US Navy could detect Iranian missiles and small boats from beyond the horizon

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While any kind of U.S. first attack or pre-emptive strike on Iranian small boats in the Persian Gulf area seems extremely unlikely if not completely off the table, Navy ships, drones, radar and other kinds of sensor systems are engineered to detect, see and target Iranian threats at safe distances -- to prepare and be ready in case an attack or counter-strike on Iran is needed.

“If we see hostile intent, we have the right to respond up to and including lethal force, and if it happens in the Gulf, if it happens in any way, we will respond with overwhelming lethal force, if necessary, to defend ourselves, and it's really that simple. But nobody should doubt that the commanders have the authority right now to respond to any hostile act or hostile intent,” Gen. John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters recently, according to a Pentagon transcript of the discussion. 

How would the U.S. Navy “see, detect and destroy” Iranian forces at safe distances? Before small boats or missiles had an opportunity to strike or attack at close-in ranges? The Navy does have a host of surveillance and targeting technologies which, it seems clear, could spot incoming Iranian small boats or missiles at long ranges. This would, of course, give commanders an expanded time window with which to execute the best response.

US NAVY SHIPS AUTHORIZED TO 'DESTROY' IRANIAN THREATS IF NEEDED: HOW WOULD THEY DO IT?

A target must, of course, be “seen” in order to be destroyed. With this in mind, Navy or even Air Force-launched drones are flown with the specific purpose of finding threats over the horizon, in some cases well beyond target identification technologies built into some ship-based sensors. For example, for many years now, Navy destroyers have deployed with a system called Naval Integrated Fire Control - Counter Air (NIFC-CA) -- a networked weapons system that uses an aerial node sensor such as a Hawkeye surveillance plan or even F-35 to find and pinpoint threats from beyond the horizon. Drawing upon advanced radar and communications technology, threat data and targeting information is then sent to ship-based commanders, who can launch SM-6 interceptor missiles to take out an approaching threat at safer stand-off distances; developers make the point that this system can also be used for offensive attack. In effect, a system like NIFC-CA would be used to destroy swarms of Iranian boats long before they might be in range to attack Navy surface ships.

To support these concepts and tactics, Navy weapons developers have been making fast progress with ship-based command and control, or ISR networking systems. This amounts to an ability to receive and process incoming sensor data such as live video feeds from drones or networked communications from helicopters, surveillance aircraft, other surface ships and even submarines. Fast-advancing iterations of AI and computer automation are now being developed to make this process even faster, by organizing incoming sensor data for commanders - at times in a matter of seconds.

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With this in mind, both Hyten and Deputy Defense Secretary David Norquist responded to reporter questions as to whether President Trump’s recent tweet warning to Iran ensuring a potential lethal response to Iranian hostility in any way constituted a shift in policy or engagement strategy. Hyten and Norquist simply reinforced Trump’s message that the U.S. Navy would respond with force if necessary.