F-35C Lightning IIThe Navy and Lockheed Martin are planning to demonstrate a beyond-the-horizon anti-ship missile detection and defense technology using an F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.

The system, referred to as Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air, or NIFC-CA, uses Aegis radar, and airborne sensor and SM-6 missile to find, track and destroy approaching threats such as cruise missiles at ranges well beyond the typical radar horizon, Navy officials said.

Alongside Aegis radar and an SM-6 missile, NIFC-CA uses an E-2D Hawkeye aircraft as an airborne sensor to help relay threat information to the ship from beyond its normal radar range.

Lockheed is working closely with Naval Sea Systems Command, or NAVSEA, to plan a NIFC-CA demonstration at White Sands Missile Range, N.M., sometime this year or next year, a Lockheed executive said.

“We are looking at alternative airborne sensors,” the executive said.

The idea with a demonstration, sources indicate, would be to use the F-35 as an airborne relay node or sensor in place of the E-2D Hawkeye. This could allow NIFC-CA to operate against an increasingly complex set of targets such as stealthy targets, the Lockheed executive explained.

Sensors on the F-35 include the Active Electronically Scanned Array, or AESA, radar as well as a system called Distributed Aperture System, or DAS, which combines input from as many as six different electro-optical cameras on the aircraft.  The aircraft also draws upon a technology called Electro-optical Targeting System, or EOTS, which helps identify and pinpoint targets.  EOTS, which does both air-to-air and air-to-ground targeting, is able to combine forward-looking infrared and infrared search and track technology.

NIFC-CA is a technology which could alter the strategic calculus for both offensive and defensive warfighting scenarios; it is the kind of system which could have implications regarding what the Pentagon likes to call anti-access/area-denial or A2/AD – the strategy through which potential adversaries seek to use long-range weapons such as anti-ship guided missiles to deny U.S. forces the ability to operate in strategically important areas.  For instance, long-range, land-launched cruise missiles could make it more difficult for Navy ships to approach certain coastal waterways.

However, if there were a NIFC-CA-enabled ability to identify and destroy approaching threats at much further distances beyond the horizon – that could greatly impact where U.S. forces such as Navy ships and carrier groups could safely operate.

Alongside this defensive role, NIFC-CA technology can bring offensive firepower capability to Navy ships as well, allowing them to attack targets at much greater ranges. For example, the SM-6 uses both active and semi-active guidance technology, giving it the ability to discriminate and destroy targets at ranges beyond-the-horizon. NIFC-CA could potentially be used for long range offensive strikes against a range of enemy targets to include things such as aircraft, unmanned systems, ships, vehicles and buildings.

The NIFCA-CA is slated to deploy later this year with Navy forces in 2015 as part of the Teddy Roosevelt battle group, so this cruise missile defense technology will be protecting the fleet soon.

NIFC-CA is part of the Navy’s upgraded Aegis ballistic missile defense system called Baseline 9, which is being engineered into destroyers now under construction such as DDG 113 through DDG 118. Baseline 9 is already engineered onto a handful of platforms including the USS John Paul Jones, a destroyer– and two cruisers, the USS Chancellorsville and the USS Normandy.