Navy Preps USS Ford for "Shock Trials" - How Will it Withstand Ocean Explosions?

Kris Osborn

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By Kris Osborn - Warrior Maven

(Washington D.C.) Bombs will explode beneath the surface of the ocean, generating destructive waves and disturbances in the sea .. how will it impact the Navy’s emerging USS Ford?

The entire concept of the USS Ford’s upcoming Shock Trials is to find out just how much destruction, damage or explosive impact the new ship can survive. The preparation for this process, which includes detonating bombs in the ocean near the ship to tests its durability, is now underway in the Atlantic Ocean on board the Navy’s USS Ford, according to an interesting USNI report from aboard the ship.

Naturally, a key aim of the process is simply to what if a ship, such as a large carrier, had to take a hit? How might it survive and hold up? At what point or under what kind of combat impact might it be rendered inoperable? These are questions Navy weapons developers of course need to consider as they build resiliency and redundancy into their platforms.

This is where “shock trials” come in, a process which involves exploding bombs in the ocean of various sizes and at different distances from the ship, to simply assess its ability to withstand massive enemy attacks. Interestingly, a 2007 DoD-directed study on Shock Trials by the MITRE corporation explains that much of the risk to surface ships comes not only from the prospect of direct impact but from what the study calls “non-contact explosions where a high-pressure wave is launched toward the ship.”

The shock vibrations alone from a nearby explosion can knock out key ship systems and “incapacitate the ship,” the study writes.

The MITRE analysis, called “Navy Ship Underwater Shock Prediction and Testing Capability Study,” further specifies that, following a nearby explosion, the bulkhead of a ship can oscillate, causing the ship to move upward.

“Strong localized deformations are seen in the deck modes, in which different parts of the decks move at different frequencies from each other,” MITRE writes.

These dynamics further underscore several reasons why there has been so much concern about long-range, precision-guided Chinese anti-ship missiles such as the DF-26, a weapon reported to reach as far as 2,000 nautical miles. The point with this being, should an approaching missile miss making actual impact upon the hull or structure of the carrier, it could still inflict crippling damage.

This may be part of why the Navy is making such rapid progress with efforts to refine and add new ship-defense technologies based upon networking and air-surface-unmanned systems integration. The farther away an approaching missile is discovered, seen, tracked and identified, the better the options to intercept, disable or destroy it. This seemingly self-evident, yet critical, tactical phenomenon is part of why the Navy has such interest in data sharing between surface-ship-based radar and sensing systems and aerial nodes such as a surveillance drone or even an F-35.

This kind of dynamic sheds light upon the inspirational rationale for the Navy’s now-deployed Naval Integrated Fire Control - Counter Air, a destroyer-mounted ship system which connects ship based radar with an aerial sensor node such as an F-35 or Hawkeye surveillance plane to find and track approaching enemy missiles from beyond the horizon. Not only that, the NIFC-CA system includes the use of an SM-6 interceptor which can pick up on signals coming from both ship-based radar systems and aerial surveillance nodes to destroy the approaching threat well before it comes close enough to damage the ship. While deployed on destroyers and not carriers, the NIFC-CA systems encompasses key concepts and specifics of relevance to layered ship defenses, as destroyers often flank carriers in Carrier Strike Groups to at least in part, defend them.

“Avoiding enemy attack” is a phrase characteristic of any clear goal in war, and certainly one of great relevance on the open ocean should large surface ships such as aircraft carriers find themselves engaged in maritime combat under enemy fire.

The technical and strategic intent to stop an attack before it hits, it goes without saying, can be described as huge priority. This is why ships, especially Navy Aircraft Carriers, are engineered with extensive, layered networks of integrated defenses.

These defenses are integrated and far too many to cite, as they include long-range radar, SATCOM networking, air-surface-drone data-sharing connectivity, EW systems to jam the electronic guidance systems steering approaching weapons, long, medium and short-range interceptors fired up to “take-out” threats and even deck-mounted guns to fight off close-in threats.

The U.S. Naval Institute report from aboard the USS Ford in the Atlantic Ocean says the ship is now amid an “at-sea” phase of its Combat Systems Ship Qualification Trials, a key point in a series of developments intended to get the ship ready for war. As part of the work, maintenance crews are putting wires together, managing the ship’s technical systems and assessing its weapons elevators, the USNI report from the ship explains.

The focus of these kinds of activities has, especially in recent years, shifted more intensely to the improvement of layered ship defenses.

These kinds of defenses, fast-becoming armed with new technologies such as laser-interceptors, longer-range, more precise-missiles and multi-frequency jamming systems are growing in complexity and effectiveness, with the primary aim of avoiding and stopping increasingly sophisticated attacks. Case in point, the Navy is not only preparing a new SM-3IIA longer-range, larger and more precise interceptor for carrier strike groups but has also upgraded the SM-6 with a “dual-mode” seeker enabling it to send a forward ping from the missile itself and change course in flight to adjust to moving targets. The Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile Block II is yet another upgraded weapon which can operate in “sea-skimming” and parallel the surface of the water to take out lower-flying incoming threats. Laser defenses are no longer “on-the-horizon” but are already here arming surface ships.

Also, as part of this equation, surface ship defenses are by no means purely “kinetic” as they say, meaning new networking technologies are linking information operations with EW to discern threats, identify frequencies and, in some cases, launch attacks against enemy communications and guidance systems. These kinds of approaches may prove of particularly great value should an attack happen in a heavily trafficked area where fragmentation from an explosion could damage civilian vessels.

All of this pertains to the growing Navy recognition, which has much precedent throughout history, that carriers will need to operate effectively in extremely high-risk combat environments where they will most likely be confronted with various kinds of incoming attacks. Therefore, it is not surprising that layered ship defense systems are fast improving to incorporate a wider sphere of weapons, newer applications and an entire generation of new technologies.

-- Kris Osborn is the Managing Editor of Warrior Maven and The Defense Editor of The National Interest --

Kris Osborn is the defense editor for the National Interest. Osborn previously served at the Pentagon as a Highly Qualified Expert with the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army—Acquisition, Logistics & Technology. Osborn has also worked as an anchor and on-air military specialist at national TV networks. He has appeared as a guest military expert on Fox News, MSNBC, The Military Channel, and The History Channel. He also has a Master's Degree in Comparative Literature from Columbia University.

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