our SEWIP Block III system provides the Navy, it’s this unlimited magazine of ‘bullets.’
As we approach the design of our architecture for our SEWIP for Block III, we built in a couple of things that we think discriminate it from other systems of a similar nature. First is, we fully meet the Navy's requirement for the advanced type of electronic attack techniques needed, not only against today's threats, but against the future threats that we expect to face. We applied an open architecture to allow the system to be upgraded and to support technology insertions in the future. We also went with a software-defined, hardware-enabled type architecture. That allows us to rapidly respond as new threats come over the horizon in the next couple of decades, and we can address them by simply upgrading the software in our system… Lastly, we created our architecture based on our Integrated Topside future naval capability we developed for ONR, the Office of Naval Research. And in many ways, the ‘In-Top’ system is a prototype for our Block III system.
What we had in that In-Top system was an inherent multi-function RF architecture, and we carried that over into our Block III design. So that means that in addition to successfully fulfilling the electronic attack mission of Block III, we also have the ability to take advantage of [the system’s] wide-band multi-function AESAs, Active Electronic Scanned Arrays. We could do any other RF function that's needed, and so, for example, we can employ our system to provide Signals Intelligence or SIGINT, we can have it do some of the ESM [Electronic Support Measures) mission that's currently being done by Block II. We could also have it be used to provide communication signals, and, in new and advanced communication waveforms and ways to connect not only to other ships but to other platforms… Then finally, we can even use our system for simple versions of radar, and use it for different types of radar functions, as well.
So, as we looked at this architecture, and how to grow it further, we have been actively working on the insertion of artificial intelligence and machine learning, and this would allow us to rapidly identify unknown emitters and create jamming waveforms on the fly and actively adjust our waveforms to the point that they're effective against these unknown systems.
We also have demonstrated late last year, a new set of communication waveforms that can be employed with our system, and that could allow the SEWIP system to connect to other SEWIP systems, or to connect to other platforms—they could be airborne, they could be space-based. And this is a key enabler that can be used by the Navy to fulfill their Project Over-Match and Distributed Maritime Operations, or DMO—capabilities that they're seeking to employ in the fleet… All of this is really a subset of the broader Department of Defense's initiative in towards JADC2 [Joint All-Domain Command and Control].
Ultimately, we're trying to interconnect sensors, platforms, and capabilities very tightly together to enhance the lethality of the force and also enhance the survivability of the force as we go forward. So by our ability to demonstrate the ability to rapidly insert and create advanced communication waveforms in SEWIP, we not only have the Navy meet their future mission needs, but it's also a great way to just grow and demonstrate the true multi-function nature of what we're fielding with the Navy.
In terms of program status, this year, we delivered our Engineering and Manufacturing Development (EMD) model to Wallops Island and the Navy is beginning land-based testing. They'll be conducting an IOT&E (Initial Operation Test and Evaluation) using the system that we've deployed there for them. We also have two limited rate initial production systems in fabrication and test, as we speak. We’re going to deliver those on time this year and then they will be installed on Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. Then they will be deployed for sea trials…
We also have been hard at work on three systems that have been ordered as part of our follow-on production contract that goes beyond our LRIP (Low-Rate Initial Production) contract, and we have the contract set up for future orders as well over the next couple of years. The Navy has the ability to exercise production options for the next several years. They can continue to buy production systems from us.
And that's just a brief overview of not only the value of our Block III capability, but some of our unique aspects that we think differentiate our approach as well as some of our future growth and current program’s data. I look forward to your questions.
Tyler: You mentioned the three Blocks and the different capabilities they have. Block III adds the active emitter component, instead of the passive system for Block II. I noticed there was Sidekick in the past, which was an active jamming system that worked with SEWIP. What does this new active component do? Obviously, it can counter certain missiles and things, but what does it really bring to the fight with its AESA array?
Mike: That's a really good question… So the power of the AESA array, and there's a number of them that make up our system, the way I count it it's 16 AESAs that make up our system, and we have four facing each quadrant of the ship, to provide complete coverage, 360 degrees around the ship, and two of them are used for receive, and two of them are used for transmit [for each four AESA quadrant]. So, we use the received AESAs to precisely locate where an enemy threat is, be it an anti-ship missile or an enemy radar system or whatever it is, and then using that precise angle and information of where they are and where they're inbound towards us, we then use our transmit antennas to transmit that actual electronic attack waveform to attack the RF system that's a threat to us… With an AESA, one of its key advantages is you can dynamically adjust and focus your RF energy and so instead of some of the legacy systems that have been fielded for EW they use very broad beams and just broadly place a beam in a very broad space of from where the ship is. It [the AESA] allows you to create a very tight beam.
Think of it as a ‘pencil beam,’ and by knowing from our receive antennas where the threat is, we can precisely put an enormous amount of RF energy directed at the threat… Since we can move and steer beams at computer speed at literally very small portions of seconds, we can put multiple beams out simultaneously and we can hit multiple things at the same time. So we can jam multiple threats simultaneously, we can dynamically scan them [the beams] and move them around quickly and do multiple functions simultaneously, as needed.
So the AESA allows you to create these dynamically rapidly reconfigurable sets of beams, allows you to point them and then efficiently use all of the energy you have and point it directly at the threat systems that we're facing, and then it also helps with emissions control (EMCON), because we're not blasting RF energy all over free space with very broadband antennas. So it's harder to detect that we're jamming and using that RF energy because we've so precisely controlled the shape of the beam and precisely pointed it only at the threat systems that we are targeting at the moment…
Tyler: Is the system going to be able to be tied into other systems that exist? For instance, decoys? And I know SPY-6 and Enterprise Air Surveillance Radar are going to be fielded soon… Is this going to be a system that mainly stands on its own, or is it tied into the larger Aegis and or other ship’s combat system architecture?
Mike: The way the Navy has architected the system, all of the soft kill or non-kinetic capabilities are integrated together and they have a soft kill coordinator system that manages all of the assets that are part of the non-kinetic options available to the ship's commander… Threats will be identified, they'll be engaged, those that can be engaged with our Block III electronic attack, they can also be engaged with decoys that are launched off the ship to seduce away those anti-ship missiles by pretending that they're a ship and providing the RF signature of a ship and seducing the anti-ship missiles away that way.
There are other non-kinetic capabilities available that are managed by that soft-kill coordinator system. It is all integrated into the overall Aegis Combat System. Obviously, with the SPY-6, the Aegis Combat System and that integrates more to what I call the ‘kinetic solutions’ available to the commander. This is where you can detect things and launch missiles against them, target certain missiles against certain threats, to manage your kinetic weapons that way. Ultimately, the fight is always going to be most likely a mix of kinetic and non-kinetic solutions that are applied by the crew.
Tyler: Can SEWIP Block III also execute electronic attacks on the shoreline? Or, say, another ship? Something that is within line of sight, but maybe not a traditional air-breathing or ballistic missile type threat?
Mike: In my comments, I've really kind of focused on the anti-ship threat, but really the system has been designed from the outset against a broad class of any RF threats that could face a typical Navy ship… We have a large suite of techniques that can be employed against the types of threats, you said other ships, enemy ships, radar systems, shore-based radar systems… that an Arleigh Burke class destroyer may need to engage in the course of its mission… Since the system is software-defined, we have this ability to create a library and it basically maps and identifies for the system—if you see this threat, this is the technique you use against it and here's how the technique is going to go blast it out and counter and defeat that particular enemy threat or deny them the ability to acquire or track our ship or deceive them and put many targets out so they can't identify exactly which one is ours. So there are all the typical traditional electronic attack capabilities, and we've optimized those for the most advanced threats that our Navy will face over the next several decades.
Tyler: So one thing about the system I've noticed is, it's quite large and I've seen renderings of it installed on an Arleigh Burke class destroyer’s superstructure. What type of structural modifications are going to be needed to install the system on such a destroyer? What is involved in getting it set up? And you say there are four separate systems, so I'd imagine they'd have to point in all four quadrants?
Mike: Right, so we have pictures of our system, our EDM. And our EDM is one half of a ship, and so you'll see that, and we call it a sponson… Basically, our two quadrants are installed into a sponson. The sponson is attached to the side of the Arleigh Burke, and then two sponsons are attached, one on each side, to provide the full four-quadrant coverage of the ship. So basically, ship installation is you attach a sponson to each side of the Arleigh Burke and then you populate the sponson with two quadrants of AESAs each. That's what's required to install the capability.
Tyler: And then on a carrier, if it goes that route, it would go on a stand-alone structure, I'd imagine?
Mike: Right, in fact, I'm glad you brought that up… One of the most recent actions that the government has done is they have awarded us a contract to scale up the SEWIP configuration we have and create for them a technical data package that can be used to procure a SEWIP Block III capability that would be usable on aircraft carriers and large deck ships like LHDs (amphibious assault ships).
As part of our approach doing that, it's basically the same building blocks, it's the same AESAs, the same larger structures, we just have to adapt for the different configuration that exists on those large deck ships. So we're making some changes in some cooling and power handling, but by and large, it's the same building blocks that are installed or will be installed in Arleigh Burke class destroyers… With a larger deck, obviously, we'll need to stretch and mount those quadrants of antennas at different locations, and that’s part of the development work we're in the middle of.
Tyler: Two major things that we always get asked about when it comes to EW and naval warfare: First is the UAS (Unmanned Aerial System)/small drone threat that's out there, which is becoming much more palpable, specifically smaller swarming drones. Maybe they can not a sink a ship, but they could achieve a credible mission-kill and do a lot of damage. SEWIP Block III I'd imagine would be able to counter those types of attacks? Then there is also the anti-ship ballistic missile threat. Is that something that is also within the range of this new system?
Mike: Yeah, so I can't comment, specifically on either one, I can continue to reiterate that we have designed and developed this system to face the most advanced threat that Navy ships will be facing over the next several decades.
Tyler: You mentioned how SEWIP Block III could sense potential unknown threats, or try to classify them and then maybe counter them. We've talked a bit about cognitive EW, is that what you're talking about? Like a real-time reactionary capability to create new waveforms to try to counter a threat that might not be in the system’s threat library?
Mike: Exactly, exactly. So I called it artificial intelligence and machine learning, it's the same thing as cognitive electronic warfare… The way we're approaching with our system, and it comes in a couple of different advantages that cognitive EW can provide, the first is the ability to rapidly characterize and categorize those unknown emitters that are out there in the environment. Every EW system designed and developed to date has a library that goes with it, and if it doesn't have anything in the library for the RF's pulse stream it's assessing, it should be provided to the operator saying, "This is an unknown. I don't know what it is, but there's something out over here." And so by adding cognitive EW algorithms to our software to allow the operators to more quickly identify things they would not otherwise be able to characterize or identify.
That's step one, and we have been working on how to do this for SEWIP as part of a future technology insertion, and we have a number of different advanced cognitive EW algorithms we've developed and proven in other domains. In addition to that, for an electronic attack system, we're also working on how do we use cognitive algorithms to create electronic techniques on the fly. This is a much more challenging capability because you have to not only create jamming waveforms you think will work but find ways to do real-time battle damage assessment electronically to make sure your waveforms are effective and denying the threat system information and/or deceiving it so it can't find you in the battlespace… This dynamic is a very advanced form of cognitive EW. It's something we're working on, it's not ready to field today, but since we're a software-based system with rapid updates, it only means it's something I see that will definitely be part of the future capability of the system.
Tyler: Last question for you, we've seen real indications of the emergence of cooperative electronic warfare, potential architecture that's out there, where instead of one threat being countered by one system, it's a much smarter way of attacking the problem over a much broader area using multiple EW techniques and platforms to achieve common goals. Is networking a part of this capability where maybe this system on a ship in one place is used to counter a threat, that maybe another ship detected. Can you talk a little bit about the interlacing between other platforms in EW space and what the system will be able to provide within that ecosystem?
Mike: I could say that's an outstanding question, that means you've really been reading up on things, and I could then say I can't comment any further.
Author's Note: A big thanks to Mike Meaney for taking the time to explain the exciting things going on with the SEWIP Block III program and to Leslie Zychowski and James Drew for making the interview happen.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com