“Do you think those US Navy warships are out there on vacation?” one Saudi leader was said to have asked Iranian ruler Mahmoud Ahmadinejad during a recent crisis. Aircraft carriers and surface ships do a lot for US diplomacy just by showing up. But there’s a complication on the horizon. Cruise missile attack is a growing risk. The Navy had a good plan to offset that, but it’s drifting due to unforeseen cuts to the E-2D radar surveillance plane.
Advanced cruise missiles don’t get much press today. They should, because several very capable types have been around quite a while. Land-attack cruise missiles like a French-built missile called the Scalp have been sold in Europe and the Persian Gulf under the name Black Shaheen. It’s big, stealthy, and flies about 500 mph. Then there are the anti-ship cruise missiles. Just about every nation with a coastline has them. It takes constant vigilance with a big and high-powered radar search volume to pick out cruise missiles flying over land or water.
The US Navy has prepared to meet the threat with a little-known program with the far too bland name of Naval Integrated Fire Control – Counter Air (NIFC-CA). What that means is the Navy is pushing the technology to link fire control for the missiles carried by its ships and airplanes into a network that can pick out and shoot enemy cruise missiles when they are farther away. Cooperative engagement capability is part of the NIFC-CA, and that’s where E-2D comes in.
From the outside, E-2D looks like a stronger, sleeker modification of the venerable E-2C, a propeller-driven, carrier-based plane with the large circular radar dome on top which first entered service in 1973. Inside E-2D is a different story. There’s a new radar called the APY-9 which detects cruise missiles at greater ranges. The Navy won’t say much about just what this powerful new radar can do. (That’s how you know it’s really good. It can probably watch the pistachios pop in Iran.) What the Navy says publicly is that the E-2D crew can keep track of many more targets at once in an area 300% greater than the older plane. Work stations inside have all the links needed to make NIFC-CA effective in its expanded mission: flat-screen glass displays, satellite communications and the latest secure networking. E2-C is still going strong but on these tasks it can’t compete.
Although the whole NIFC-CA piece is still maturing, the anti-cruise missile capabilities in E-2D work with systems ready today. None question the Navy’s need for E-2D – the threat is too compelling. Links to the Army’s ground-based Patriot air and missile defense batteries are designed in. An F/A-18 with an air-to-air missile can receive E-2D cues and fire an air-to-air missile at targets. More links to surface ships come later.
The technology is ready but the risk is here in Washington. To get the E-2D to the fleet by 2011 the Navy must buy three planes per year. Congressional vacillation took out one aircraft for 2009 and scenting weakness, the Pentagon pulled money for another aircraft in 2010. Short-term, stripping out aircraft will cost potentially hundreds of jobs in St. Augustine, Florida. Long-term, failing to stick to the plan pushes the cost later in the program, driving up the price with a higher burden on the future. Heard that one before?
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