The greatest threats to Navy ships in the years ahead come from missile proliferation and submarines, but the best defense starts in the sky with the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye.
“State actors and non-state actors who, in the past, have only posed limited threats in the littoral are expanding their reach beyond their own shores with improved capabilities in blue water submarine operations, advanced anti-ship cruise missiles and ballistic missiles,” Vice Admiral Barry McCullough testified to the House Armed Services Committee in 2008.
Monitoring and making sense of the crowded maritime battlespace is job one for the fleet. That’s where E-2D Advanced Hawkeye comes in. This carrier-based surveillance plane is best known for the 24-foot rotodome bolted on its fuselage. To the Navy, it’s the eyes of the fleet – an essential mix of sensors and computing power with the mission of watching over and directing the air and sea battle.
Older E-2s have been in the fleet for years. They earned the nickname “eyes of the fleet” by doing everything from tracking Soviet bombers and Libyan MiGs in the 1980s to watching Iraq’s skies in the 1990s to acting as forward control and communications relays over Afghanistan and Iraq in this decade. The Navy has to buy new carrier aircraft regularly because hard carrier landings and catapult launches wear out the older airframes.
The new E-2D coming off the production line in Florida has more powerful engines, new propellers and flat-screen sensor displays for the crew of five. For the first time, the E-2D fleet will be able to receive fuel in the air, greatly extending mission range and the margin of safety for carrier landings.
But the real magic of the E-2D is in its sensors like the APY-9 radar and cockpit processors that permit highly advanced new techniques in target tracking. What the Navy says publicly is that the E-2D crew can keep track of many more targets at once in an area 300 percent greater than older versions of the plane. Work stations inside have all the links needed to make new Navy fire control architectures even more effective: flat-screen glass displays, satellite communications and the latest secure networking.
Although the whole Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air capability is still maturing, the anti-missile capabilities in E-2D work with systems ready today. Links to the Army’s ground-based Patriot air and missile defense batteries are designed in. An F/A-18 can pick up E-2D cues and fire an air-to-air missile at targets. Improved links to surface ships are also on the horizon.
Getting E-2D to the fleet on schedule and in sufficient quantity is vital in a world where the technical prowess of adversaries is on the upswing. The Navy needs to keep the E-2D on track to deliver sophisticated surveillance and better engagement solutions. Missions from presence to sea-based missile defenses may depend on it.
This report was written by Dr. Rebecca Grant for the Lexington Institute.
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