The First Line of Defense

By Rear Admiral Ben Wachendorf, U.S. Navy (Retired)

While the September policy announcement focused on BMD for Europe, there is also a significant ballistic-missile threat in the Pacific, primarily from North Korea. There is no reason to believe that threat will diminish in the near term, nor that the BMD needs of Europe will justify disregarding BMD threats in the Pacific. Allies, most notably Japan in the Pacific and possibly other NATO countries in Europe, could contribute to meeting BMD requirements.

Square One

Today, the Navy has 19 Aegis BMD combatants. The USS The Sullivans (DDG-68) was the most recent ship to be certified in September 2009. Three are Ticonderoga -class guided-missile cruisers and 16 are Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyers. The last Ticonderoga was completed in 1994, while the Burke s are still in production. Currently 16 of the 19 ships are assigned to the Pacific and only three to the Atlantic. 5 One of the near-term implications of the new policy will be to either change the homeports of some the Pacific BMD-capable ships to the Atlantic or to greatly increase the number of Atlantic BMD-capable ships through near-term combat system upgrades.

The Missile Defense Agency had planned to upgrade two more CGs by 2010. The Fiscal Year 2010 budget proposal added six BMD upgrades, which would raise the total of BMD-capable Navy combatants to 27. The FY 10 budget proposal also requested 26 more SM-3 missiles for a total of 80 missile interceptors. 6 The unit cost of an SM-3 missile is about $10 million which compares favorably with the approximate unit cost of $70 million for a ground-based interceptor envisioned in the Bush-era plan. Note that an SM-3 inventory of 80 missiles implies an average load of fewer than three SM-3 missiles per ship. Another implication of the new policy is that SM-3 procurement will have to be increased.

How many BMD-capable ships the Navy needs and how to pay for them may be contentious issues. Since the 1980s, the United States has spent more than $150 billion on missile defense. 7 Prior to the recent policy announcement, the FY 10 total budget request for BMD spending was $10.3 billion which included about $1 billion for the Space-Based Infrared System High which provides BMD missile-launch detection. 8 Prior to the policy decision, the Secretary of Defense announced termination of the airborne laser, the multiple-kill vehicle, and the kinetic energy interceptor. 9 The Wall Street Journal quoted a senior administration official who stated that cost concerns were a major factor in the policy decision. 10 Rising U.S. budget deficits suggest that additional funding for accelerated Navy BMD capability will be challenged by those who argue for reducing that deficit. Without additional funding, any increase in Navy BMD capability will have to come at the expense of other programs.

The answer to the question of how many BMD ships the Navy needs should consider alternative BMD-capable ships. The Littoral Combat Ship, with a displacement of about 3,000 tons, does not appear to have the space and displacement necessary to support Aegis radar as well as SM-3 launchers. 11 The Missile Defense Agency funded a semi-submersible sea-based X-Band radar platform, which displaces 50,000 tons. A BMD alternative to consider might be adding SM-3 launch capability to that very large platform. Other large-hull designs such as San Antonio-class amphibious transport docks with 25,000-ton displacement could also be considered.

Balance and Trade-Offs

If sea-based BMD is a long-term requirement, designing a platform to focus on this mission without adding additional warfighting capabilities and minimizing operating and life-cycle costs could be considered. It is difficult to say how this might be funded. The Missile Defense Agency might pay for unique missile-defense design costs and most of the combat system hardware costs, but the Navy would likely be required to pay for hull, personnel, and operating costs. International cooperation is an alternative to share the development costs and reduce unit procurement costs with larger-quantity orders. The Missile Defense Agency has worked closely with Japan since 1999, has memoranda of understanding with the United Kingdom and Australia, and has exchanged information with The Netherlands, Germany, and South Korea.

If the much-delayed Space-Based Infrared System and X-Band radars, combined with near real-time command and control data links, could be used for not only launch detection, but also interceptor guidance, perhaps smaller ships such as the LCS could be considered as BMD launch platforms. However, that is not a near-term option for sea-based BMD, which currently requires upgraded Aegis radar.

Regardless of the sea-based BMD force structure it is fair to assume that the per-unit cost will be significantly higher than the same alternative based on land. This appears to be reflected in Phase 2 of the administration's plan. If land-based systems are preferred over sea-based capability because of lower life-cycle cost, the Navy should minimize its investment in sea-based BMD capability to what is needed until that capability is diminished by land-based systems.

Operational Challenges

In addition to the cost to increase the Navy's capability, the policy decision is also likely to have a significant impact on operations. One operational alternative would be to surge BMD-capable ships to the Eastern Mediterranean during periods of increased tension. That would not meet the 24/7 BMD capability against up to five incoming ballistic missiles envisioned in the Bush-era plan. As long as Iran continues to reject international arms-control inspections, conducts an aggressive nuclear fuel enrichment program including covert facilities, and develops a variety of ballistic missiles, it is likely that a permanent Navy BMD presence will be required to defend Europe. 12

Some have suggested that one reason for the new policy was the proven success of sea-based ballistic-missile interceptors. In February 2008 the Navy successfully used a sea-based interceptor to destroy a decaying orbit satellite in the Pacific. While this impressive accomplishment demonstrated the ability of a sea-based interceptor to hit a target 250 kilometers above the earth, in this case the target trajectory was known months in advance, and the firing ship could be positioned for optimal engagement. That is certainly not the case in most likely real-world ballistic-missile threat scenarios. The uncertainty of their targets and launch points greatly complicates the fire-control challenges of mid-course ballistic-missile intercept.

Another operational challenge for the ships assigned to BMD missions is the very short reaction time required after launch. Even if a ship is optimally positioned for intercept, the time to detect, track, and launch an SM-3 interceptor capable of successfully engaging the target is minutes. If the ship is off the missile's flight path, that time is reduced. Even with the best command and control communications, it is likely that interceptor launch decisions will have to be governed by rules of engagement. There will not be sufficient time for decision makers off the ship to review and approve specific interceptor launch decisions. There is also a political dimension to the intercept decision because the ballistic missile being engaged is very likely to have a weapon of mass destruction (WMD) warhead. The fallout pattern of the warhead could include populated land masses of neutral or friendly states.

An additional operational impact of the policy decision is on the combat readiness of the ships that execute this mission. Navy BMD-capable combatants are multimission warships. When assigned a 24/7 BMD mission, their ability to maneuver over large areas will likely be restricted. It is also likely that the effectiveness of the ship's other combat capabilities will tend to degrade. While that may not have a direct impact on the ship's ability to execute the BMD mission, the deterioration certainly has a negative impact on other missions to which she may be assigned. There is also a possible adverse impact on crew morale caused by the boredom of continuous defensive patrols. Good leadership can overcome many of these challenges, but they must be addressed and carefully considered in operational planning. If the Navy assigns a large number of ships to the BMD mission, they will not be available for combating piracy off East Africa, supporting drug interdiction off South America, or any of the other important missions these combatants have traditionally supported.

A Strategic Mission

The ballistic-missile defense mission could be viewed as a strategic mission similar to the submarine-launched ballistic-missile program the Navy has successfully executed since the USS George Washington (SSBN-598) was launched 50 years ago. In this case, the Navy decided to maximize the operational availability of these strategic assets by assigning two crews to each. This could be considered for BMD ships as well. Dual crews for large combatants, however, significantly increase personnel costs, including not just salaries, but recruiting, training, equipping, health care, housing, and retirement costs.

Another alternative to increase operational availability would be to use crew swaps to eliminate transit times to and from BMD-patrol stations. Crew-swap alternatives have been used to increase ship operational availability, but implementation for platforms not nearing decommissioning poses challenges that also require good leadership to overcome. The crew-swap alternative does not solve the problem of completing ship maintenance requirements beyond the ship's force at-sea capability.

It is every Sailors' duty to execute the mission they are given to the best of their ability, and there is no doubt that the Navy will do exactly that in the BMD mission or any other operational assignment. It is important to remember, however, that BMD is part of a larger security concern. The threats to United States and allied security today have greatly changed since the Cold War. In some ways it was much easier to plan military operations then. We knew who the adversaries were expected to be and understood much about their weapons and tactics. Today, security threats span a wide range of potential adversaries, some of which are not even states and include diverse weapons and tactics to constitute irregular warfare.

We must carefully consider where the threat from ballistic missiles fits in national defense planning and priorities. As Secretary Gates recently said, some proponents of placing a very high priority on BMD programs take an almost theological view. To do anything less than maximum effort regardless of cost in the name of BMD is a breach of faith. 13 Discretionary defense spending has always been limited and is likely to become more so as personnel costs rise and national budget deficits increase. It is very important that the Navy, the nation, and our allies not make the threat from ballistic missiles greater than it actually is.

Terrorists, WMDs, and Ballistic Missiles

To illustrate this point about the ballistic-missile threat, put yourself in the shoes of a rogue state leader who has ballistic-missile and WMD capability. It makes little sense to use the missile without a WMD warhead. The WMDless missiles could be used to terrorize civilian populations, as Hezbollah recently did in Israel with many short-range missile attacks. But such weapons do not have the capability to have a major battlefield impact. A WMD-armed ballistic missile can have a very large impact, but its use needs to be very carefully considered by those who might employ it. While intercept of a ballistic missile is very challenging, it is easy to determine its launch point. Unless the missile is launched from a submarine in international waters—a capability rogue states and terrorist organizations do not currently have—massive retaliation against a ballistic-missile WMD attack should be expected.

Therefore, given that a rogue state or terrorist organization has a WMD capability and the will to use it, why would a ballistic missile with an obvious fingerprint of its origin be used to deliver the attack and incur the very high risk of massive retaliation? It makes more sense to deliver the WMD by means that leave some doubt about who was responsible for the attack, thereby complicating the retaliation decision-making process. It is much easier and far less expensive to deliver a WMD by container, truck, or other covert means than by a ballistic-missile system. The warhead's delivery is also greatly simplified in over-land/sea covert delivery as compared to terminal target guidance and warhead fuzing at Mach 7 or higher speed.

When considering BMD or any other military mission, it is important to understand the WMD concept of operations across the military capabilities of friendly and hostile forces and the environment in which they may be used. The airborne laser is a negative example of this point. While the technology of using a very large aircraft to employ a line-of-sight weapon against a ballistic missile is interesting, what is the survivability of that non-stealthy airborne platform in a period of hostility commenced at the adversary's choice of time? How many targets can an airborne platform engage before running out of stored or generated electrical power?

If all you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. The implication of this for BMD draws from antisubmarine warfare. The best way to defend against enemy submarines is destroy them before they leave port. In the case of BMD, the best defense against ballistic missiles is to destroy the missiles before they are launched. This has the added advantage of leaving the effects of their warheads at the point of origin, not strewn over neutral or friendly countries. The Navy's rail gun, with a theoretical range of 400 miles, a very short flight time, and sufficient accuracy to destroy a ballistic missile with a single round, has great potential in BMD warfare.

The advantages of naval power, including persistence, access, and mobility combined with proven SM-3 intercept capability, offer near-term ballistic-missile defense options important to national and international security. The Navy must balance BMD with its other missions that carry many responsibilities in providing maritime security. While some Navy capabilities such as strike warfare are also supported by other services, only the Navy can execute certain missions, such as antisubmarine warfare.

1. White House Press Release, "Fact Sheet on U.S. Missile Defense Policy, A Phased Adaptive Approach for Missile Defense in Europe," 17 September 2009.

2. Stephen Castle, "NATO Proposes Link With Russia's Missile Defense," The New York Times, 18 September 2009.

3. Robert M. Gates, "A Better Missile Defense for a Safer Europe," The New York Times, 19 September 2009.

4. Ibid.

5. MDA, "Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense," Missile Defense Agency Fact Sheet, 18 August 2009.

6. Jenny Shin, Overview of the Fiscal Year 2010 Ballistic Missile Defense Budget Request, Center for Defense Information, 20 May 2009.

7. Fareed Zakaria, "US did the right thing the wrong way," CNN, 11 September 2009.

8. Shin, Overview.

9. Gates, "Better Missile Defense."

10. Jonathan Weisman and Peter Spiegel, "Cost Concerns Propelled U.S. Missile Policy," The Wall Street Journal, p. A5, 19-20 September 2009.

11. Milan Vego, "No Need for High Speed," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September 2009. Vego describes the LCS mission payload limit as about 180 tons.

12. William Branin, Walter Pincus, and Karen DeYoung, "Iran Test Fires Most Advanced Missiles," The Washington Post, 28 September 2009.

13. Gates, "Better Missile Defense."

Rear Admiral Wachendorf is chief operating officer of EchoStorm Worldwide, LLC in Suffolk, Virginia, and an Olmsted Scholar who retired from 34 years commissioned service in 2008.


Conferences and Events

2014 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting

Wed, 2014-04-16

U.S. Naval Institute members and supporters are cordially invited to attend the 2014 U.S. Naval Institute Annual Meeting...

View All

From the Press

Guest Lecturer

Sat, 2014-04-19

Guest Lecturer

Sat, 2014-04-19

Captain Bernard Cole

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 135 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership