As noted in previous posts of this series, the nation’s early ballistic missile defense efforts were understandably focused on protecting against large-scale missile attacks from the Soviet Union and, subsequently, from China. This half-century-plus national commitment was pointed out by the Institute for Defense Analyses in its 2008 Study on the Mission, Roles, and Structure of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA): “There has been an enduring national commitment to ballistic missile defense, including direction currently embodied in law. This commitment has been expressed in presidential direction since the 1950s and 1960s (NIKE Hercules, Sentinel, Safeguard, Site Defense, etc.). The objectives have been pursued by a centralized organization (the MDA and its predecessors) over multiple administrations – President Ronald Reagan, President George H.W. Bush, President William Clinton, President George W. Bush, and now President Barack Obama.”
The United States Missile Defense Agency’s 2011 Program Update amply describes the full scope of the United States’ complete Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) network, and describes how the U.S. has fielded an initial national-level Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) capability, with all aspects of the integrated system – land, sea, air and space – linked together. (For a robust and lively description of U.S. missile defense efforts over the past half-century-plus, see Missile Defense: The First Sixty Years on the Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) website.
The U.S. Navy’s contribution to BMDS, built around the Aegis Weapon System, has grown in importance based on its proven performance as well as its ability to integrate seamlessly with other elements of the national BMDS. Aegis BMD is integrated with BMDS Command, Control, Battle Management and Communications elements. Aegis BMD integrates with other assets, including the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, as well as other ground-, air-, and space-based sensors. Thus, Aegis BMD is able to function as an integral node in the overall, integrated national BMDS, while also having the ability to operate independently to defeat ballistic missiles.
The Strategic Attributes of Aegis BMD
Many commentators have described the attributes that make sea-based BMD an exceptionally capable method to defend against ballistic missiles. One of the foremost defense and naval experts, Norman Friedman, Ph.D., put it this way in “Naval Ballistic Missile Defense: A Technological Tale,” in the fall 2011 issue of Defense:
It has now been two decades since the U.S. Navy formally adopted the ballistic missile defense mission. For much of that time, ballistic missile defense was a relatively minor role, funded mainly by various incarnations of what is now the Missile Defense Agency. In the last few years it has grown enormously, for two reasons. First, it counters the Chinese anti-carrier ballistic missiles. Second, it is now the core of the part of the U.S. national missile defense system erected to cover our allies against theater weapons such as those Iran and North Korea are building.
Basing ballistic missile defense at sea gains the United States enormous advantages, just as basing strike aircraft there does. The missiles, like the strike aircraft, can operate freely without the permission of local governments. Often it turns out, as it did in the 1991 Gulf War, that our ability to operate without permission helps a government that wants protection but has internal problems. If the government cannot veto our help, those who do not want it to be protected see no point in spending their political capital against us.
That was very much the case in Saudi Arabia in 1991. Saddam Hussein tried to abort the protection of Saudi Arabia by U.S. forces by charging that no true Muslim could tolerate unbelievers (Americans) on the country’s sacred soil. The Saudi government found it difficult to reply, even though it was aware that Saddam was setting up the country’s destruction. The deployment of U.S. carriers, which the Saudis could hardly veto, settled the issue in favor of protection – and paved the way for the buildup that ejected Saddam from Kuwait.
Basing defensive missiles at sea also buys vital flexibility. The international situation changes continuously. A defensive deployment that is appropriate to one evolving crisis becomes obsolete suddenly, but it is difficult to redeploy assets based ashore, the basing of which entailed considerable political and economic costs. Ships can be moved suddenly, quickly, and at almost no political cost.
And support for Aegis BMD is growing elsewhere outside the U.S. Navy and the Department of Defense. In a 2009 report published by Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis, the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense, the Space Relationship & the Twenty-First Century strongly recommended limiting fixed ground-based missile defense deployments in favor of expanding theater/regional defenses centered on sea-based missile defense deployments, and further recommended: “Equip additional U.S. vessels with the Aegis anti-missile system. Encourage U.S. allies equipped with Aegis/SM to do the same.”