In naval circles, littoral areas are the hotspots for future conflict, but sending ships close to shore is like steaming into a shooting gallery. To provide more protection, the US Navy recently conducted tests off the coast of California of Raytheon's SeaRAM defensive missile system, which fires supersonic, self-guided interceptors against in-coming close-range threats. The tests were carried out by the littoral combat ship USS Coronado (LCS 4) on August 14 as part of a live-fire exercise at the Naval Air Warfare Center Weapons Division sea range. During these exercises, Raytheon says that the Coronado detected, tracked, and engaged an inbound target using SeaRAM.

Modern great power navies are built around large battle groups designed for fleet-to-fleet engagements, defending convoys, or keeping sea lanes open. The trouble is, unless World War Three or Cold War Two breaks out, that's not likely to happen. The last major naval battle was during the Falklands War in 1982 and that was largely fought with missiles at extreme distances by two fleets that never saw one another – and one scarcely left port.

"No one has monolithic navy sea battles on the open waters anymore," says Rick McDonnell, Raytheon’s program director for close-in defense solutions. "Now navies need smaller, more affordable ships to defend shorelines and navigate around conflict regions."

In at least the short term, modern navies need to operate with greater flexibility with small ships often working in littoral waters within range of hostile shore batteries, small boats, and aircraft. These fast, agile littoral combat ships carrying only 50 to 90 officers and crew don't have the luxury of sitting behind the screens of a carrier group and need defensive systems that allow them to fend for themselves if things go pear shaped.

The problem is, operating close to shore means dealing with threats that can appear before it's too late to do anything about them. Human reaction times are simply too slow to detect all threats, assess them all and take appropriate countermeasures. It's almost exactly like what the Royal Navy Task Force dealt with when confronted with supersonic missiles for the first time and the solution is very similar.

The SeaRAM is based on the Phalanx Close-In Weapon System, which went into service in 1980 and uses an advanced, articulated radar to detect and identify incoming supersonic missiles, target hostile ones, and destroy them using 20 mm machine guns firing tungsten rounds. The main difference is that SeaRAM uses the radar to support a missile system. In this case, it's the Rolling Airframe Missile (RAM), which is a lightweight, supersonic, self-guided missile that is designed to engage close-range threats, such as helicopters and cruise missiles. SeaRAM carries 11 of the missiles where the machine guns used to be.

Both the SeaRAM and RAM missiles are built by Raytheon in Louisville, Kentucky and installed in Mobile, Alabama, but the entire system began life in the 1990s as a German industry initiative before being adopted by the US Navy for development in 2005.

"This test success marks a major milestone toward full operation and employment of the SeaRAM system on U.S. Navy ships," says Rick Nelson, vice president of the Naval Area and Mission Defense product line at Raytheon Missile Systems in Tucson, Arizona. "SeaRAM demonstrated that it is a vital weapon for defending navies against anti-ship cruise missiles, and provides warfighters with a capability found nowhere else."

The video below shows SeaRAM in action.

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