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U.S. Navy Missile Defense: Building an Aegis Fleet

U.S. Navy missile defense, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, Part 5

It is easy to look back from the perspective of 2012, with scores of Aegis cruisers and destroyers populating the U.S. Navy’s fleet – and with Aegis ships now serving as the Navy’s primary surface combatant – and think that the journey toward building an Aegis fleet was simple or straightforward. It was not. A full description of that journey is vastly beyond the scope of this post. But for those readers wanting more, the 2009 Naval Engineer’s Journal, The Story of Aegis: Special Edition contains a rich and detailed description of the Aegis program – how it came into being, where it is today, and where it is going in the future.

Long Beach Terrier launch, 1961

The nuclear-powered USS Long Beach (CGN 9) launches a RIM-2 Terrier missile in October 1961. While the ” 3-Ts” had been improved, Navy studies showed a new missile system and new missiles were going to be necessary in the future. Long Beach’s SPS-32 and SPS-33 phased array radars, with their massive horizontal and vertical “plate” arrays mounted on the ship’s tall, boxy superstructure, were predecessors to the SPY-1 radar used in the Aegis system. U.S. Navy photo

The need for a system such as Aegis became apparent as far back the 1950s, when U.S. Navy warships were first equipped with guided surface-to-air missiles. As discussed in earlier posts, the Navy ultimately developed three missiles to deal with the then-prevailing jet aircraft threat – Tartar, Terrier, and Talos – the “3-Ts.” The Navy later concluded those missiles and their fire-control systems were not reliable enough, were susceptible to jamming, and would be overwhelmed by a large-scale enemy attack. Emerging anti-ship cruise missiles eventually added another dimension to the threat that existing systems and ships could not readily handle.

The requirement for an advanced anti-air warfare (AAW) system, however, remained. To meet the demand, the Navy initiated development of a new Advanced Surface Missile System (ASMS) in August 1964 by asking contractor teams to submit designs for a new AAW system. An assessment group chaired by Rear Adm. F.S. Withington evaluated the proposals against a set of challenging operational criteria that would ensure that whatever system emerged would be able to deal with anticipated future threats to Navy strike groups from an increasing-capable Soviet Union.

Standard Missile

RIM-66 Standard MR/SM-2 missiles on the rails of a Mark 26 launcher, prior to being fired from the Aegis guided missile cruiser USS Ticonderoga (CG 47) during tests near the Atlantic Fleet Weapons Training Facility, Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, in March 1983. The Standard Missile was one important component of new Navy missile ships, replacing the 3-Ts with a more capable and reliable missile that also had significant growth potential. U.S. Navy photo by Don Muhm

Withington’s 1965 report called for the development of a completely – and even radically different – system to replace the 3-T system. Contracts for detailed design of ASMS were let in 1968. Then, in a decision that was an important first step in making Aegis a complete system, the Navy made the decision to pair ASMS with the new Standard Missile that was under development. Since RCA was the developer of the Standard Missile, RCA was in a favorable position to compete for the ASMS contract. RCA did, in fact, win this important contract to develop the total system, which was renamed “Aegis.”

In today’s environment, with weapons systems often taking decades to emerge, the speed at which these decisions were made in the late 1960s may appear astounding. However, one catalyzing event caused the Navy to move forward with alacrity and even urgency. On Oct. 21, 1967, the Israeli warship Eilat was sunk when an Egyptian Komar-class missile boat put two Soviet-designed Styx missiles into her. This event made the vulnerability of ships a stark reality, and was a significant factor in causing the U.S. Navy to move forward on the Aegis program with renewed purpose.

USS Norton Sound with Aegis

USS Norton Sound (AVM 1) with the distinctive phased array SPY-1 radar installed to test the Aegis system, and a MK 26 twin-rail missile launcher for Standard Missiles mounted aft. U.S. Navy photo

In 1970 then-Capt. Wayne Meyer was selected to lead the Aegis project office. He was charged to lead the Aegis system through design and testing. Two years later, he was also given responsibility for developing the SM-2 missile as part of the overall Aegis package. And in 1974, he assumed responsibility for integrating all shipboard weapons and sensors into an overarching Aegis combat system, an initiative that arguably had more to do with the success of Aegis than any other factor.

Meyer led the Aegis Program Office with an overarching philosophy that could be summed up in his oft-repeated phrase, “build a little, test a little, learn a lot.” After extensive testing at the Moorestown, N.J. test-site, aptly named “the cornfield cruiser,” the Aegis team installed their system in the USS Norton Sound for at-sea evaluation. Those testing efforts showed the capabilities Aegis brought to the Fleet were superior to any other AAW systems.

In spite of the catalyzing event of the sinking of the Eilat, there were challenges to moving beyond the Navy’s last generation of cruisers and destroyers and toward the Aegis fleet of today. These revolved around shipbuilding in general and nuclear power specifically. It is fair to say that there is likely no aspect of the DoD budget – and certainly no aspect of the DoN’s budget – that receives more Congressional oversight, scrutiny, and direction than shipbuilding. Given the enormous cost of ships as well as the life cycle of these assets, often in excess of 30 years, it is easy to understand this Congressional oversight.

CGN 42

The nuclear Aegis cruiser that might have been. The program would have carried Aegis on a 12,185-ton hull, though with a different arrangement of the phased array panels; as well as two MK 26 missile launchers, each with 44 missiles; two 5-inch MK 54 guns; a towed sonar array; and two LAMPS helicopters. Then-Defense Secretary Harold Brown’s claim that two CG 47s could be bought for the cost of one CGN 42 helped kill the program in a tight budget environment. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

The issue with nuclear power is a bit more complicated. The Navy built a number of nuclear missile cruisers as well as many non-nuclear missile ships. Within the Congress, DoD, and the Navy, the advocates for one type of missile ship – nuclear or non-nuclear – were as passionate as they were numerous, and this inevitably slowed down the Navy’s generational missile ship shift. In hindsight, it is safe to say that had the Navy made the decision to have all – or even some – of its Aegis missile ship fleet be nuclear powered, there would have been fewer Aegis ships than populate the Fleet today.

Under the stewardship of Meyer, who had been promoted to rear admiral and is today universally recognized as “The Father of Aegis,” the Navy moved forward to build its next generation of missile ships based on the hull and engineering design of the existing Spruance class destroyer, and to employ a new generation of radar and combat systems. Today, in 2012, with the benefit of hindsight, the wisdom of bringing all aspects of the Aegis program under Meyer’s stewardship was a move that was crucial to Aegis’ success.


The Aegis Cruiser Emerges

Spruance and Ticonderoga together

The destroyer USS Spruance (DD 963), left, and the first Aegis cruiser and class ship USS Ticonderoga (CG 47) moored together. Although the superstructures are different, these ships use the same basic hull and the same propulsion plant. The Ticonderoga class added 2,000 tons of weight, however, which made the forward bulwarks necessary due to badly reduced freeboard. U.S. Navy photo by Don S. Montgomery

Preliminary design of the new Aegis cruiser was completed in the fall of 1978, but faced delays of all kinds. The original version of Aegis could handle 128 tracks. The first baseline for Aegis comprised four UYK-7/20 computers and UYA-4 CIC displays. The four UYK-7s, in turn, performed four different functions: one controlled the SPY-1 radar, one supported the Weapons Control System, one supported the Aegis Display System, and one supported the Command and Decision (C&D) processor.

Aegis employed different versions of the Standard Missile. Importantly, and key to Aegis’ success, was the fact that by changing the surrounding system and providing mid-course guidance, the missile’s range increased from less than 20 nautical miles to 40 nm. This revolutionary breakthrough, in effect, sold many on the concept of total systems design – a core attribute of Aegis – rather than the previous practice of simply “bolting on” new systems, sensors, and weapons on Navy ships individually. Clearly this took a visionary program manager to implement, and Meyer was indeed that man.

USS Ticonderoga, Desert Shield

The guided missile cruiser USS Ticonderoga (CG 47), first of the Aegis cruisers,  transits the Suez Canal en route to the Mediterranean Sea following a deployment in support of Operation Desert Shield. DoD photo

One personal footnote: during a short portion of Meyer’s stewardship of the Aegis program, I served in the Navy’s LAMPS Mk III (Light Airborne Multi-Purpose System) Program Office (PMA/PMS 266) that was responsible for procuring the new LAMPS system (not just the SH-60B helicopter). Few probably remember that IBM was the system prime, a decision that certainly enabled the successful development and fielding of the Navy’s first completely new helicopter system in almost a generation. LAMPS Mk III, of course, was designed to deploy on the Navy’s cruisers, destroyers and frigates, replacing the LAMPS Mk I system built around the venerable H-2 Seasprite that had been in service since early in the Vietnam War.

But from Meyer’s standpoint, even the complex LAMPS system was merely a sub-system (albeit an important one) of the overall Aegis system. If it was going to deploy aboard his Aegis ships and be part of his Aegis combat system, then he was going to have a say regarding its design and development. While some in our LAMPS Mk III Program Office may have chaffed (respectfully and diplomatically of course) under this additional guidance, direction, and oversight, the success of Aegis ships with LAMPS Mk III embarked over the past several decades speaks volumes more than I can convey here.

Arguably one of the most visionary things Meyer did as Aegis Program Manager was insist on a completely different relationship between the Navy and its prime contractor. While the pros and cons of competing major weapons system development are worthy of (often impassioned) debate, for Aegis this decision worked to the Navy’s benefit. Meyer advocated, and fought, to have the Aegis prime contractor be part of an integrated team, whose expertise had been built up over time with great effort and often at great expense. He saw the wisdom in building and sustaining an intact team over an extended timeframe. Clearly, that approach has paid off over time.


The Aegis Fleet Today

CG and DDG Aegis

Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser USS Hue City (CG 66) leads Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer USS Oscar Austin (DDG 79) as the two ships follow in formation behind Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). Today Aegis cruisers and destroyers of the U.S. Navy are also complemented by Aegis ships in several partner navies worldwide. U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 3rd Class Kristopher Wilson

The heart of Aegis – and the U.S. Navy’s fleet air defense capabilities – is the Aegis Weapons System. Consisting of the AN/SPY-1 phased-array radar, the Mk 99 fire-control system, the Weapon Control System, the Command and Decision suite, and Standard missiles, Aegis can simultaneously detect and track hundreds of threats and friendly/neutral aircraft and engage multiple targets simultaneously. When combined with the MK 41 Vertical Launch System (VLS), the AN/SQQ-89 underwater combat system, command-and-control, and self-defense weapons and systems, the weapons system acts as the central component of the broader Aegis Combat System.

As Adm. John Harvey, Commander, U.S. Fleet Forces Command, explained in September 2010, what made the original Aegis program so successful was “a single-minded dedication to the pursuit of technical excellence.” That commitment to excellence permeated the Aegis community even before the first ship of the class, the cruiser Ticonderoga (CG 47), was commissioned in January 1983. It likewise remains embedded in Aegis today.

Now the Aegis system has an important additional role; ballistic missile defense. And this new mission is being pursued with the same “single-minded dedication to the pursuit of technical excellence” as the original core Aegis system. The Aegis BMD Program Directorate continues to provide the nation with new and critical capabilities derived from a system first conceived nearly five decades ago. A hybrid Navy-MDA organization, Aegis BMD, has adapted decades of technological advances to the continually-evolving demands of ballistic missile defense. This team delivered the Aegis BMD weapon system and SM-3 missiles ahead of schedule, and has continued to implement a stream of combat system and missile upgrades. But this move into a new mission area had a long gestation period.


Captain George Galdorisi is a career naval aviator. He began his writing career in 1978...

    li class="comment even thread-even depth-1" id="comment-149228">

    really neet combat vessiles but would be better if employed stealth defense missles and a electro magnetic cloaking device capable of sustaning a surface combat vessle by its own high output genarator.