Reading tea leaves on the SEWIP Block III

Cybersecurity is all the rage these days, but decades before we worried about computer viruses, worms, ransomware, keyloggers, etc. (ok I did write a keylogger in 1973) the military was employing electronic warfare. Now this space, indeed all military tech, has fascinated me since I faced the prospect of being drafted during the Vietnam War. Consider it a hobby. Of course given how the military works, with varying degrees (but usually significant) secrecy and even intentional misdirection, a lot of tea leaf reading is required to get a real picture of technical capabilities. So this is a little story of how a potentially huge military technical advance was either accidently or intentionally revealed without explicitly calling it out. Because I must assume my reader base has little background on this topic I’ll set the stage, and try to do it as concisely as I think makes sense. So, with apologies to the experts for oversimplifying, skipping over important details, or introducing (hopefully minor) errors in my background workup let’s get on with the show.

In 1967 the Israeli Destroyer Eilat became the first ship to ever be sunk by an anti-ship missile, Soviet Styx missiles launched from an Egyptian Komar-class missile boat. This set off efforts around the world both to acquire anti-ship missiles and to come up with countermeasures against them. In the Yom Kippur War of 1973, Israel used electronic countermeasures to render both Syrian and Egyptian launched anti-ship missiles impotent, and thus achieve naval supremacy. They had also developed their own anti-ship missile, the Gabriel, against which the Soviet-supplied Syrian and Egyptian ships had no equivalent electronic defenses. Oops. So while kinetic defensive weapons (i.e., anti-ship missile interceptors) get most of the press, since the dawn of the anti-ship missile era electronic countermeasures have been the more important part of the ship self-defense picture. In the U.S. the electronic countermeasures system for ship defense is primarily represented by the AN/SLQ-32. It has receivers that search for enemy radar signals, classifies them (i.e., matches them to known signals like the signatures in an anti-virus scanner), alerts the crew, and directs the employment of countermeasures. To cut to the chase, one of those countermeasures would be to transmit radar signals that the original radar thinks are returns from its own transmissions and in doing so create false targets. You may have seen this “in action” in movies and TV shows; they think they see a target ship or aircraft and suddenly there are 5 or 10 or hundreds of them on their sensors. They can’t tell the difference between the false radar returns and the actual target. Back to reality, an active radar guided anti-ship missile approaches the area where a target ship is supposed to be and turns on its radar to search for the target ship. The AN/SLQ-32 detects the missile’s radar, matches the radar’s transmission to a library to determine what the missile is and then calls for various countermeasures that (amongst other things) includes transmitting the false radar returns. Hopefully you get the anti-ship missile to believe one of the false returns is the real target and it splashes into the water rather than hitting you.

There is a constant cat and mouse game of improving missile’s ability to find the real target despite being jammed and decoyed (called counter-countermeasures) and improving the countermeasures. The primary effort (there are many others) to improve the U.S. Navy’s electronic countermeasures is called the Surface Electronic Warfare Improvement Program (SEWIP). SEWIP updates the AN/SLQ-32 and has been executed in three “blocks”. Block I replaced obsolete components. Block II replaced the signal receiver and analysis capabilities. Block III replaces the transmit (aka active) side of the AN/SLQ-32, the part that does jamming, decoying, etc. Block III is supposed to be a dramatic improvement in electronic attack capability.

When I first read Tyler Rogoway’s interview with Northrop Grumman’s Mike Meaney over at The War Zone I took little note of one thing Meaney said: “Then finally, we can even use our system for simple versions of radar, and use it for different types of radar functions, as well.” The interview is the first real look at SEWIP Block III that I’ve seen, and Meaney was throwing out things that it could do beyond electronic attack. So my first impression (and Tyler’s too…I asked) was that it provided a backup in case the ship’s primary radar was out of commission. This could be as simple as it needs to be taken offline briefly for maintenance, or as serious as battle damage has severely degraded or halted its operation. Yup, that seems useful. But now we can get to the entire point of this blog entry.

Throughout my life I’ve processed things while driving my car. In fact, you’d be surprised how many of my technical and business contributions over the years came to me while driving. In this case, I had a “Holy &^#*” moment about Mike Meaney’s comment on using SEWIP Block III as a radar. The AN/SLQ-32 system is designed to receive and analyze adversaries radar signals. The SEWIP Block III (and, for completeness, earlier active components) is designed to transmit what look like the adversary’s radar signals. So if SEWIP Block III is able to function as a radar, it would not need to look at all like a U.S. Navy radar system. It could be made to, and by default is more likely to look like, someone else’s (likely an adversary’s) radar! People who follow this space probably also just had a “Holy &^$*” moment, but for everyone else I will explain.

One of the primary ways to locate and attack a ship (or aircraft or land-based air defense system) is to search for its electronic emissions (“signal intelligence”). That’s one of the two major techniques used by ocean surveillance satellites and patrol aircraft (the other being synthetic aperture radar). So the satellite is running around picking up signals, and if it sees the signals generated by a U.S. AN/SPY-1 radar it knows an AEGIS ship is in the general area. What happens today when an adversary’s signal intelligence satellite is overhead is that a ship will go into an emissions control (“EMCON”) state, turning off or limiting transmissions until the satellite has passed out of view. While this may be effective, it means that the ship’s situational awareness is greatly reduced for some period of time. Depending on overall circumstances (e.g., an adversary has already located you and is in the process of launching an attack) that could be disasterous. But what if you had another option, to operate a radar that didn’t identify the ship as a U.S. ship? Now under EMCON you could turn off the AN/SPY-1 but have the SEWIP Block III emulate a Chinese, Russian, or other radar. You get some of your situational awareness back, but retain a lot of the ability to hide from detection by signal intelligence. Note only that, if you are attacked by missiles that are looking for your radar transmissions (an increasingly used technique), they are unlikely to target a ship emitting their own military’s radar transmissions. You are somewhere in the East China Sea and the Chinese ocean surveillance satellite picks up a radar transmission that looks like it is from a Chinese ship, or maybe a North Korean Corvette using a Chinese-supplied radar. It just isn’t going to set off alarms, and even if the PLAN decides to investigate the signal it is going to take a long time for it to verify there was no Chinese or North Korean ship in the area. By that time the U.S. ship is long gone from where it was detected. Meanwhile if something was happening (e.g., an attack) that the ship needed to know about, being able to use active radar (no matter how limited) increased the chances that you were able to detect it.

I’ve given one example of how the SEWIP Block III’s ability to emulate an adversary’s radar might come in handy. But it does not take much imagination to find other potential uses that really play into the entire “fog of war“, use of deception, getting inside the adversary’s OODA loop, etc. During a battle you take one or more of your ships and have them approach the adversary force from the flank using your emulation of the enemy’s radar. Yes you have far less capability than if you were using your native radar, but for this mission that is an acceptable risk. If the adversary (who is focused on the U.S. forces it is engaged with) fails to notice your true nature for long enough, you might be able to approach within range to surprise them with your anti-ship missiles. Alternatively, you use your ability to make your emissions look like the adversary’s to confuse them about where their own forces are located. And that could be just the edge your forces need to achieve victory.

Of course perhaps I am just letting my imagination run wild. But I have to believe my imagination is running years behind that of naval technologists and strategists. In any case, Mike Meaney seems to have revealed a capability far beyond what has been previously suggested.

Note: Since I’m a mere hobbyist here I would not be at all surprised to find I’ve made more errors in both fact and judgement than I would with technology where I have a first party professional relationship. Please feel free to leave appropriate comments!

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2 Responses to Reading tea leaves on the SEWIP Block III

  1. Bob says:

    Hopefully a friendly doesn’t mistake your fake enemy emissions for a real enemy and attack you. Now my head is starting to hurt thinking about all the possibilities.

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