More BMD Capabilities


The U.S. Navy's Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) force -- based on Aegis-equipped missile cruisers and destroyers -- is being increased. The Navy currently has 3 cruisers of the Ticonderoga (CG 47) class and 15 destroyers of the Arleigh Burke (DDG 51) class configured for ballistic missile intercept. One of the former, the USS Lake Erie (CG 70), gained world-wide headlines when the ship fired a missile to intercept an errant U.S. intelligence satellite on 20 February 2008, hitting the target at an altitude of approximately 150 miles.

Writing in Defense News, Christopher P. Cavas said that the Pentagon and industry sources confirmed to him on January 7th that three additional Aegis ships will be provided with the BMD capability. Of the existing 18 Aegis-BMD ships, all but two are in the Pacific. Reportedly, the three additional ships will also be based in the Atlantic area. The Atlantic-based ships are intended primarily to provide defense in the eastern Mediterranean area against Iranian-launched ballistic missile.

Navy leaders and officials of the Missile Defense Agency -- the Department of Defense organization that directs the nation's missile-defense efforts -- have at times indicated that all 22 Aegis cruisers and 62 Aegis destroyers may eventually be upgraded to the BMD configuration. Indeed, the current Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Gary Roughead, plans to ask Congress to fund an estimated eight additional Aegis destroyers primarily for their potential BMD capability.

The Aegis BMD capability has been demonstrated in 14 successful missile tests (five other tests failed); one success and one failure were in tests by Japanese destroyers. These are in addition to the Lake Erie intercept of the errant U.S. spy satellite.

The modification of Aegis ships for the BMD role consists primarily of a series of software upgrades and the arming of the ships with modified Standard Missile-2 and the special-purpose Standard Missile-3 missiles. While configured for the BMD role the Aegis cruisers and destroyers retain their full conventional warship capabilities for anti-air, anti-surface, anti-submarine, and (Tomahawk) strike operations.

In addition to the Aegis BMD force, the United States currently has 30 ground-based BMD interceptors in Alaska and California, and more than 600 ground-based PAC-3 missile interceptors. The ship -- based Aegis and Army PAC-3 systems have the advantage of forward deployment, where they can be used for early (boost-phase) intercept of enemy missiles, or can provide terminal defense for allies and overseas U.S. forces. The PAC-3 units, while mobile, cannot be deployed in overseas/forward areas without the commitment of a large number of transport aircraft and the political implications that accompany such a movement and deployment on foreign territory.

While the Navy is continuing to improve the quality as well as quantity of the Aegis-BMD force, the Army is also seeking to improve its ground-based capability, while the Air Force has a research and development program to develop an Airborne Laser (ABL) intercept system. Employing a modified Boeing 747-400F aircraft (designated YAL-1), the ABL had its first airborne firing test in November 2008. The ABL uses a chemical oxygen-iodine laser in the megawatt range. 

It is expected that the ABL will be tested against a target representating a missile in the boost phase in the fall of 2009. However, the operational feasibility of the ABL intercept system makes it highly unlikely that it could be deployed as a weapon system in the foreseeable future.

-- Norman Polmar

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