Mysterious New Electronic Warfare System Spotted On U.S. Navy Aircraft Carriers

An intriguing upgrade has been installed on the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Abraham Lincoln that points to new defensive capabilities.

Carl Vinson Electronic Warfare System
@cjr1321 via @Warshipcam

In this day and age, a warship's electronic warfare suite can be even more important than its kinetic capabilities—missiles and guns—when it comes to protecting it from enemy attacks. With America's foes working harder than ever to create weapons that can put the U.S. Navy's most prized vessels, its supercarriers, at risk, electronic warfare "soft kill" defenses are being rapidly enhanced. We have seen multiple new systems, which remain highly ambiguous in terms of their capabilities, appear on American destroyers and cruisers in recent years. Now a new system has emerged on two west coast-based supercarriers, the USS Carl Vinson and the USS Abraham Lincoln, which both recently headed out into the Pacific.

The system in question is mounted at three locations around the perimeter of Nimitz class supercarriers to provide near-spherical coverage around the ship, just like the carrier's other defenses. This includes an installation on the fantail and two on opposite sides, amidships. 

@SanDiegoWebCam

Another shot of the starboard side sponson installation of this new system.

The large enclosures appear to be able to swivel, at least to a limited degree, and feature a circular, domed radome covering. The carriers already have variants of the AN/SLQ-32 Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP) electronic warfare system and some of them have also been equipped with the shadowy AN/SLQ-59 system, which may have been an interim application. 

So what does this discreet new system do? Our best guess is that it is a powerful active electronically-scanned array (AESA), potentially adapted from an off-the-shelf system like a fighter's radar, which can execute pinpoint attacks on incoming threats that use radiofrequency (radar) homing or leverage the RF spectrum at all to accomplish their terminal attack runs. 

@CJR1321 via @Warshipcam

The other locations of the new system seen on the USS Abraham Linclon. 

Such a system could also have secondary capabilities, including working as a radar and communications node. The new SEWIP Block III, which you can read all about here, leverages its AESA arrays for these secondary purposes, as well. It's also possible that one of those roles is the system's primary function, with an electronic attack mode as an ancillary capability. 

The closest thing we can think of that looks similar to this new system is South Korea's SONATA SLQ-200, which includes a large cabinet-like enclosure with a pair of powerful arrays, each looking to one side, inside a round radome. This system is used for jamming incoming anti-ship missiles and conducting other electronic attacks. 

Of course, what we're seeing could be some other type of system entirely. We can't say for sure based on what we know now. Even a high-power microwave system is possible, but not nearly as likely due to the configuration we are seeing.

While America's flattops are constantly evolving in their configurations, sometimes dramatically so following a refit, and the addition of new defensive gear isn't uncommon, the speed we are seeing electronic warfare capabilities hitting the fleet is. This particular mystery system is a major upgrade that required substantial modifications to the carrier's outer mold line. So, whatever this system is capable of, it is clearly an important new addition. 

Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com