Meet US Navy's Last Line of Defense: An Autonomous Gun Against Missiles

But it only has a few seconds to succeed.
Ameya Paleja
The Phalanx Weapon System in action.Raytheon Missiles and Defense

When it comes to war, we often focus on the offense and how debilitating our attack options are. However, adversaries are also upping the ante on their attack options, and that is where an effective defense system works wonders. The MK15 Phalanx Weapon System is a prime example of defense that can make the difference between a floating ship and a sunken one. 

Made up of a radar guidance system that can detect, track, and evaluate incoming threats, the Phalanx is one of the very few weapon systems that has the autonomy to engage with its targets. And it does so with a 20-mm gun. As Business Insider reported, the gun is an M61 Gatling that is also used on some of the best warplanes we have seen in history, such as F-15 Eagle, F/A-18 Hornet, and F-16 Fighting Falcon.

Developed in the 1970s, the Phalanx system has been in the works since 1978 and was first installed on the USS Coral Sea in 1980. The system has been under active upgrade and overhaul program since its inception and saw its next block deployed in 1998. Its current version, Block 1B, which is currently in operation, was first installed in 1999, according to the Navy's website. 

As its developers Raytheon Missiles and Defense note on their website, with Block 1B, the control stations received visual trackers that operators could use to identify targets before engaging. Also added to the weapon system was an infrared sensor that increased its capabilities beyond anti-ship missiles to include helicopters and high-speed surface craft. 

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Weighing 13,600 pounds (6,120 kg), the weapon system has a magazine capacity of 1,550 rounds. The Gatling gun, which shoots armor-piercing discarding sabots, however, can fire up to 4,500 rounds per minute, which is 75 rounds a second. Aside from all its incredible abilities, the system has an Achilles' heel in its range. The Phalanx can shoot effectively only when the target is within a mile, giving it only a precious few seconds to negate the threat. The rapid-fire of the Gatling gun helps the cause, but the ship is often hurt, Business Insider reported. 

A damaged ship with its crew is still better than one that is sunken with the crew lost forever. It is no surprise then that 24 of the United States Navy allies have opted for a Phalanx system on their ships and even the U.S. Army had adapted the system for ground operations.

What's more, the system can also lend its sensors to other weapon systems when integrated into the combat control system on the ship, the U.S. Navy website adds. 

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