The Navy has been firmly committed to the hard kill option of the Aegis/Standard Anti-Air Warfare (AAW) system as the main line of defense against attacking planes and missiles. Additional hard kill elements include a variety of shorter range missiles and guns such as RAM, SeaRAM, CIWS, and various rapid firing guns in the 3”-5” range. A secondary, soft kill system of decoys and electronic countermeasures (ECM) is also used but has not been developed and upgraded with the same attention and priority as Aegis and the various hard kill components. For example, the Navy’s main ECM system, the SLQ-32, is well behind the times, bordering on obsolete, and the Navy is only just now beginning to look at upgrading it.
|SLQ-32 - Not Enough Love?|
We’ve already discussed the historical data regarding anti-ship missile attacks on passively defended (soft kill) vessels. The data shows defensive success rates of around 80%.
To the best of my knowledge, Aegis/Standard has never been fired in combat in the AAW role so there is no direct data to examine.
We’ve also discussed from time to time that Aegis is such a complex system that it has fallen into a fleetwide state of reduced performance and readiness. The Navy has had to implement special programs in an attempt to bring Aegis back up to standard but the system remains degraded across the fleet. The complexity of the system largely precludes on-board repairs by the crew and, in fact, makes it virtually impossible for the crew to even spot degraded performance.
What do all of these bits and pieces tell us?
One obvious conclusion is that soft kill methods have a far better performance record than hard kill. That’s probably not all that surprising given the difficulty of trying to guide an AAW missile on to an incoming, high speed, maneuvering target. To be fair, that conclusion is drawn with no data input from the Aegis/Standard system. Will Aegis perform markedly better than Sea Dart? My guess, based on nothing, is that Aegis will perform better but nowhere near the 80% success rate demonstrated by soft kill systems.
Another point to consider is that any AAW system works best in a fully automatic mode. Unfortunately, commanders are reluctant to operate that way for fear of unintended mishaps. Indeed, there have been numerous such incidents. For example, Sea Sparrow has fired on friendly ships during exercises and CIWS has fired on friendly chaff and helos with each example causing damage and casualties. Contrast that to soft kill systems operating in automatic mode. There is no danger. Soft kill systems can be left on continuously, EMCON considerations not withstanding.
Further, consider the cost of upgrading the capabilities of hard and soft kill systems. Hard kill systems require software upgrades, which are relatively easy to implement, and hardware (the missiles) upgrades. The Navy has spent a great deal of money upgrading the Standard missile from Block 1 through the various versions to Block 6. Soft kill system upgrades, by comparison, are almost exclusively software based, again relatively easy, and the hardware upgrades are far less expensive. Thus, soft kill systems can be more easily kept up to date and responsive to the ever-changing threats.
Next, consider the real estate required for hard kill and soft kill systems. Missiles and their launchers require enormous amounts of deck space and internal ship’s volume. Soft kill hardware requires very little space. The result is that the smaller the ship, the less hard kill defense capability it has. To a large extent, soft kill systems are independent of ship size.
Finally, consider the danger that hard kill systems pose to themselves. The missiles represent a source of internal explosions in the event of a hit on the defending ship. Soft kill systems present little self-threat.
It’s clear, then, that soft kill systems offer historically superior performance, easier upgrade paths, can be operated more freely, require little space, and present no threat to friendly forces or the defender. The Navy should be much more focused on soft kill systems than they currently are.
Why, then, is the Navy so focused on hard kills? Well, for one thing, hard kills are dramatic, definite, and occur at some distance away from the defender. Soft kills tend not to show a definite result until the missile has approached quite closely and passed the defender. It’s a lot more reassuring to see missiles disappear at a distance!
What’s the takeaway from this discussion? I’m not suggesting that the Navy abandon hard kill systems, so half of you can take your itchy fingers off the keyboard where they were preparing to lambaste me. What I’m suggesting is that soft kill systems are part of a layered AAW defense, along with hard kill systems, but that they should be given much higher priority than they have historically received from the Navy. As stated, soft kill systems are more effective, cheaper, easier to maintain and upgrade, and safer to operate. You would think those characteristics would garner far more attention than they do. C’mon Navy, pay attention to what works even if it isn’t the “sexy” approach. Soft kill provides more bang for the buck – stop ignoring it!