Where Are the Ballistic-Missile-Defense Cruisers?

By Rear Admiral Thomas Marfiak, U.S. Navy (Retired)

Now we are embarked on a far greater scale, putting to sea the means of intercepting ballistic missiles in flight over several thousand miles, integrating a battle management picture for several forces, and providing for a national defense against a ballistic-missile threat that is growing apace. The challenge is significant. The question before us is straightforward, yet complex. How will we respond?

Where We Are

We have deployed the world's largest fleet of Aegis-capable combatants. In addition, several allies have purchased the Aegis system for their front-line combatants. Yet only a few of these ships are configured with Near Tier capability, that is, the ability to engage ballistic missiles in flight at low trajectory. Successful tests have been encouraging and plainly point toward future successes. Yet the threat has continued to evolve. 

Future threats can be expected to include multiple independently maneuverable warheads launched from a single missile. At the same time, the growth of surface-to-surface missile threats—supersonic cruise missiles, for example—promises to raise the threat level for future carrier battle groups and expeditionary strike groups operating in close proximity to land. We need to pace the threat to ensure our ability to control the seas and the air and space that surround them.

Major plans are in place to improve the combat capability of the existing Fleet, beginning with the Aegis cruiser modernization program. At a cost of approximately $260 million each, these ships can be upgraded to provide for needed capability and reliability over the remaining years of their service lives. Improvements in combat systems, sustained infrastructure, and vital auxiliaries will go far to ensure that these ships can deliver needed combat capability for the next decade and more.

A similar program needs to be funded for the Arleigh Burke destroyers, to ensure they retain every bit of their edge in the years to come. As then-Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen once pointed out, we tend to decommission those ships we do not upgrade. We cannot afford to do that today.

The nexus of the threat and our required response remains to be addressed in the next major class of surface combatant—the CG(X), a ship that will transcend our traditional view of surface combatants and bring us to the next generation of capital ships.

Where We Need to Go

First, we need to understand the advantages of a phased-array radar coupled to a responsive combat system. Unlike the rotating radars of old, the phased array's ability to almost instantly steer packets of beams in the direction of a target permits rapid engagement of a threat. The determining factors are sensitivity and discrimination, based on power out and aperture, both of which go far in determining the size of the radar faces, their weight, and required cooling capacity.

On an Aegis cruiser or Arleigh Burke destroyer, the array faces are prominent. Look below decks and you will find the intricate combat system that coordinates the whole, tying weapons and sensors together. The challenge for the future CG(X) is to build a combat system that will have both the increased sensitivity needed to discriminate between warheads and the ability to launch weapons capable of interdicting ballistic missiles in flight with minimal warning. Weapons and radars with sufficient sensitivity have yet to be developed, but work is under way to make them both possible.

Discussion has been spirited over the platform to be employed. Will it be nuclear-powered, as some in Congress would have it, or will it be outfitted with an advanced conventional system of massive generators? The premium for nuclear power has been estimated at $800 million for the first ship. Should the Secretary of Defense deem that too great a burden, legislation requires that he so certify that to Congress. Proponents of nuclear power seem to have overlooked the fact that we dismantled the surface nuclear-power infrastructure in the mid-1990s, when we decommissioned the surface nuclear combatants. All or much of that would need to be restored, at some cost. In essence, the case has yet to made that nuclear-powered cruisers are the best and most cost-effective answer.

The radar array necessary to achieve the requisite discrimination at the necessary ranges will not be a trivial technical challenge. It will require the best minds of our defense establishment, industry and government, working in concert, to build and sustain the sensors and combat systems to go aboard the CG(X).

The weapons will include both theater ballistic-missiles, such as the surface-to-air/space SM-3 series, and potentially Kinetic Kill Vehicles, large missiles with massive boosters that could require cold-launch capability because of issues relating to heat. Launchers have yet to be designed for those weapons from surface ships, although we have long since mastered how to launch these missiles from submarines.

The cruiser of the future cannot be deployed as a single-mission ship. Guns, both long-range and close-in weapons, must be a part of the equation. As recent events in the Strait of Hormuz have illustrated, no ship can deploy in the future without both active and passive measures of defense. The issue is, at least partially, the degree of fire support for ground forces that such ships could provide. The Advanced Gun System is a substantial advance over existing capabilities, but it comes with a heavy price tag in terms of hull and design impact.

From the Air

The same goes for aviation. We built the first series of Arleigh Burkes with minimal aviation capability (flight deck only), and we pay the price every day at sea. The Burke Flight IIAs have that capability, and so can provide long-range sensors, search and rescue, and other capabilities, including air-to-surface weapons. In Operation Desert Storm, we found that helicopter weapons against gunboats were decisive, even though they were British helicopters with Sea Skua missiles working with our Seahawks.

The most prominent challenge will be to connect the multi-function, multi-band radar to a combat system that will permit realization of its full capabilities. Development will require close work between Navy authorities and industry. There can be no secrets and late-breaking developments.

This is simply one of the most challenging tasks to confront the United States and its industries and services in decades. Not since the advent of the Polaris program has there been such a far-reaching vision or challenge. It will take comparable vision and execution to bring this class into operation over the next ten years. During that time, second-guessing, requirements creep, earmarking budgets, and other favorite Washington ploys will have to be kept in check.

As mentioned previously, sea-skimming missiles are an additional threat that must be confronted. The multifunction radar and combat system, as it is on board the existing Aegis Fleet, is capable against the threat. But it must be made even more capable in the decade to come. Hence, we must confront the need for increased discrimination and sensitivity. The variety of weapons and the necessity of an effective and reliable sensor system will drive radar construction and overall size and support requirements. The net effect is that we will need to design the future cruiser around the combat system, rather than vice-versa.

Protection and Deterrence

These capital ships will be required both to deter our enemies and reassure our allies. Accordingly, their presence at sea should not be a matter of stealth (although a regard for radar cross section would be prudent). A hull that would provide both stability and internal volume, with a reasonable margin for future growth, would answer the need and save a significant percentage of the construction cost. Stability and a dry deck would enhance sea keeping and reduce maintenance topside. These cruisers will likely operate with other ships as part of a task force, offering mutual support and protection while providing deterrence at sea.

Reassuring our allies is an inherent mission, one that will be significantly advanced by the presence of a variety of nets and communication linkages. Far beyond today's data links and combat nets, these ships will require advanced video and teleconferencing capability as embarked commanders and staff interface with national command authorities, from the Situation Room in the White House to the Joint staff, and from foreign governments to strategic command facilities in the United States, in real time.

Manning will be an essential issue. Talent must be sufficient to man two complete watch sections for a prolonged time; 40 to 50 positions are not beyond the realm of possibility. Arranged in a large combat direction center, with very large screen displays, they will be the heart of the ship. Satellite down links and connectivity with multiple sensors will require continuous monitoring during times of crisis. Coordination with aircraft carriers and Fleet units, both submerged and surface, will be a constant requirement. Add standard requirements, such as engineering and aviation and weapon and sensor maintenance, and a crew size of 300-400 is easily attained. This is not going to be a minimum-manned ship, nor should it be. Optimum manning for combat mission accomplishment should be our goal.

Training the people who will give this ship its real capability to expand sea power into space will require the construction of state-of-the-art training facilities. The strength of the Aegis program for many years has been its rigorous training and education of watch-standers. The ability to train as you fight has underscored success after success, from the very beginning. We must get this right to gain the maximum return of what is likely to be a considerable investment.

How Many, How Much?

Consequently, when the dust has cleared from the introduction of the Analysis of Alternatives, and industry has weighed in on what it will take to field the desired capability, it would not be surprising to see a ship of more than 22,000 tons displacement. The projected cost could well be in the range of $4 billion each. That is a long way from the much lighter ships of World War II, but that it is what it may take to play poker in the new game.

The next question is always, "So, how many of these ships do you want?" The answer is closely tied to how they would be operated and where. An operational analysis should include an estimate of where they would be required to operate, for how long, and under what conditions. Merely saying we need to replace the existing cruisers one for one dodges the question. We might conclude that we need more or fewer. An understanding of the threat, not as it is now but as it may be in the future as it continues to evolve, will drive this effort. Some, for example, have proposed a mix of different types of cruisers, without a related cost estimate. Others would concentrate on developing a single ship, of whatever propulsion and generating system, to carry on the mission. We will need the best efforts of our research and development teams to arrive at the right, defendable, answer.

The overarching issue remains the health of our shipbuilding program. As it was in the days of early American ship constructor Joshua Humphreys, it is still a most contentious business, but one with real, long-term consequences for our country. From the disarray of the LCS program, and the promising technologies of the DDG-1000, we must fashion a long-term, multi-year funded effort that will truly define our future as a sea power in the 21st century.

How Do We Get There?

We must not forget that the factors that made the Aegis revolution possible do not exist today. Staffs have been cut by 60 percent or more in the office of the CNO and at the Naval Sea Systems Command, to say nothing of the laboratories that support them. The acquisition professional force has also been reduced, and industry has suffered commensurate reductions. Confronting such a project with the manpower at hand is daunting. Yet steps can be taken to recruit the best and brightest for an effort that can truly transform warfare at sea—if we begin now.

First, we need to establish a program office with funding authority to pull together the efforts of IWS (Integrated Warfare Systems), PEO (Program Executive Office) Ships, and N86 (Surface Warfare Directorate) to work with what remains of PMS-400 (Aegis ship program management) to focus on the design, testing, and construction of the combat system, radar, and integration of the many supporting systems that will give the ship its full range of capabilities. With the ongoing initiative to redefine the Missile Defense Agency, there may well be a need to incorporate joint inter-agency warfighting considerations from the beginning.

Second, we need to recognize that this is a long-term project. Now-retired Rear Admiral Wayne Meyer, the Father of the Aegis program, did not succeed in a day. This program will not succeed at all if it is left to the forces who would question every decision and technical determination. We need to have long-term leadership in charge, over several sessions of Congress and at least two administrations. In short, this is a national initiative, not just a shipbuilding program, and it should be treated accordingly. Rotating leadership at 18 months to support career progression seems destined to preserve program uncertainty. Where is the next Wayne Meyer? Where is the next visionary warfare pioneer Vice Admiral Jim Doyle? We need both, and soon.

Third, this program, the next-generation capital ship, will require close collaboration between industry and the government. That looks like a tall order just now, in the aftermath of the LCS and the Deepwater Program restructuring, but it need not be so.

The nation's interests are at hand. One wonders what Jim Forrestal, the nation's first Secretary of Defense, would have made of this state of affairs? Certainly, he would have forcefully urged both sides to sit down and stop carping at each other and get on with solving the problem of how to build a Fleet for the future.

Fourth, we must recognize that this is likely to be a costly research and development effort and budget accordingly. New chip technologies, advanced warhead design, and new weapon and sensor systems will require both industry and government resources that cannot be meted out by the handful. Careful review and cooperation will be needed to ensure our tax dollars, and industry independent research and development dollars, are carefully spent to deliver the goods on time and on budget.


What it Means to the Fleet and the Nation

If we cannot achieve a cooperative environment that will lead to successful development of the radar and combat systems to be installed on the future CG(X), then debates about power plants and adjunct capabilities are academic. The proof thereof will be in the pudding. It will either be the answer to the emerging threat, or bureaucratic paralysis leading to a gradually declining Fleet.

Fortunately, we have reason to believe that current leadership understands the imperatives. An effort is now under way to look at the means of filling the missile-defense gap between the retirement of the existing Aegis cruisers and the advent of the next generation. All options are on the table, from restarting the Arleigh Burke program, with improved signal processing, to extending that hull, to adapting the DDG-1000 design. Those options could perhaps be executed more readily within a limited budget, but they are not cost-free, and development of the CG(X)/CGN(X) would be in addition to those costs.

Even if, as Navy Secretary Donald C. Winter pointedly addressed at this year's Navy League Sea, Air, Space Exposition, economies of production were to be realized by our shipbuilding industry, as in Europe and Korea, the cost of the combat system would still be the dominant concern. Two issues—requirements growth and containment and the degree of industry efficiency, and therefore risk, that can be attained—are intertwined. If resources cannot be found to do both, and fill the gap, we are likely to see both risk and cost increase, while the Fleet, under-modernized and under-capitalized, continues to decrease.

In World War II, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would ask, "Where are the battleships?" Later, in the days of John F. Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, American presidents would ask "Where are the carriers?" Tomorrow, our leaders may well ask the question, "Where are the ballistic-missile-defense cruisers?" We can only hope that we will be able to answer that they are on-station, ready for call for fire.

The challenge we face is far greater than any one shipbuilding program, or even one service initiative. It may be in fact the defining challenge of our age. If we have the wisdom to pursue it to completion, we will have done something not seen since the advent of the Polaris program, creating a national capability with international strategic consequences. The results will speak for themselves.

Rear Admiral Marfiak, a former Director of Surface Warfare Plans, Programs and Budgets, is a senior consultant on defense issues. He served as CEO and Publisher of the U.S. Naval Institute from 1999-2003 following a naval career in destroyers, cruisers, and carrier battle group command.


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