While the story of Aegis writ large has been touched upon earlier – and told more extensively in many fora, most notably in the 2009 Naval Engineer’s Journal, The Story of Aegis: Special Edition – the story of Aegis BMD, that is, how Aegis BMD evolved from just a nascent idea into arguably the strongest pillar of national BMD, is a relatively new story that bears telling here.
This is a story of converging events. The absence of even one of these events could have caused a huge interruption – or outright termination – of the nation’s and the Navy’s Aegis BMD program. Five events related to U.S. ballistic missile defense (BMD) converged over the past several decades:
First, in January 1983, the U.S. Navy commissioned the Aegis guided missile cruiser USS Ticonderoga (CG 47), the first of what would grow to a global fleet of Aegis warships. Then, in March of that year, President Ronald Reagan committed the nation to move from a strategy of Mutually Assured Destruction to a framework for a robust national Ballistic Missile Defense System. Eight years later, President George H.W. Bush and the U.S. Congress committed the United States to countering the burgeoning regional ballistic missile threat. Then, in 2001, President George W. Bush announced the United States would withdraw from the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) treaty. Finally, in September 2009, President Barack Obama adopted a new approach to ballistic missile defense that put the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (Aegis BMD) system ashore to defend European and other allies and friends from ballistic missiles armed with WMD.
When President Ronald Reagan asked, in his now-famous speech; “What if free people could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon threat of instant U.S. retaliation to deter a Soviet attack, but instead that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached our own soil or that of our allies?” it caused a sea change in the entire concept of U.S. national BMD. That single statement still provides the organizing impulse for the United States’ ballistic missile defense efforts.
When the U.S. Navy commissioned USS Ticonderoga (CG 47) in 1983, it was, to many, merely the first ship of a new class of warships, one among many in a U.S. Navy that numbered well over 500 ships. Then a tiny fraction of an almost 600-ship Navy, Aegis cruisers and destroyers have now become the Navy’s primary surface combatants. And, importantly, Aegis has enabled the nation and the Navy to take a significant step in accomplishing President Reagan’s vision three decades ago.
Aegis BMD has grown in prominence because the nation’s strategic environment has changed in profound ways. Indeed, the Navy’s BMD program has always been driven by external developments that made the ballistic missile threat more immediate. By the first decade of this century there was a real possibility that the North Koreans would soon have an ICBM capable of reaching the U.S. West Coast. But there was not a consensus on how quickly the United States would need a national defense against this long range threat or how soon the allies in Europe and in Asia would need protection against shorter-range missiles from Iran and North Korea respectively.
In a landmark article in Joint Forces Quarterly, then-Program Director, Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense Rear Adm. Alan B. Hicks provided insight into the emerging threat from ballistic missiles armed with WMD:
These threats range from terrorism to ballistic missiles tipped with WMD, intended to intimidate the United States by holding it, its friends, and its allies, hostage. Not only are forward deployed forces at risk from ballistic missiles, but also the U.S. homeland is within range of these threats, which continue to grow in number, range, and complexity. One factor that makes ballistic missiles desirable as a delivery vehicle for WMDs is that the United States and its allies have lacked an effective defense against the threat.
Within 30 minutes, an intercontinental ballistic missile could be launched from any location in the world and strike somewhere in the United States. Additionally, today, more than 200,000 forward-deployed American soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines are at risk from short- to intermediate-range ballistic missiles located in North Korea and Iran.
In 2010, the United States published its first-ever Ballistic Missile Defense Review (BMDR) and acknowledged the efficacy of Aegis BMD in a new approach to dealing with the threat of WMD-armed ballistic missiles. The BMDR explained:
The United States will continue to defend the homeland from limited ballistic missile attack. The United States will defend U.S. deployed forces from regional missile threats while also protecting our allies and partners and enabling them to defend themselves…The United States will seek to lead expanded international efforts for missile defense. It will work more closely with allies and partners to provide pragmatic and cost-effective capacity.
The BMDR also spoke directly to the importance of Aegis BMD and the strong potential for an “Aegis BMD International” coalition:
Other allies already own or are working with the United States to acquire specific capabilities, such as naval vessels equipped with the Aegis defensive system that could be adapted to include a missile defense capability…. A primary U.S. emphasis is on ensuring appropriate burden sharing and there is general recognition of a growing threat and the need to take steps now to address both existing threats and emerging ones.
Clearly, the evolution of Aegis BMD stemmed not from a calculated U.S. Navy “push” to add this capability to its arsenal – indeed, over the past several decades there have been naysayers within the Navy who have advocated strongly against a prominent role for Navy BMD – but from a growing national consensus that Aegis BMD can provide a robust and cost-effective defense against short- and mid-range ballistic missiles. Further, the system has demonstrated the growth potential to be effective against longer-range ballistic missiles in the future.
The Role of Aegis BMD
Now, almost three decades later, Aegis BMD is a critical element of the nation’s defense in the 21st century. As Aegis BMD continues to evolve, America’s ability to defend our allies and friends worldwide as well as our forces at sea and ashore against ballistic missiles will become even more robust than it is today.
In 2009, Obama explained the need to reinvigorate U.S. BMD strategy when, explaining the European Phased Adaptive Approach to ballistic missile defense, he stated, “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.”
Like Reagan, Obama challenged America and the world to embark on a new course for national and global security. Over a quarter-century bridged these two presidential statements. In that quarter-century-plus, Aegis BMD has become a crucial element of the nation’s defense as well as a key component in forming and sustaining global and regional maritime partnerships.
And the potential exists to do even more. In a July 2009 Naval Institute Proceedings article, Commander Bart Denny argued for Aegis BMD to serve as the primary national BMD asset:
The United States should place a higher priority on its sea-based systems than on land-based or airborne weapons or sensors. In particular, the Department of Defense should further modify and upgrade the Aegis weapon system to a full national missile-defense asset…were the U.S. government to commit immediately to doing so, maritime ballistic-missile defense assets – building almost entirely on the mature and hardy Aegis infrastructure – could provide the full range of boost, mid-course, and terminal defense against missiles from the SRBM [short-range ballistic missiles] class to large ICBM types by 2015. This capability will come at a fraction of the price of other weapon systems where the Defense Department must build the system infrastructure from scratch.
As land-based BMD systems such as Aegis Ashore come on line, Navy BMD will continue to serve as a crucial element of ballistic missile defense. This is because the core mobility and flexibility of ship-based BMD will provide United States Combatant Commanders (COCOMS) with a ready response to standing – and especially emerging – ballistic missile threats to our forward-deployed forces. This process to meet COCOMs’ urgent demand for forward and ready mobile BMD is already “in motion,” as the Navy has Aegis BMD ships forward-deployed in homeports in Japan and recently revealed that it would homeport four Aegis BMD ships in Spain. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where COCOM demand for Aegis BMD will not intensify.