Naval Fire Support: Ring of Fire

By Lieutenant Commander Ross Mitchell, U.S. Navy

"Can we respond to all the calls for fire and still meet our scheduled tasking?"

"Yes Sir! We already have launched 70 of the 180 missiles called for in the strike plan and answered 27 calls for fire. The strike missiles will be completed in approximately 25 minutes as scheduled and the remaining calls for fire will be answered in less than five minutes."

With Joint Vision 2010 and Operational Maneuver from the Sea emphasizing the need for joint fires in the littoral battlespace, it is possible that a scenario like the previous one could take place in a year-2010 combat operations center. Advanced munitions with extended ranges and increased accuracy will allow naval fires to support and influence the land battle directly. The goal is to integrate all naval fires to produce the most effective form of power projection, Forward . . . From the Sea.

The Navy-Marine Corps team has developed an effective method of calling for fires. All involved are familiar with and comfortable with the terminology, and there is no ambiguity. Use of existing, proved methods that are adapted to keep pace with evolving technology and speed of maneuver will ensure that naval fire support is ready to meet the challenges of the modern battlefield. By allocating firepower instead of ships, airplanes, and artillery, the force's collective firepower can be brought to bear and each individual ship, airplane, and artillery piece can fulfill other missions.

A digital means to assign fire missions eliminates many of the errors associated with voice tasking and reduces the time from ordering missions to ordnance on target. The forward observer in the field, using his hand-held computer configured to pass pre-formatted messages through his radio digitally, is able to call for fires quickly and accurately. Automating some of the decision making at the engagement integration center (EIC) expedites the process of passing fire missions from the sensor to the shooter. This EIC may be at the theater commander-in-chief (CinC) or his joint task force commander's (CJTF) level during a major theater conflict; during smaller Marine expeditionary unit operations the EIC may be in the supporting arms coordination center, fires support coordination center, or enhanced combat operations center.

With the development of long-range munitions, ships no longer need to be tied to small fire support areas that leave them vulnerable to attack from the shore and also tie up valuable multimission assets. We can now use ships for multiple missions simultaneously. Instead of warfare or component commanders being assigned a ship, they can have the ordnance-or a portion of the ordnance on that ship-allocated to them and have access to any other munitions allocated. Some of this ordnance may be apportioned for direct-support missions and some may be the CinC's assets apportioned to shape the battle.

The Ring of Fire concept will make naval fire support (NFS) of the future successful. Each ship in the ring will have the ability to launch land-attack weapons from other ships in the ring remotely. A ship that is closest to the fight can concentrate on protecting herself and any other supported forces, while her land-attack weapons can be launched remotely by a more distant ship, ensuring a shorter weapon time of flight. Similarly, any allocated ship's weapons can be accessed simultaneously by different warfare commanders. All the land-attack fire control systems communicate to provide seamless integration with all available platforms. As each platform checks into the Ring of Fire, her ordnance inventory will be included automatically into the force inventory and also apportioned according to the CinC's and CJTF's guidance. When either a scheduled order or a call for fire comes in, the land-attack fire control system in control will determine which platform will shoot what type of ordnance and when. The designated platform will receive the fire order and her land-attack fire control system will provide the solution to shoot the ordnance at the proper time. Essentially, the fire control system will play dual roles as both a traditional fire control system and as a part of the overall scheduling and coordination tool for land attack. In the traditional role, the land-attack fire control system needs to account for ship's movement, target location, environmentals, ordnance characteristics, and the ability to communicate with the launcher. As part of the scheduling and coordination tool, the fire control system used in the Ring of Fire must account for the constant movement of the ships and aircraft to choose the platform that is in the best position to fire the mission and to conduct the necessary deconfliction. The land-attack fire control system also needs to report ordnance inventory and launcher status automatically.

In effect, the Ring of Fire is a battle group local area network comprising a joint fire control network and a joint planning network. The ring provides a distributed collaborative method to plan scheduled fires for interdiction and long-range strike. It also provides a means to execute air, surface, subsurface, and ground fires. Seven functions necessary for the Ring of Fire to be effective include:

  • Ability to launch land-attack ordnance remotely from any weapons platform in the ring
  • Auto-force inventory
  • Ability to apportion ordnance to warfare commanders quickly and easily
  • Auto pairing of ordnance to target Common information sharing by all providers and users
  • Automated integrated deconfliction tools
  • Ability for each land-attack fire control system to be the master or decision maker station

Auto force inventory will provide the capability for each ship, submarine, and air wing to input their inventory automatically, thereby deleting the need for manual inchop ammunition inventory reports. As a ship or aircraft shoots a round, the ordnance inventory will decrease and be reported automatically to all participants in the ring. The network of land-attack fire control systems will display the inventory of each individual type of ordnance by force total, commander's allotted amount, and individual firing platform's current inventory. The CinC can monitor the rate of expenditure to know when to cue the time-phased force and deployment data system to commence resupply of ordnance.

The apportionment of ordnance to various warfare commanders allows full use of available ordnance. Individual platform's inventories will be a part of the total that the commander will be monitoring. As the tactical situation evolves, the commander needs the ability to change the apportionment of ordnance quickly and easily. Component commanders will be able to view their portion of the inventory and set critical limits for available ammunition. As the critical limit is approached, the inventory will be displayed as yellow-and then red-at set points. As component commanders' ammunition inventories approach the yellow status, they can inform their chain of command and suggest options or request more ammunition. There also should be a display of each platform's inventory, to help gauge its need to reload ammunition.

Auto-pairing of ordnance uses the commander's guidance and some well-established rules based on Joint Munitions Effectiveness Manual data and strike planning tools as the basis for the computer decisions in order to speed the process of putting ordnance on target. Automated weaponeering in the land-attack fire control system will leave more time for the operators to make tactical decisions. Decision paths in the land-attack fire control system can be weighted much like varying doctrine statements in Aegis, building the basic rules for types of ordnance that are appropriate for categories of targets into land-attack fire control system. It is essential that the operators have the ability to enter an attack matrix and determine the high payoff targets quickly and easily. Immediate suppression targets and identified counter-battery targets should jump to the top of the ordnance-target pairing queue. At a minimum, there should be an initial choice to provide the tactical action officer or engagement control officer a starting decision either to agree with or change. Part of the pairing will decide which firing platform will be firing based on time of flight and on how commander's desire to use their assets.

To prevent us from shooting all our "silver bullets" in the first hours of the conflict, the Ring of Fire needs the ability to determine the least capable ordnance that is deemed sufficient for the target. If that ordnance is not available-for whatever reason-then a step-up to the next most capable ordnance is used. It will decrement to a less capable ordnance and provide harassing fire if required ordnance is not available. The system will also provide feedback to the person requesting fires.

Integrated deconfliction is the long pole in the tent. As the concept of the Ring of Fire develops, tactical air (TacAir) will be included to integrate all facets of power projection. In order to maximize the capabilities of the new advanced munitions without artificially limiting the capability of TacAir, we need four-dimensional (latitude, longitude, altitude, time) deconfliction tools. The deconfliction tool should build a bubble around each aircraft, missile, and extended-range munition. Having deconfliction information sent automatically to the heads-up display (HUD) in the cockpit will let pilots know when they are steering into danger. Sending both targeting and deconfliction information to the HUD will allow advanced weapons and TacAir to operate concurrently on the same battlefield. The Ring of Fire needs to take all the route information from each round as it is planned and fired and compare it to the projected safe envelopes around the aircraft for deconfliction. By automated tracking of friendly aircraft and troops, the ring can inform pilots when they are steering into danger or shooters and troops on the ground know when there is a "danger close" situation. Since we know the four-dimensional flight path of each of these advanced munitions, the land-attack fire control system should report the flight path as the trigger is pulled. We need to have systems that read this information and let units near the flight path know that there is a weapon flying through their area. The land-attack fire control system also needs the ability to input "restricted fire" zones to prevent fratricide.

The ability for each land-attack fire control system station to be the master or decision maker is critical, as units come and go in the dynamics of warfare. The commander should not notice any change as one cruiser leaves station and another one arrives. The ability to conduct multiple missions with an Aegis platform providing a portion of the long-range direct support while simultaneously providing air warfare coverage to the battle group will allow us to meet future threats with the limited resources remaining in our inventory. An arsenal ship will provide the CinC with a large magazine of land-attack weapons in theater that are ready to fire, rather than having them stored in an ammunition depot. The CinC will have around-the-clock firepower assets with a range of approximately 1,000 miles, and will be able support multiple component commanders simultaneously.

With an arsenal ship in theater, the CinC will have a credible deterrent as well as a lethal punch to stop an enemy advance at the outbreak of hostilities. The presence of an arsenal ship can have an immediate, forceful effect on the outcome of a war by destroying key command and control nodes as well as enemy air defense sites.

An arsenal ship should have a limited ability to launch her weapons using her own crew and equipment in a battle-short mode. An internal strike team will prevent an arsenal ship from becoming useless in the event of communications jamming or a communications equipment casualty. Also, an arsenal ship can use land-attack fire control system to launch scheduled fires while the Aegis cruiser or destroyer is defending her. To use the full capacity of an arsenal ship will require other platforms to also fire their weapons.

The Ring of Fire has made it past the concept stage and is out of the lab. During Fleet Battle Experiment Alfa, Commander Third Fleet embarked in the Coronado experimented with these concepts by using the prototype naval fire support weapons control system (NWCS-P), provided by the program executive officer for cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles. The Ring of Fire functionality was built into NWCS-P which was in the Benfold, the Coronado, and at the Marine Corps Tactical System Support Activity in Camp Pendleton.

The Benfold participated as both an arsenal ship and a standard guided-missile destroyer that controlled the arsenal ship's weapons. The arsenal ship was tasked to respond to scheduled fires and direct support to Marines at Twentynine Palms during the Marine Corps experiment Hunter Warrior. The Benfold had access to the large amount of ordnance located in the arsenal ship. Her vertical launching system effectively increased from 90 cells to around 600 cells and her salvo size increased six-fold.

During Fleet Battle Experiment Alfa/Hunter Warrior, simulated naval fire support was provided using the prototype naval fires support weapon control system. NWCS-P will provide the common fire-control console for all surface land attack weapons and is envisioned to be incorporated in the advanced Tomahawk weapons control system (ATWCS) and will provide the common fire control console for all surface land attack weapons. At present, the fleet is replacing the Tomahawk weapon control system with the ATWCS, which uses commercial off-the-shelf hardware similar to that used NWCS-P during Fleet Battle Experiment Alpha.

Both scheduled fires and direct support missions were demonstrated. The Joint Force Air Component Commander scheduled a 180-missile strike the Joint Target Control Board approved. The air tasking order with the scheduled strike was inserted into naval fire support tools to turn it into specific tasking for the available shooters. The strike was executed as scheduled, while the shooters also answered digital calls for fire from the Marines.

The Marines at Twentynine Palms used Newton ManPad computers to call in fires digitally. The positions of friendly troops were updated automatically, using the SABER System. To minimize the chance of fratricide we had the software engineers develop a restricted-fire area around the aimpoint of each shot. This restricted-fire area changed in size for each type of ordnance based on the circular error of probability of the weapon, the effective blast area of the weapon plus a 250-meter safety buffer. Prior to issuing the fire order, the NWCS-P checked the restricted-fire area to see if there were any friendly troops inside the restricted-fire area. If friendly troops were inside, a prompt would alert the operator and let him know how close the friendly troops were to the aimpoint, to ensure that he was aware of the situation, which would allow the operator to cancel the mission. On the other hand, the operator still could fire the mission if the situation made firing "danger close" necessary.

During the fleet battle experiment, we were also able to take advantage of having multiple systems together in the Sea Based Battle Lab, the Coronado. The Joint Surveillance/Attack Radar System (J-STARS) flew a mission on the night the orange forces made their invasion into Twentynine Palms. We integrated the J-STARS deployable ground support system into the NWCS-P, and the software engineers for both systems were able to program the systems to allow for J-STARS to pass tactical fires messages electronically into the NWCS-P. The fire missions then were paired with simulated weapons on the Benfold which was acting as the arsenal ship. For the first time we were able to take a target located in a kill box by the J-STARS aircraft and pass the information through UHF satellite radio to a deployable ground support system in the Coronado. The target data were then electronically passed in tactical fires format to the naval fire support cell where they were matched to a weapon and electronically assigned the mission through extra-high frequency radio to the Benfold, which simulated shooting the assigned weapon. There were no delays attributed to voice transmissions and repeat backs. A similar process was accomplished for theater ballistic missile defense by adding a feed from GALE into the NWCS-P. We were able to pass the coordinates of the launch point to the naval fires support cell electronically. A mission was then assigned to launch an area weapon against the target. The idea was to be able to destroy the enemy's launchers every time he launched a missile.

Marines at Twentynine Palms found the naval fires with the advanced munitions to be extremely effective. The orange forces ran for cover whenever they heard unmanned aerial vehicles in the area because of the quick and effective naval fires that would follow. Clearly, the future is here.



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