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Lockheed: Aegis getting even better, but limits in sight

Lockheed Martin's newest edition of Aegis will be the best it's ever been, a top company official said Friday, but there's only so much more that software and other upgrades can do with the existing radars aboard U.S. Navy and international warships.

Jeff Bantle, the company's vice president for naval combat and missile defense, told reporters that Aegis Baseline 9 will bring new levels of game-changery to cruisers and destroyers: It will be able to do air defense and ballistic missile defense simultaneously; use remote sensor data from tomorrow's E-2D Advanced Hawkeye aircraft; give greater detail when tracking targets; and be simpler and easier for crews to maintain.

"I tell everybody: It's really not your mother's Aegis," Bantle said.

Aegis has already demonstrated its ability to launch on remote in a missile defense test, he said -- last year, a Navy ship launched an interceptor against a ballistic missile target with no sensor data of its own. Engineers hope to take advantage of that capability in air warfare as well. As part of the Navy's plan for integrated fire control, a D-model Hawkeye could spot a threat and order a launch hundreds of miles beyond an Aegis ship's own sensors, greatly increasing the range of safety for a carrier strike group.

Just like Leica lenses, Baseline 9 will be both backward- and forward-compatible, he said -- the Navy can install it on its early model cruisers and destroyers and also put it to sea aboard its new run of Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, starting with the very first ship, the USS William S. Sims.

Baseline 9 will sail first aboard the cruiser USS Chancellorsville, which is getting its upgrade now, and then later aboard the destroyer USS John Paul Jones.

Bantle said the latest version of Aegis will be much simpler than the earlier mods, which packed otherwise brand-new ships with a Radio Shack hodgepodge of vacuum tubes, amplifiers and ENIAC-level computing equipment. That complexity -- along with Big Navy rollbacks of training and manning -- has meant that Aegis has become a maintenance challenge for the surface force. As such, Capability 9 includes a "readiness and supportability maintenance system," Bantle said, which will help crews diagnose faults, deal with repairs and generally have an easier job running their systems.

So -- another rejuvenation for the world's greatest seagoing combat system. Built to defend carrier groups from Soviet missile attacks in World War III, now Aegis can launch on remote and shoot down intermediate-range ballistic missiles. But there's only so much the SPY-1 radars on the cruisers and destroyers can do, which is why the Navy wants it future generations of ships to carry new ones.

"We're now getting to the limits of how much energy that antenna can put out," Bantle said of the SPY sets. Hence the Air and Missile Defense Radar, for which Bantle said he expects a request for proposals "real soon."

That, however, is a whole different story.

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