Ballistic missile defense (BMD) is one of the most challenging missions facing the United States. This threat came into sharp focus on our Fourth of July 2006 when North Korea launched seven ballistic missiles (5 July 2006 Far East time). The North Korean detonation of a nuclear device just three months later put an exclamation point to these events. The presence of Iranian observers at the July launches and ties of both of those countries to international terrorist organizations make these developments even more ominous.
A ballistic missile's speed, range, and altitude leave defenders little room for error in warning, detection, tracking, and engagement. Today, the United States faces a greater danger from an expanding number of hostile regimes and terrorist groups that seek to acquire and use ballistic missiles and weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). These adversaries may not respond to traditional tools and concepts of deterrence. More than 25 counties—some friendly to the United States and some not so—have ballistic missile and WMD programs in various stages of development. Our intelligence estimates indicate that a small number of countries could acquire ICBM capabilities by 2020, either through indigenous development or technology transfer, thus posing a direct threat to the nation.
A Critical National Need
The BMD mission is a national priority. President George W. Bush directed the Secretary of Defense to proceed with fielding an initial set of missile-defense capabilities that would "be capable of protecting not only the United States and our deployed forces, but also our friends and allies."1 Responsibility for this effort rests with the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), to which the Navy's BMD program reports.
Even a modest BMD capability can enhance and expand U.S. policy options. The United States' inaugural activation of the national Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) in June 2006 and its transition to alert status only days later were real and powerful demonstrations of U.S. technological capability and resolve. During the July 2006 events, U.S. Aegis BMD ships and their crews provided the first line of defense against the North Korean ballistic missiles. This contingency surge demonstrated the growing extent to which the Navy is counted on as an important factor in the joint BMD equation.
A National Joint Effort
Requirements for specific BMD capabilities to promote global security and order are predicated on filling warfighting gaps. The 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) recognized that ballistic missile proliferation threatened access in critical world regions of vital interest to the United States.
The ability to maintain sea control at times and places of the nation's choosing will continue to be essential for any joint force action as well as for protecting the sea lines of commerce. Sea control enhances the ability to deter both nation-state and non-state adversaries. The QDR called out the need for "tailored deterrence, including prompt global strike capabilities to defend and respond in an overwhelming manner against WMD attacks, and air and missile defenses, as well as other defensive measures, to deter attacks by demonstrating the ability to deny an adversary's objectives."2
The MDA is developing a fully integrated and layered joint system capable of defeating ballistic missiles of all ranges during all phases of flight. Its elements provide accurate and precise missile identification and tracking using advanced overhead and terrestrial-based sensors; a reliable command and control, battle management, and communications infrastructure; and sophisticated interceptor missiles. Future BMDS capability plans include the introduction of directed-energy weapons (e.g., lasers). Critical to its effectiveness are shared operational pictures, confident combat identification, interoperable battle management systems, adaptive joint planning, flexible engagement coordination, and integrated fire control.
While a BMD system for homeland defense has the highest national priority, naval and joint force requirements also call for integrated theater missile defense systems that can effectively protect forward operating forces—ashore and afloat—and population centers from both ballistic- and cruise-missile attack. Navy BMD systems—with their inherent strategic, operational, and tactical mobility and agility—contribute significantly to regional stability and peace.
National Security Presidential Directive 23 identified sea-based interceptors as a critical element of U.S. missile-defense systems. Presidential emphasis was not lost on the Navy's leadership. During his Senate confirmation hearings in 2005 for the post of Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Mike Mullen stated: ". . . missile defense is a core Navy mission."3 The prime requirement shaping Navy BMD is this: The ability to deter or defeat an adversary's use of ballistic missiles to challenge U.S. strategies, plans, and operations.
To achieve the Navy's vision-Americans secure at home and abroad; sea and air lanes open for the free movement of international commerce; steadily deepening cooperation among the maritime forces of emerging partner nations; and a combat-ready Navy large enough, agile enough, and lethal enough to deter any threat and defeat any foe in support of the joint force—Admiral Mullen has called for the development of a Sea Shield Missile Defense concept of operations. This would provide for defense of the Joint Sea Base and forward operating base infrastructure, regional defense of allies and joint maneuver forces ashore, and defense of the U.S. homeland.
Finally, the Naval Operations Concept 2006, signed by the CNO and the Commandant of the Marine Corps in July, calls for sustained operations in forward areas:
defense by providing the capability to detect and destroy enemy
aircraft and missiles in flight . . . [These] capabilities protect joint and
multinational forces operating overseas, allied and friendly nations, and
provide the first echelon of homeland defense-in-depth. The growing
threat of ballistic missile attack requires continued emphasis of this
A Unique Naval Capability
Required combat capabilities have always driven the composition of the Fleet and the characteristics of its ships. For almost 25 centuries, naval combat was characterized as ship versus ship or ship versus fort, with the key weapons required being the ram, catapult, or gun. By the end of the 19th century, the invention of the mobile torpedo initiated a rapid acceleration in weapon technology. The 20th century saw the mating of the torpedo with the submarine, followed very closely by the introduction of the aircraft, and then the cruise missile.
Responses to each of these threats fundamentally changed the way this nation fights at and from the sea, and has required us to upgrade and add new combat capability to our general-purpose warships to counter threats. To this mix we must add the capability to counter ballistic missiles into the 21st century in order to upgrade the existing Fleet and build the next. The threat of ballistic missiles to all the enduring purposes and missions of the nation and the Navy is real and upon us now.
Because the sea-based BMD capability is embedded in globally deployed, general-purpose, multi-mission Aegis warships, the Navy is uniquely suited to play an essential role as part of the current and future joint BMD mission. The Navy provides this broad, multi-mission capability at an affordable cost within its existing forward-deployed, rotational, and surge-capable naval forces. Aegis BMD adds another significant dimension to the already robust general-purpose, multi-mission cruisers and destroyers. These forces provide persistent presence in important world regions and can be surged forward in response to specific threats and contingencies.
This naval capability requires no massive airlift of systems and personnel to a threatened country, nor does it require permission for access from a host country. With control of the seas, warships can steam indefinitely in international waters off an adversary's shore without the need for host-government permission or reliance on shore support facilities. No additional operating personnel are required, and no additional facilities are needed, as Aegis BMD ships take full advantage of existing Navy infrastructure and support.
Naval BMD is based on almost 40 years of Aegis weapon system development and operation and more than 50 years of Standard Missile (SM) research, development, testing, and real-world performance in the U.S. and several allied navies.5 The systems are mature and highly reliable, and have been developed and maintained by an efficient, highly skilled Navy-industry team with a legacy of success.
On 24 September 2004, the first BMD surveillance and tracking Aegis destroyer, the USS Curtis Wilbur (DDG-54), deployed to the Sea of Japan on the world's first BMD patrol. Additional BMD-capable ships followed. In February 2005, during the Stellar Dragon flight test, the USS Lake Erie (CG-70) fired an SM-3 missile and successfully intercepted a unitary ballistic-missile target outside of the earth's atmosphere. Also during that mission, the USS Russell (DDG-59) successfully detected a target-missile launch and passed data to the Lake Erie and the Joint National Integration Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. The Russell demonstrated that it could conduct real-time detection, tracking, and discrimination of a target. In November 2005, the Lake Erie successfully intercepted a separating target—in essence hitting a "bullet" with a "super computer."
In 2006 both the Lake Erie and the USS Shiloh (CG-67) had successful intercepts against separating targets replicating medium-range ballistic-missile threats. As part of their flight test, both cruisers conducted simultaneous antisubmarine warfare, surface action, antiship cruise missile defense, and Tomahawk land-attack missile strikes, demonstrating the impressive capabilities of the Navy's general purpose, multi-mission Aegis fleet.
The Way Forward
By the end of 2006 the Navy deployed a ballistic-missile engagement capability in three Ticonderoga (CG-47)-class cruisers and three Arleigh Burke (DDG-51)-class destroyers. This system allows the ships to intercept and destroy short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles. This nascent Navy BMD capability is fully integrated into the national, joint BMDS. By 2010, 18 cruisers and destroyers with the Aegis BMD capability will ply the world's seas.
The Navy is extending the capability of the SPY-1 radar and the SM-3 and SM-2 Block IV missiles, as well as improving Aegis BMD integrated fire-control protocols with other air and missile defense systems to enable the Fleet to make an even larger contribution to the nation's joint—and increasingly combined—BMD mission.
The Navy has achieved an enviable record of eight hits for nine interceptor missile launches. This accomplishment is attributable to several factors, three of which stand out: first, the maturity of extant Aegis-related systems and the supporting naval infrastructure; second, the professionalism, commitment, and engineering rigor of a Navy-industry team that embraces the philosophy espoused by Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer, the father of Aegis, to "Build a Little . . . Test a Little . . . Learn a Lot"; and third, the evolutionary upgrading of technologies and systems to pace the threat. Today's force of 84 Aegis cruisers and destroyers provides the foundation for effective and affordable near-term BMD.
As Aegis BMD continues to evolve, America's ability to defend against ballistic missiles of all ranges during all phases of flight will significantly improve. These Aegis BMD upgrades, coupled with the planned CG(X) program, will make the Navy the keystone for U.S. ballistic-missile defense. Much needs to be done, as much hangs in the balance.
Rear Admiral Hicks is Program Director, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, the sea-based element of the Ballistic Missile Defense System under development by the Missile Defense Agency.
1. "President Announces Progress in Missile Defense Capabilities," 17 December 2002. www.whitehouse.gov. back to article
2. 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review 2006, p. 27. back to article
3. ADM Mike Mullen answers to advance policy questions presented at the 19 April 2005 hearing of the United States Senate Committee on Armed Services to consider his reappointment to the grade of Admiral and his nomination to be Chief of Naval Operations, http://armed-services.senate.gov/statemnt/2005/April/Mullen%2004-19-05.pdf. back to article
4. Naval Operations Concept 2006, p. 22. back to article
5. In addition to the U.S. Navy, the Aegis system is in service or will soon be with the navies of Japan, Spain, Norway, South Korea, and Australia, with other navies expressing an interest to acquire Aegis systems. Several are also interested in obtaining a BMD capability. Indeed, the engagement of allied navies in the Aegis program has laid the foundation for a global Aegis BMD enterprise. back to article