Navies must focus on auto EW systems to survive hypersonic missiles, says expert


LONDON — Naval forces will need to rely on more automated electronic warfare systems if warships are to survive an attack by hypersonic missiles, according to an expert scheduled to speak at the EW Europe conference in London on June 8.

Future hypersonic weapons engagements will present scant warning cues to platforms, and will be delivered so fast that traditional man-in–the-loop responses will be unable to cope, according to Paul Bradbeer, the electronic warfare operational support sales manager at MASS, a leading British company in the field. 

Bradbeer is expected to tell conference delegates at the EW Show, which opens here June 6, that the key to countering this emerging threat will be to use machine learning to automate EW responses.

This, he’s to say, maximizes such defensive capabilities by exploiting every piece of information available to the platform: establishing and filling platform information gaps, using data to locate your position in another’s kill chain, and then taking effective action to disrupt the kill chain. 

“In future, we will need machines to interpret these indicators and assess the likely sequence of events. The response could involve machine-led reconfiguration of combat systems and initiation of countermeasures,” Bradbeer said, speaking ahead of the show opening. 

The problem is that some platforms, such as warships, rely on legacy command-and-control systems that are often based on human thinking, decision-making and communication — thereby increasing the risk from new and evolving threats, said the executive.

Some navies are aware of the threat, but Bradbeer told Defense News “there needs to be more work done to address the problem.” 

Hypersonic missiles remain a development item at the moment, but work is advancing in China, the U.S., Europe, India and Russia to produce a weapon that would be a game-changer in its ability to defeat the defenses of naval and other targets.

India and Russia are collaborating in the development of the Brahmos II hypersonic weapon.

In April, the Moscow-based news agency TASS reported unnamed sources as saying Russia test fired a missile known as the Zircon at a speed of Mach 8, or 9,878 mph. 

No further details were given, although a later story claimed production of the weapon, initially destined for the Russian Navy, could start next year.

None of this has been officially confirmed, and Doug Barrie, the senior air analyst at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, reckons Zircon’s speed profile at best is likely to be “barely hypersonic” at somewhere around Mach 5 or maybe even Mach 6. 

The broad rule of thumb is that below Mach 5 a weapon is supersonic, and above it is hypersonic, said Barrie. 

Bradbeer noted that as a general guide, some “future hypersonic missiles may be seven times faster than the threats we have dealt with in the past, and engaging from twice the distance.”

IISS’ Barrie said the threat to high-value targets is further exacerbated by the possible attack profile of these new cruise weapons.

“Some of these cruise missiles could fly at 80,000 feet or more, an altitude most naval radars traditionally don’t bother to look [at],” Barrie said.

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