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U.S. Navy Missile Defense: Building and Deploying the U.S. Navy’s Missile Fleet – With Urgency

U.S. Navy missile defense, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, Part 2

For anyone younger than those of the baby boomer generation, it is impossible to fully understand the urgency the Cold War brought to building and deploying the U.S. Navy’s missile fleet.  Once the Berlin Wall went up and the spectre of the Soviet Empire crushing the West – and especially the United States – began to sink in during the early 1950s, spending on defense became a compelling urgency.  Few can forget the phrase famously attributed to Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev while addressing Western ambassadors at a reception at the Polish embassy in Moscow on Nov. 18, 1956, “We will bury you!”

USS Albany (CA 123) under way in 1955 before her conversion to a guided missile cruiser. The same big cruiser hull that allowed her to carry nine 8-inch guns in three turrets and 12 5-inch guns in six turrets, along with almost 70 smaller caliber guns, provided the volume and stability needed for installation of the Navy’s early missiles and the necessary radars to direct them. After her radical conversion, Albany carried two Talos and two Tartar missile launchers, as well as an ASROC launcher and two of the three original 8-inch gun turrets. The first Navy missile ships were all converted cruisers. U.S. Navy photo

Nor do many recall that Khrushchev was prone to hyperbole or that those were not his literal words (he actually said, “Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will dig you in” on that date, and later clarified, “We must take a shovel and dig a deep grave, and bury colonialism as deep as we can,” and still-later said, “I once said, ‘We will bury you,’ and I got into trouble with it.  Of course we will not bury you with a shovel. Your own working class will bury you.”  No matter.  And who can forget the scene in the movie The Right Stuff of the laughing Soviet scientist as yet another Russian rocket succeeded and another American one failed.

The point is, the United States needed to defend itself, and nowhere was the United States more vulnerable than in the case of U.S. Navy ships deployed forward and within range of Soviet land-based bombers as well as missiles fired from land, from aircraft, from ships, and from submarines.

Importantly, in addition to providing a plethora of available platforms to accommodate emerging surface-to-air missiles, the years immediately following World War II also presented a confluence of technologies that made the development of these missiles possible.  Indeed, these technologies were evolving even well before World War II began.

As Capt. Wayne Hughes, Jr. pointed out in his Fleet Tactics and Coastal Combat:

The information age is nothing new to the navies of the world. The role of information (scouting) reached fruition in the 1930s with the fusion of air‐search and radio communications. Information warfare and operations are indeed evolving with technology, but in most respects they are an extension of the World War II sensory revolution. What we have seen in naval tactics is a new weapon – the well‐aimed long‐range missile – to take advantage of sensing and communications technology, and vice versa.

Thus, the war-induced rapid technology advances in the United States and elsewhere, coupled with Cold War impelled increases in military spending that further spurred technological development, created, in many ways, a “perfect storm” for fleet air defense and empowered missile developers to begin doing what Aegis Program Manager Rear Adm. Wayne Meyer would later coin as his most well-known mantra, “Build a little, test a little, learn a lot.”


Fielding an Air Defense Missile Fleet

As mentioned above, the U.S. Navy was blessed with a large number of ships built during – and especially toward the end of – World War II, so “available real estate” to field fleet air defense missiles was not a primary concern.  And not having to buy new hulls made it possible to deploy more missile ships very rapidly.  This, in turn, left more of the shipbuilding budget to new kinds of ships which really could not easily be built out of existing hulls, such as nuclear submarines and attack carriers.  And the overarching emphasis for the Navy was getting those attack carriers close enough to the Soviet Union to conduct nuclear strikes.

Arleigh Burke 1951

Rear Adm. Arleigh Burke shown in 1951. On promotion to admiral and Chief of Naval Operations, Burke pushed Navy missile programs and communications technology forward. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

What was especially challenging in fielding a fleet air defense missile fleet was the time it took to develop these systems.  As Dr. Norman Friedman has pointed out, decisions as to what future systems to develop had to be made five, or ten, or more years before those systems could enter service.  For example, a mid-1950s study regarding fleet air defense had to be written in terms of what the Soviet threat circa 1970-1985 was anticipated to be. Further, there is no evidence that U.S. intelligence could probe deeply into Soviet behavior or thinking, thus the best the U.S. Navy could do was extrapolate trends in the technology the United States was developing and try to make an educated guess as to how the Soviet Union might employ similar technology against the United States.  And add to this the still somewhat difficult issues associated with sorting out which U.S. Navy Bureaus “owned” fleet air defense and the challenge facing system and missile developers was indeed profound.

Fortuitously for the Navy, when the legendary Adm. Arleigh Burke became CNO in 1955, he was determined to cure the deficiencies of fleet air defense in several complementary ways.  Presaging Undersecretary of the Navy Robert Work’s statements about integrated air and missile defense (IAMD) today, Burke saw missiles as core elements of future naval forces to a far greater extent than his predecessors.  Therefore, while supporting arming Navy fighters with Sidewinder and Sparrow guided missiles and improving fighter control, Burke was also the key sponsor of the Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) which was intended to automate fleet tactical communication in order to speed reactions and also to make IAMD as robust as possible.

Burke envisaged a future fleet built around large numbers of missile ships: missiles deployed to protect surface pickets which would extend the fleet’s effective radar range, missiles deployed on increasingly-dispersed ships (to limit the vulnerability of the fleet to Soviet jet bombers armed with tactical nuclear weapons), and missiles deployed aboard ships surrounding and directly protecting the aircraft carriers in the carrier force striking groups that would need to get close enough to the Soviet Union to conduct nuclear strikes.

All of this demanded that the number of surface-to-air missile launchers in the force had to be maximized, because the missiles would be the primary means of killing high-altitude attackers at a safe range.  Additionally, these missiles needed to have the maximum possible rate of fire.  This meant that all new missile cruisers had to have at least two Talos launchers and that all new DLGs should have at least two Terrier launchers.  Cruisers – and especially destroyers – would be armed with the Tartar missile.  The plan laid out at this time also included converting an Iowa class battleship to work with each of five strike groups.  Each of these heavy anti-aircraft ship would be armed with two Talos launchers, which by 1960 would be able to deal with aircraft at 100 nautical mile range.


A “Prescient” Navy Strategy

While many look at today’s “Air Sea Battle Concept (ASBC)” as something completely new, as Work has noted as recently as July 2012, the Navy’s approach to IAMD presaged today’s ASBC as early as the waning years of World War II, as the Navy integrated naval and air functions to defeat the Soviet Union’s anti-access/area-denial capability (A2/AD) – its jet bombers armed with tactical nuclear weapons.

USS Vesole DDR 878

USS Vesole (DDR 878) was one of 24 Gearing-class destroyers converted during World War II as radar picket ships to combat the kamikaze threat. U.S. Navy photo

And this important development was directly inspired by the Navy’s compelling need to deal with the Kamikaze threat that evolved toward the end of World War II.  As Work points out:

In 1944 and 1945, 24 Gearing class DDs were converted into DDRs, and equipped with aircraft homing beacons, air search radar for range and bearing, height finder radar, fighter control circuits (VHF radios) and a fighter director officer.  This strategy enabled a navy that lacked guided weapons of its own to engage Kamikazes at greater ranges away for the task force.

At the time, this was merely viewed as an expedient solution to an immediate, compelling threat.  But as Freidman explains, this marked an important first step toward modern fleet design:

This might be the first step in the integration of the task force, individual ships no longer carrying their own weapons, but rather achieving their effects in cooperation with the entire force. Radars and radios, then, could no longer be considered mere auxiliaries to the weapons of a single ship, but rather contributions to the total information gathering capacity of the task force, which capacity would in turn contribute to the total combat capacity of the task force, directed in unison.

Thus, as the Navy rushed multiple types of surface-to-air missiles to the fleet to enable it to deal with the compelling strategic challenge posed by the Soviet Union, its approach set it up for what its missile defense – and especially its ballistic missile defense – systems would look like over a half-century later.


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