Aegis: A Continuum of Excellence

By Rear Admiral Alan B. Hicks, U.S. Navy (Retired) and Captain Albert J. Grecco, U.S. Navy (Retired)

On 17 December 2007, during the Stellar Kiji test event, the Japanese guided-missile destroyer Kongo successfully detected, tracked, and engaged a medium-range ballistic-missile target launched from PMRF with the Aegis BMD weapon system. The Aegis weapon system guided the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IA to a successful intercept outside the Earth’s atmosphere. JFTM-1 was the first such event in which a Japanese ship engaged a ballistic missile. This was a major milestone in the growing cooperation between Japan and the United States. Following the mission and quick-look data reduction, we departed Hawaii for a well-deserved holiday leave. JFTM-1 had been the program’s fifth flight mission in an extremely busy year, and the satellite “what-if” drill faded away in the afterglow of success, until . . .

Operation Burnt Frost

It was early January 2008 when we received a phone call asking for us to meet with “the customer” in Chantilly, Virginia, to examine potential courses of action to neutralize a National Reconnaissance Office Satellite named USA 193. This satellite had been launched on 14 December 2006 but had become uncontrollable after reaching orbit. Because the satellite failed so soon after launch, 1,000 pounds of hydrazine fuel was still present. As the satellite had no power, the tank and fuel it contained were presumed to be frozen. Analyses by others indicated the tank would survive reentry and, if it were to land in a populated area and release its contents, pose a serious risk to human life.

Preferable courses of action to neutralize USA 193 were rapidly narrowed down by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to three options for the mission now known as “Operation Burnt Frost.” The options were to use ground-based missile defense, terminal high-altitude area defense, or Aegis BMD. While Aegis had not yet been selected as the preferred solution, we prepared as if it would be. The time line was being driven by the satellite descent, and we had approximately six weeks to engineer and implement a solution. We began to conduct reversible design activities so as not to preclude the use of Aegis BMD if so ordered. A few early decisions kept the Aegis BMD option open:

1. Three SM-3 Block IA missiles had recently completed final assembly and checkout, were accepted by the government, and were being prepared for shipment. Although we did not yet know the extent of the design changes, we assumed some change would be necessary to the missiles designated for the mission. Given the tight schedule, we did not have sufficient time to pull missiles out of fleet inventory, nor did we have time to build new rounds. The only prudent course of action was to stop the shipment of the three recently accepted rounds in order to accomplish necessary modifications when designed.

2. Early involvement of the NSWC Dahlgren Division certification agent, the principal for Safety and Weapon System Explosives Safety Review Board (WSESRB), the Aegis Training and Readiness Center, and the operational community.

3. Early involvement of the Combat System Engineering Development Site (CSEDS) to have AN/SPY-1 track and collect data to fill in the “unknowns” we had defined in December. CSEDS, JHU APL, and NSWC Dahlgren and Port Hueneme Divisions would later be critical to testing and proof of the configuration and procedures that would be used for the mission.

4. The establishment of a design precept to reduce risk by minimizing configuration changes, and limiting change to software. Each change brought along a tail of rigorous testing to ensure errors or regressions were not introduced, and there was insufficient time to qualify hardware changes. By minimizing change, we could ensure due diligence in the test program within the compressed schedule.

5. The decision to execute the mission as closely as possible to the process used for test events the MDA was already conducting. This would bring procedures and instrumentation that were already in place to bear with little or no learning curve.

A week later, the Surface Navy Association National Symposium was being held in Crystal City, Virginia. The commanding officer of the USS Lake Erie , Captain Randy Hendrickson, was in attendance. The Lake Erie was the ship designated to conduct most of the Aegis BMD test events. The crew had the experience, and the ship had the right instrumentation to execute Burnt Frost as it was ultimately designated as the primary firing ship for the mission. The USS Decatur (DDG-73) was designated as the secondary firing ship. Captain Hendrickson accompanied us to Lockheed Martin for the first design review and discussion of possible concepts of engagement for the mission. Three concepts of engagement were prepared by Lockheed Martin based on the AN/SPY-1 data collected at CSEDS. A preferred concept was selected, and a proof-of-concept effort began. After repeatable results were demonstrated, the preferred concept of engagement became the procedure that would be followed for the mission, and guided the design changes and configuration that was ultimately employed.

Aegis BMD Delivers

As the MDA evaluated all three engagement options available, they concluded that Aegis BMD had the flexibility to accomplish the mission objectives, the mobility to cover various orbital passes, and with the SM-3 missile, could reach the necessary altitude with the required lethality. In addition, the choice to use Aegis BMD was in large part due to its successful track record of 13 out of 15 attempts at shooting down ballistic missiles. This set in motion a myriad of simultaneous and coordinated efforts: The missiles were prepared to accept a new software program concurrent with a design review held at Raytheon Missile Systems; testing of the mission configuration at CSEDS; delivery of media and training of the crews; authorization testing by NSWC Dahlgren and safety approval by the WSESRB; exercising the mission procedures between JHU APL, CSEDS, and the participating ships; preparations at PMRF for both the mission and ability to coordinate with combatant commanders; arranging shipment of the modified SM-3 missiles; tasking of national assets to collect additional data on the satellite; and thousands of model runs at JHU APL, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and at the tasking of the MDA, national laboratories.

On 14 Februrary 2008, the Lake Erie and Decatur onloaded the modified SM-3 missiles and proceeded to sea and the operating area for the mission. Following their sortie, Deputy Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General James Cartwright made a public announcement that the United States intended to shoot down USA 193. In this announcement he described several criteria as to when, how, and why the satellite would be shot down. The major objective was to reduce the risk to space, air, and terrestrial platforms. He explained that they would wait for the space shuttle to land, so the potential harm to the vehicle would not be a factor. Next, they would wait until the satellite was close to reentry to limit the amount of space debris created. Finally, one of the most challenging requirements for Aegis would be to prevent the satellite from entering the Earth’s atmosphere because of its non-aerodynamic characteristics, making it extremely hard to intercept. He suggested that these criteria gave them an eight-day window to successfully complete Operation Burnt Frost.

On 20 February Secretary of Defense Robert Gates approved the mission. “Weapons free” authorization was granted to the Lake Erie , and a single SM-3 missile was fired. The Aegis weapon system guided the missile to intercept, using data from AN/SPY-1 and other sources to provide fire-control data prior to release of the kill vehicle. After AN/SPY-1 detected and tracked the satellite and the Aegis weapon system provided the last guidance update, the SM-3 kill vehicle was released. It intercepted USA 193 at a closing velocity in excess of 22,000 miles per hour and at an altitude higher than 150 miles. Instrumentation confirmed destruction of the hydrazine tank and the risk it posed.

The team had just averted a near-disastrous situation for the world.

The Long Road to Burnt Frost

The ability to engineer and execute Operation Burnt Frost was not just happenstance. It was a crescendo in a long heritage of excellence beginning with the ASMS Project.

When the project began in 1963, the Surface Missile System Fleet consisted of the Terrier, Tartar, and Talos systems, known as the “3 Ts.” They suffered from problems in reliability, insufficient firepower, slow reaction times, susceptibility to jamming and countermeasures, and required extensive maintenance to remain ready for use. Correcting these shortcomings ultimately became cornerstones and major objectives of the Aegis program. The mission also evolved from one designed to primarily counter manned aircraft, to one of countering cruise-missile threats. At the time, no one could have considered BMD to be a mission, or the ability to destroy a satellite as a design objective.

In the early 1990s, President George H. W. Bush (and subsequently the Clinton administration) shifted the military strategy from national missile defense to theater ballistic-missile defense. This shift brought to reality the use of Aegis in the missions of tactical regional BMD and—with the United States’ withdrawal from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty of 1972—a strategic sea-based ABM capability. The Navy began research that essentially formed the basis of the Aegis BMD program, culminating with the first intercept of a ballistic-missile target using the Aegis weapon system and an SM-3 missile on 25 January 2002.

President George W. Bush signed National Security Policy Directive (NSPD) 23 on 27 December 2002, which directed Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld to proceed with fielding an initial set of missile-defense capabilities. Furthermore, NSPD 23 stated the intent to begin operating initial capabilities in 2004 and 2005, to include ground-based interceptors, sea-based interceptors, additional Patriot (PAC-3) units, and sensors based on land, at sea, and in space. The United States’ concurrent withdrawal from the ABM Treaty cleared the way for a strategic sea-based BMD capability.

It is a credit to the design of the weapon system, and particularly the AN/SPY-1 radar, that Aegis remained relevant to this new imperative in the national military strategy. Although the system provided the basic building blocks, it was the experience and depth of the engineering workforce that allowed us to harness the inherent capability of AN/SPY-1 far beyond the original design intent, to adapt the basic weapon-system design to this new mission, and to flex yet again to accommodate the national tasking to neutralize USA 193. This infrastructure that was developed as a necessary and integral part of the Aegis program, enabled the transformation, and was brought into sharp focus by the needs of Operation Burnt Frost. To date, Aegis BMD has accrued an enviable record of 28 intercepts in 34 at-sea attempts, not including the success of Operation Burnt Frost.

‘We Ain’t Done Yet’

The Aegis weapon system has continued to reinvent itself as the nation’s priorities and military strategy have evolved. It was an integral part of how the United States achieved initial defensive operations in 2004 by fielding a strategic long-range surveillance and track capability centered on AN/SPY-1 in support of ground-based missile defense, and achieving limited defensive operations with the fielding of a tactical regional-engagement capability in 2005. The capability has grown from being able to counter simple, liquid-fueled, short- and medium-range unitary threats, to complex, solid-fueled, short-, medium-, and intermediate-range separating threats—as well as ballistic missiles in their terminal phase. Cooperative development with the government of Japan of a 21-inch variant of the SM-3, as well as corresponding advancements in the Aegis weapon system, is well under way.

Aegis BMD capability is part of an integrated air- and missile-defense capability fielded in Baseline 9 as part of Aegis modernization, and will be carried forward to the new construction program beginning with the USS John Finn (DDG-113). And now, Aegis BMD is the centerpiece of the Obama administration’s “European Phased Adaptive Approach” and will field Baseline 9 capability ashore with Romania as the first host nation in 2015.

As the awareness of Aegis BMD has grown, so has the demand from the combatant commanders for Aegis BMD forces. The Aegis BMD forces that can be fielded have two dimensions—capacity and capability. While modifications to the in-service fleet remain the fastest way to create capacity, the number of ships that can be modified depends on the capability desired. In general, capability against simpler threats requires fewer ship modifications and increases the number of ships that can modified in a year. The equation is simple: As the complexity of the threat increases, the complexity of the necessary ship modifications increases, limiting the number of ships that can be modified in a year. The time to field Aegis BMD capability in new construction requires the longest time line. In order to provide our forces the ability to perform the Aegis BMD mission, it will require continued development to provide capability to counter the anticipated threat, and a mix of capabilities added to the in-service fleet through CNO availabilities and robust modernization, in combination with new construction for the foreseeable future.

In the words of Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer, widely regarded as “the Father of Aegis,” “We ain’t done yet.”

Rear Admiral Hicks retired from the U.S. Navy in November 2009 and at the time was the Program Director, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense, U.S. Missile Defense Agency. He is currently employed by Lockheed Martin.

Captain Grecco is the former Major Program Manager and Technical Director for the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System. He is currently employed by Mission Solutions Engineering.




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