To combat new missile threats, the US Navy prepares to move forward with destroyer upgrades

David Larter
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To combat new missile threats, the US Navy prepares to move forward with destroyer upgrades

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Navy is preparing to give its Flight IIA Arleigh Burke-class destroyers a major radar upgrade, trading in the AN/SPY-1D for a scaled-down version of the SPY-6 radar destined for the Flight III destroyers.

Back-fitting the Flight IIA destroyers with the SPY-6 technology is a step toward commonality with the Flight III DDG coming online. It also eases the burden on ships to keep the older radars running, which becomes increasingly onerous and expensive as the ships age.

“It is in the budget for the start of 2021 that we’ll work toward a back-fit on Flight IIA DDGs, but we’re working through the time fame and what ships with OPNAV [the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations],” said Capt. Jason Hall, who is the above-water sensors program manager at Program Executive Office Integrated Warfare Systems.

Hall would not comment on how many ships the Navy plans to upgrade, saying his office is working through the details with OPNAV staff. He did say the upgrade would likely be part of the midlife modernization program for the targeted ships.

A source familiar with the Navy’s thinking on the program estimated that between 12 and 20 ships would likely get the upgrade. The back-fit is designed to work with the existing space, weight, power and cooling on the Flight IIA DDGs.

The SPY-6 is a radar with a mind toward the kinds of threats posed by Russia’s and China’s ultra-fast anti-ship cruise missiles that pose a challenge to U.S. naval supremacy on the world’s oceans.

The big breakthrough with the SPY-6 radar is its ability to simultaneously perform anti-ballistic missile, anti-air and anti-surface warfare operations. It’s also a gallium nitride, solid-state radar that’s easier to maintain than the old SPY-1D system.

The radar is also orders of magnitude more sensitive than the older version and can track more targets simultaneously.

The arrays destined for the Flight III DDG — which starts with the destroyer Jack Lucas being built in at Huntington Ingalls Industries’ shipyard in Pascagoula, Mississippi — will start being delivered in February and will pair with Lockheed Martin’s Aegis Baseline 10, Hall said.

Raytheon’s head of naval radars, Scott Spence, said in an interview that as the U.S. Navy’s program has come into its own, the SPY-6 has generated international interest, but he would not identify specific countries.

“As the Navy’s program starts to field, they’re seeing that and looking at SPY-6 for their ships as well. Whether that’s in Asia or in Europe, we’re having those conversations,” Spence said.

Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper and defense consultant, said in an interview last year that if the Navy follows through on the program, it would be a significant upgrade to the destroyer fleet.

“If indeed the Navy decided to [retrofit] the IIAs with SPY-6, it would greatly increase the sensitivity of the radar and allow the ship to track and engage targets with more difficult kinematics, moving at higher speeds and executing more difficult maneuvers,” McGrath said.

The SPY-6 and variants of it are becoming more widespread in the fleet, something else that would be an advantage, he added.

“It is essentially the same radar they are putting in the FFG(X) [future frigate] and in the Flight III,” he said. “That gives you the opportunity to execute some more advanced networked radar techniques and aids in life cycle cost management.”