The Navy is now integrating and preparing weapons systems for its advanced Ford aircraft carrier during a 12-month period called Post-Shakedown Availability (PSA)—one of several key final steps designed to prepare the ship for ocean warfare when the ship deploys in 2022.
While the Ford’s electromagnetic catapult, larger deck space and nuclear power technology are heavily emphasized in public discussion of the ship’s newer technologies, layered ship defenses, are commanding commensurate developmental attention – given the global threat environment.
This includes efforts to build in the latest interceptor missiles and close-range guns, such as the Evolved Sea Sparrow Block 2 (ESSM) and the Phalanx Close-In Weapons System (CIWS).
Therefore, alongside the more emphasized items for the PSA, such as the advanced weapons elevator and advanced arresting gear upgrades, preparing ship defenses for deployment will also function as an indispensable element of the Navy’s strategy for the Ford-class.
“The scheduled 12-month PSA/SRA will install remaining combat systems, complete deferred work and correct remaining discrepancies identified during sea trials and shakedown,” William Couch, Naval Sea Systems Command spokesman told Warrior Maven.
The PSA is intended to build upon lessons learned and adjustments emerging from previous testing.
The ship's crew has been “conducting post-delivery testing and trial operations that identify construction and design issues. They have been extremely effective in identifying any issues early, which helps us address them prior to returning to the fleet." Rear Adm. Brian Antonio, program executive officer for aircraft carriers, said in a published Navy statement.
During testing and developmental phases immediately preceding the start of the PSA, the Ford successfully completed fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft integration and compatibility testing, air traffic control center certification and JP-5 fuel system certification, Couch added in the statement.
Demonstrating the ship’s defensive systems was also a vital element of these preparations for the PSA. While carriers often travel in Carrier Strike Groups, protected by cruisers and destroyers, the platforms are increasingly being viewed as ships in need of their own organic defensive weapons.
This is particularly true in light of the often discussed threats of Chinese DF-21D “carrier killer,” a long range anti-ship guided missile reported to reach ranges greater than 900 miles.
There is much discussion about how the USS Ford’s massively-increased onboard power technology, driven by four 26-megawatt generators, will potentially enable emerging weapons, such as defensive lasers and railguns.
In the near-term, however, the USS Ford will use the PSA to solidify integration of several upgraded ship defense weapons.
“Besides carrying over 75 warplanes, the USS Ford has some serious destructive capability. Engineers and designers included ESSM (Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile), RAM (Rolling Airframe Missile), and a Mk-15 Phalanx CIWS,” a report from Engineering.com writes.
Upgraded Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile
The USS Ford is expected to deploy with the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block 2, or ESSM, a weapon designed to track and destroy incoming enemy supersonic missiles and anti-ship missiles, among other threats.
The ESSM Block 2 is engineered with what’s called an active guidance system, meaning the missile itself can achieve improved flight or guidance to its target by both receiving and actively sending electromagnetic signals, Navy and industry ESSM developers told Warrior Maven in previous interviews.
The current ESSM missiles use what’s called a semi-active guidance system, meaning the missile itself can receive electromagnetic signals bounced off the target by an illuminator; the ESSM Block 2’s “active” guidance includes illuminator technology built onto the missile itself such that it can both receive and send important electromagnetic signals, Navy and Raytheon officials explained.
A shipboard illuminator is an RF signal that bounces off a target. The antenna in the nose in the guidance section [of the missile] sees the reflected energy and then corrects to intercept that reflective energy, the Raytheon officials told Warrior.
The emerging missile has an “active” front end, meaning it can send an electromagnetic signal forward to track a maneuvering target, at times without needing a ship-based illuminator for guidance.
Also, the missile is able to intercept threats that are close to the surface by sea-skimming or diving in onto a target from a higher altitude, Navy officials explained.
Phalanx Close in Weapons System
The Phalanx Close in Weapons System, or CIWS, is an area weapon engineered to use a high rate of fire and ammunition to blanket a given area, destroying or knocking enemy fire out of the sky before it can reach a ship. The Phalanx CIWS, which can fire up to 4,500 rounds per minute, has been protecting ship platforms for decades.
CWIS firs a 20 mm Vulcan cannon mounted on a swiveling base. An essay in Naval Forces magazine called "CIWS - the Last Ditch Defense," further specifics that the weapon fires "armor piercing tungsten penetrater rounds with discarding sabots." CIWS fires a M61A1 Gatling gun out to ranges of 3 km.
Navy officials say the latest CIWS Block IB provides ships the additional capability for defense against asymmetric threats such as small, high speed, maneuvering surface craft, slow-flying fixed and rotary-winged aircraft, and unmanned aerial vehicles.
A CIWS overhaul in recent years has consisted of numerous upgrades to the weapon itself, converting the existing systems into what's called the Phalanx 1B configuration. At the same time, the CIWS overhaul also includes the development and ongoing integration of a new, next-generation radar for the system called the CIWS Phalanx Block IB Baseline 2, Navy officials explained.
The Phalanx Block IB configuration incorporates a stabilized Forward-Looking Infra-Red sensor, an automatic acquisition video tracker, optimized gun barrels (OBG) and the Enhanced Lethality Cartridges (ELC).
The FLIR also improves performance against anti-ship cruise missiles by providing more accurate angle tracking information to the fire control computer.
The OGB/ELC combine to provide tighter dispersion and increased first hit range, a Navy official added. The Phalanx 1B fires Mk 244 ammunition, using the Enhanced Lethality Cartridge specifically designed to penetrate anti-ship cruise missiles.
The Mk 244 ammunition is engineered with a 48 percent heavier tungsten penetrator and an aluminum nose piece, according to information from General Dynamics Ordnance and Tactical Systems.
The Phalanx Block IB Baseline 2 radar upgrade is a new digital radar that provides improved detection performance, increased reliability and reduction in sailor man-hours for system maintenance, developers said.
The Baseline 2 upgrade mitigates obsolete components inherent in the existing analog radar by introducing COTS-based (commercial off-the-shelf) signal processing coupled with a new signal source and mixer.
CIWS uses "Ku-band radar featuring closed-loop spotting technology capable of autonomously performing its own search, detect, evaluation, track, engage and kill assessment functions," the Naval Forces essay writes.
The Baseline 2 radar also provides the Phalanx CIWS with "surface mode," meaning it adds the ability to track, detect and then destroy threats closer to the surface of the water compared with previous models of the weapon, developers explained.