Toward Missile Defenses from the Sea

Article excerpt


Developments of the past 18 months have created new possibilities for the sea basing of national defenses against intercontinental ballistic missiles. Some conceivable designs would enhance U.S. prospects for defeating a rogue state missile attack on the United States and its allies, but other deployments could undermine the Nation's strategic stability with Russia and China. The most efficacious architecture from both a technical and strategic perspective would include a U.S. Navy boost-phase intercept program and some sea-based radar. Given the complications of using existing Aegis ships for the missile defense mission, the Navy should consider constructing a separate ship designed solely for this purpose.

Current Technology and Policy Status

The Clinton administration developed its national missile defense (NMD) strategy in an effort to defend all 50 states as soon as possible against a limited intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat from rogue states. To secure the Nation's strategic stability vis-a-vis Russia, the plan emphasized retaining an amended version of the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The resulting architecture relied on land-based midcourse interceptors guided by land- and space-based sensors. The technologies needed for this architecture had not matured by September 2000, however, and President William Clinton decided not to deploy the system in 2001. Although the researchers made significant progress toward developing naval-based theater missile defenses during the Clinton administration, the basic NMD architecture had no naval component because that administration sought actual deployments by 2005-2006.

Once in office, the Bush administration was determined to accelerate progress on missile defenses, expand research and development efforts, accept a greater degree of technological risk, and redesign NMD architecture. However, no new missile defense architecture has been proposed. The clear line established in 1997 that delineated theater missile defenses and national missile defenses became blurred. The strategy opened the door to a greater seaborne contribution to defense against ICBMs, and the Navy began to analyze the possibility of this new potential. The Federal Government developed a broad array of options to exploit the progress that had been made in Navy theater programs. Then, three events occurred in December 2001 and January 2002 that further shaped the Navy program.

On December 13, 2001, the Bush administration announced that the United States would withdraw from the ABM Treaty in June 2002. Despite the diplomatic drawbacks of this decision, the United States can now experiment with ship-based missile defenses that the treaty constrained. When the treaty expires in June, the Pentagon will test the ability of the Navy's Aegis radar to track both interceptor and target missiles. The decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty also removes constraints from the development of naval systems designed to be effective against shorter-range ballistic missiles. As a result, tests of future sea-based systems will begin to move from the virtual world of high-speed computers to the test range.

The day after announcing its intention to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, the Bush administration terminated the Navy Area Missile Defense Program, the program for terminal defense against short-range ballistic missiles, because of cost overruns. Until that point, some administration officials had envisioned using Navy Area as an emergency boost-phase interceptor against North Korean missiles. This program had been scheduled to begin testing this year, with operational deployment to begin by 2004. One likely consequence of the decision to terminate the program will be the delay of any operational (as opposed to an experimental or test-bed) sea-based missile defense system by some 2 to 5 years.

Then, the Navy successfully flight-tested the first fully functional Standard Missile (SM)-3 interceptor on January 25 and scored a direct hit, using hit-to-kill technology against a Scud-type test missile. …