Originally designed as a Cold War tool to bolster fleet defense against a challenging Soviet Navy, the Aegis program has since the 1970s evolved and morphed. Among the factors that have exponentially increased the core program’s capabilities, the software and microelectronics revolution has played a major role. Targeting precision, C4ISR, and missile technologies have all developed, and today Aegis is a key element in global missile defense. Of central relevance not only to the program but to global security, Aegis coupled with the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter will provide unprecedented modular flexibility at sea for U.S. command authority and our allies as they shape responses to inevitable future crises. (In the interest of full disclosure, my employer, Gryphon Technologies, provides technical and engineering professional services to the Aegis BMD program.)
Aegis capabilities are essential for power projection against missiles and other threats, especially in light of the current instability and uncertainty emanating from areas such as Iran and North Korea. Because the system has not yet countered the latest threats in the heat of battle, some question whether it will work. But all of its elements have indeed been tested, both nationally and internationally.
An International Collaborative Effort
The U.S. national program has grown into an international enterprise. Several partners have purchased and developed Aegis capabilities for a variety of ships. In fact, every nation that has bought the system has placed it in its own preferred hull.
Innovative approaches to reshaping Aegis to fit on foreign ships and working with foreign shipyards have both been central to the global enterprise, which would not even exist had the United States followed an export policy that insisted on the complete U.S. package of ship and system.
In turn, international engagement has had a significant impact on the U.S. program. Worldwide sales have kept gaps from being significant in production of the system, and the intercontinental quality has meant that stocks in the supply chain have remained on an even keel. As one defense industrialist said to me:
The larger the club you’re in from a lifetime support point of view, the better off you are. You can almost say emphatically if you need a spare part for an Aegis ship, you’re going to be able to get it 20 years from today, because there are so many of them out there; and Uncle Sam’s going to support them, and there’s a large number of international partners engaged so the price point will be reasonable from the supply chain.
The steady commitment that has made Aegis a global program has required political leadership such as that provided by Secretary of Defense William Perry during the mid-1990s in the Aegis sale to Spain. The program manager at the time, Rear Admiral George Huchting, would not have been able to complete that sale without strong leadership and support from the Office of the Secretary of Defense. And the prime contractor, Lockheed Martin, pursued an innovative approach to working with the Spanish, which would later lead to success in both Norway and Australia.
The SPY-1 radar/Aegis system has been installed in seven different ship classes at seven shipyards worldwide. The diversity of platforms on which the system is found is remarkable. In the United States, the Navy has embarked on a cruiser-modernization program in which it is outfitting the 22 Ticonderoga-class ships with the latest Aegis baseline. Additionally, the 58 Arleigh Burke–class destroyers in service with the U.S. Navy have gone through multiple Aegis baselines.
Moving abroad, the Japanese were the original foreign purchasers of the system. They now have six Aegis systems for the Atago and Kongo destroyer classes. The Japanese program is in a lifetime-support phase, with completion of midlife-system upgrades of the 1990s Kongo-class ships, including a ballistic-missile-defense capability.
When the Spanish entered the program, this represented a turning point. Their shipyards have been major innovators in shaping a global Aegis product, not only in Spain but also in Norway and Australia. The initial four Aegis-equipped F-100 ships have an original configuration radar (SPY-1D). The fifth F-100 ship will have an Aegis system with SPY-1D (V) radar, with an indigenous combat management system.
Norway leveraged the Spanish program and now has five Aegis-equipped F-310 ships with a SPY-1F radar. It was able to make use of the SPY-1Y radar technology to shape a smaller antenna for its 5,000-ton ship.
South Korea has three destroyers with SPY-1D(V) radar on the world’s largest Aegis-equipped ships. All three ships are in service as of late 2011.
Australia also has made use of the Spanish program, with three Hobart-class destroyers. This is the newest non-U.S. Aegis program; it makes use of both the Spanish F-100 ship design and the Aegis SPY-1D(V) system. The Australians picked the combat system prior to picking the shipbuilder.
A number of other countries have also expressed interest in Aegis, including Saudi Arabia, India, Canada, Brazil, and Turkey. Altogether, this means more than 20 percent of the global Aegis fleet is non-American.
Some defense commentators point to the need for 80 percent solutions or criticize new programs—yet, if that same perspective had been dominant in the 1970s and 1980s, Aegis would never have developed, nor would the foundation for 21st-century maritime power projection now be in place. Overall, the Aegis effort is the premier global program underwriting joint U.S.-allied high-end defense capabilities. As such, it offers important lessons that show how to meet and prevail over 40 years of threat evolution, multiple administrations, and changing partners.
Keys to Success
• Select managers carefully: In a period of flux and increasing emphasis on process, the Aegis program suggests a simple solution: Put strong program managers in place and let them work with the contractors to create feasible requirements in pursuing “exquisite” capabilities.
• Do not allow one approach to dominate: The concepts of evolution and revolution have been effectively balanced. An evolutionary approach has been used in developing upgrades throughout the life of the program. But leaps forward have also played a role, when appropriate, at points when the cumulative effects of redesigns had set the stage for more dramatic and quick developments. For example, the significant advance in shaping an open architecture allowed the program to enter the rapidly evolving 21st century of software redesign.
• Think modular: As one defense industrialist commented:
Open architecture makes it much easier to adapt new weapon systems and sensors into the system. The re-architecting basically makes it so when you plug in something new, it’s adapted by something we call a boundary component, rather than having that adaption ripple throughout the system and disrupting it. That’s extremely important to partners already on board or that will be coming on later.
With Aegis, U.S. and allied maritime capabilities can be mixed and matched to provide for regional defense, power projection, fleet defense, or support of joint or coalition non-maritime forces. This capacity will be enhanced as many nations look to add the F-35 to the combination.
The F-35 Joint Strike Fighter
As the Joint Strike Fighter comes on line, integrating it with Aegis will provide a powerful capability for the United States and its allies. Because significant numbers of our partners are in the Aegis-deployed fleet, several joint Aegis and F-35 allies are likely in the Pacific.
The administration of Barack Obama has placed a great deal of emphasis on continuing the upgrade path for the Aegis ballistic-missile-defense program. By canceling the George W. Bush–era missile-defense program in Europe, de facto the administration highlighted its commitment to Aegis as a key element for global missile defense. However, the program’s evolution depends on a continuing commitment of increasingly scarce resources to testing and applying the results to the concurrent development and manufacturing program.
Upcoming tests will support a launch/engage-on-remote concept that links the Aegis ship to remote sensor data, increasing the coverage area and responsiveness. Once this capability is fully developed, SM-3 missiles––no longer constrained by the range of Aegis radar to detect an incoming missile––can be launched sooner and therefore fly farther to defeat the threat.
Imagine this capability linked to an F-35, which can see more than 800 miles throughout a 360-degree approach. U.S. allies are excited about the linkage prospects and the joint evolution of two highly upgradable weapon systems. Combining Aegis with the F-35 means joining their sensors for wide-area coverage. Because of a new generation of weapons on the F-35 and the ability to operate a broad wolfpack of air and sea capabilities, the Joint Strike Fighter can perform as the directing point for combat action. Together, the F-35 and Aegis greatly expand the defense of land and sea bases.
The commonality across the combat systems of the F-35’s three variants provides a notable advantage. Aegis is a pilot’s wingman, whether he or she is flying an F-35A, B, or C. Eighty percent of the F-35s in the Pacific are likely to be As, many of them coalition aircraft. Therefore, building an F-35 and Aegis global enterprise provides coverage across the Pacific.
Many of our partners are already in the Aegis-deployed fleet, and several allies are prospectively interested in the joint Aegis/F-35. So as the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter comes on line, integrating Aegis with it also provides a powerful capability for our allies.
Combining the F-35B and Aegis opens up a whole new ability to defend land-based air in the Pacific. No longer should the B be considered a boutique niche aircraft essential only for Marine combat concepts of operations. With vision and commitment on numbers, it can become a tactical aircraft that sends a strategic signal. This is because the aircraft can stand strip alert on any long runway, whether U.S. or allied. From a strategic standpoint, this could include Guam, South Korea, or the Middle East.
As a crisis situation develops, the F-35Bs can be remotely placed in hardened bunkers and revetments, thus becoming a deterrence asset that can sortie instantly into combat, return to refuel, and go again—and again. With the use of an F-35B detachment, the issues of enemy runway area denial and rapid runway repair do not become show stoppers for the tempo of operations, both offensively and defensively.
Tie an F-35B to Aegis, and the entire “wasting argument” about asymmetric intermediate-range ballistic missiles and enemy strikes against our hard fixed land targets becomes moot. Guam, for example, will still have air power in its defense. The same principle can be applied globally.
A System in Motion
The Obama administration is focused on Aegis Ashore in 2015. As the President said in September 2009: “This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems, and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack than the 2007 European missile defense program.”
The first phase of the new approach focuses on existing sea-based Aegis missile-defense ships and radars. It will be deployed in southern Europe to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. Future decisions might also see Aegis Ashore in the Middle East and East Asia. Because of the inherent multi-mission qualities of ABMD warships and their strategic and tactical mobility, they are highly survivable against a broad range of threats, not only ballistic missiles.
The focus of FTM-16 intercept firings is on the SM-3 Block IB, the next-generation sea-based missile spiral upgrade. The seeker, signal processor, and propulsion systems of the SM-3 Block IB missile kinetic warhead are improved versions of the Block IA missile and will result in increased missile effectiveness against longer-range and more sophisticated ballistic missiles.
These engineering upgrades have already undergone laboratory and ground tests. Flight-testing of the SM-3 Block IB missile is scheduled for 2012. Fleet deployment could begin soon thereafter––roughly 18–24 months ahead of the test-and-deploy schedule defined by the Phased Adaptive Approach. In 2010, sea trials began for Aegis BMD 4.0.1, the next-generation system that will fire the SM-3 Block IB missile. The 4.0.1 signal-processing capability greatly improves Aegis BMD performance and will enable it to remain well ahead of the threat. In short, this system continues to push the envelopes of national and global BMD capabilities against a growing threat. It is already deployed and is being upgraded over time. It is a high-value system and a high-value capability.
The Way Ahead
Aegis is a key element of a scalable force structure that allows the United States and its allies to turn presence into interactive capabilities. Forward-deployed assets are a fundamental part of any effective U.S. strategy, but no platform fights alone; connectivity is essential. As platforms new and old are reshaped into a global-presence force, we must convert Aegis—which has become a central aspect of forward deployment—in ways that make it compatible with scalability.
Because joint and coalition concepts of operations are intended to provide decision makers with maximum options, global missile defense will always be a work in progress. It must ensure that evolutions in sensor technologies are connected with defensive projectiles in a joint and combined command-and-control system.
South Korea illustrates how multiple basing in the F-35 age can work. That nation, in its ongoing defense against North Korea, has defensive systems against missiles and a good army. In the F-35 era, defense and offense are transformed into strategic mobility. Now, instead of investing in static systems able to do nothing other than await invasion, South Korea has flexible forces that can operate in national defense, participate regionally, and contribute to a global reserve capability. Aegis at-sea systems are a key element of sea-based defensive capability that has been provided with strategic mobility.
Add the F-35Bs to the South Korean military, and now you can disperse force, complicate any North Korean attack, and add this capability to the country’s mobile naval force that currently is being rolled out. Deterrence of China is also enhanced, because mobility of operations from South Korea makes China’s thinking more difficult. For one thing, there is no single line of attack on U.S. forces. If the Chinese should target Guam, we would now have multiple bases from the sea and land from which the 360-degree-enabled F-35s coupled with Aegis and other systems would provide a troubling situation for our enemy, who would not be guaranteed success with a large-area single strike.
The U.S. Navy’s Aegis program is an important contributor to shaping the foundation for such a global system. Because all current Aegis navies are potential candidates for the F-35, with the deployment of the Joint Strike Fighter will come important sensor capabilities around the world. We have the opportunity to create an integrated air-sea sensor net for deployed fleets that provides, in turn, a growing ability to shape missile-defense forces and protective cover for global-presence forces.
These F-35-Aegis offense and defense bubbles can be networked throughout the Pacific to enhance the capacity of individual nations. They represent a prime example of how one country’s assets can contribute to the reach others, together establishing a scalable capability for a honeycombed force.
Overall, the enterprise lays a foundation for a global capability in sea-based missile defenses and for protecting deployed forces as well as projecting force. Power such as this is increasingly central to the freedom of action necessary for the worldwide operation of the U.S. military and our coalition partners.