A test of a joint integrated air defense system conducted Sept. 21 ended in success with a Navy Missile intercepting a target with the help of an advanced Army radar system.
The Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air, or NIFC-CA is a program consisting of several different missile and air defense related systems with the goal of integrating them together to allow for Naval air defense systems to engage targets at long range. In the case of this test, an Army Joint Land Attack Elevated Netted Sensor or JLENS radar system was integrated with a Navy missile system, allowing the missile to intercept a target over the horizon. "The primary capability is to extend our engagement range beyond the horizon, that is the big kicker here as to why it's so important," said Capt. Brian Gannon, Future Combat Systems and Human Systems Integration major program manager.
While missiles like the Standard Missile 6 used in the test have a very long range, and can travel to extreme altitudes and fly long distances, limitations of the supporting radar make low altitude targets like cruise missiles and targets beyond the horizon much harder to target at long range.
Radar works by sending out radio waves, which bounce off things like aircraft and back to the radar, which can then determine where the aircraft is. At extreme ranges and low altitudes terrain like hills and mountains, and even further out the curvature of the earth itself can block the radio waves and allow aircraft to go undetected. The NIFC-CA program is working to expand air defense beyond the horizon by networking different air defense radar and sensors systems together with Navy air defense systems. By connecting a ship like the Aegis Cruiser to larger air defense radar networks and systems, the ship can use those other radars to provide the targeting data needed to engage long range threats.
In the test conducted at WSMR, several different systems had to be integrated. The Army JLENS, a special radar mounted on a blimp like balloon, allowing it to easily see over terrain and other obstructions, was used to provide long range targeting information. The JLENS was connecting through the Navy's Cooperative Engagement Capability network to the Aegis Combat system on WSMR's Desert Ship. The Desert ship, a specially configured blockhouse configured like an actual warship, was then able to use the targeting data and intercept the target using an SM-6. The integration of all these different components together is the culmination of years of work between the Army and Navy, with JLENS integration operations at WSMR beginning in 2011. "Working with the JLENS program and the range was very good. Both sides dedicated the resources to execute this mission…I'm very happy with the teamwork from the Army organizations involved," said Gannon.
During the test all the different systems came together, working as a system of systems as intended, and intercepting a target drone designed to represent a cruise missile.
The Navy, as part of a long running partnership with Army Test and Evaluation command, makes extensive use of WSMR facilities to test various systems. As a land locked range, WSMR is normally where the Navy takes systems in the earlier part of their testing cycle, to ensure the systems safety and allow for easy recovery before taking the systems to sea for additional testing. In the case of NIFC-CA, WSMR was also a good choice since the integration of JLENS, a land based system, was meant to test a capability that included the need to engage targets on land as well as at sea. "NIFC-CA is all about extending range over land and water. So the overland part is where WSMR comes in. To verify that," Gannon said.
Conducting the test wasn't just a matter of coordination with the Army's range assets, but also with the national park service. The long ranges needed for the test required that a larger than usual area be evacuated to ensure the safety and security of the test. "White Sands Missile Range is a large range, but sometimes it's not large enough and we have to call upon our neighbors that we have relationships with like the monument… so that they could close highway 70 and stay closed a little longer so we could conduct the (test)," said Sal Rodriguez, WSMR's Navy test group operations director. The Monument and the range have a special agreement to ensure that the safety areas are closed off and monument visitors and researchers are clear when testing is taking place. When the test is over, those areas are opened back up. "I'm very well aware of the very close relationship that the (range and monument) have and the need to work very closely together to accomplish our missions," said Marie Frias Sauter, superintendent of the White Sands National Monument.
The NIFC-CA program is still ongoing, with tests integrating more systems expected to take place next year.