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The U.S. Navy is adapting in real time amid battle in the Red Sea

ROB SCHMITZ, HOST:

The Navy is scrambling to protect international shipping in the Middle East as U.S. ships counter missiles and drones fired by Houthi rebels. But the conflict is also an opportunity for the Navy to figure out its future in real time. Steve Walsh with WHRO in Norfolk, Va., has the story.

STEVE WALSH, BYLINE: Sometimes war is about software.

TIM BENTJEN: When you're talking anti-ship missiles, you're talking seconds of reaction time. So software plays a key role in that - the detection of a threat and neutralizing the threat within a matter of seconds.

WALSH: Tim Bentjen runs an engineering team in Virginia. His programmers are in daily contact with ships in the Red Sea. Sailors in the Red Sea alert the engineers to changes in tactics as the U.S. tries to keep commercial shipping lanes open. There have been well over 150 attacks on U.S. ships since October, part of a campaign that Houthi rebels say is in protest of Israel's war against Hamas in Gaza. Back in April, the USS Bataan was test-firing its machine gun, called a CIWS, before deploying to the Middle East. Navy defensive weapons like the CIWS haven't been involved in combat on this scale until the Red Sea crisis. Bentjen has worked on these types of systems for 30 years. He says he's proud and a little relieved.

BENTJEN: It works, right? Everything that we've done, all the systems that we've designed, that we've installed, that we maintain on the ship - they work. You know, they're protecting the sailors.

WALSH: Bentjen's division at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Dam Neck, Va., creates software that runs the weapons on the USS Bataan. The ship deployed in July to the Red Sea and then was stationed off the coast of Israel and is now headed home to Norfolk. The division also handles the weapons on the carrier USS Eisenhower, which is now countering Houthi rebels in Yemen.

BENTJEN: So we're seeing real-time events, and we are feeding that feedback right into our development pipeline to where we can actually make improvements to make the systems work even better.

WALSH: The U.S. stepped up its effort to protect international shipping in the region after war broke out in Gaza in October. Wes Rumbaugh with the Center for Strategic and International Studies has been studying how long the U.S. can keep up this kind of warfare.

WES RUMBAUGH: It's been a sort of popular trope that the Navy is shooting 2 million or $2.5 million interceptors at 300 or $200,000 drones.

WALSH: And that looks unsustainable, he says. But with roughly 11% of global trade moving through the region, if the Houthis were able to push commercial ships to avoid the area, it would have a global economic impact.

RUMBAUGH: What air defense does is it buys you time to be able to find other solutions to the end of a conflict. You're not going to generally exhaust the other country.

WALSH: The U.S. also has to consider the cost of losing a multibillion-dollar warship, Rumbaugh says. The destroyer USS Gravely used its CIWS to shoot down an anti-ship missile-fired from Yemen in February. The large computer-guided Gatling gun fires up to 4,500 shots a minute. The Navy hasn't said why they used what is normally their last line of defense to shoot it down. Bentjen, who works with the same system, says the Navy wasn't trying to save money. Using the CIWS to shoot down a missile is certainly cheap and effective, but there's little room for error.

BENTJEN: With those missiles, you're talking, like, if you can see it, you've got a second or two, right? It's that close. So that's the scary piece.

WALSH: For years, the Navy has been working on high-energy lasers and high-powered microwaves, which would be cheaper than firing missiles. So far, the Navy hasn't put any of those options to the test in the Red Sea. In the meantime, the team in Virginia is looking at ways to make software upgrades even faster as the Navy tries to adapt in real time. For NPR News, I'm Steve Walsh in Norfolk. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Steve Walsh | WHRO
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