Defense Media Network

U.S. Navy Missile Defense: The Transition From Guns to Missiles

U.S. Navy missile defense, yesterday, today, and tomorrow, Part 1

The U.S. Navy has been in the missile defense business for over six decades. Given such a long history, and competing advocacy for various naval missile defense systems, there has been far more heat than light shed on this important subject. Additionally, now that U.S. Navy missile defense is a component of a robust national ballistic missile defense system, as well as a component of a nascent international ballistic missile defense system, this is a capability that both the defense community and an informed electorate need – and want – to know more about.

But to understand where we are today and where missile defense is likely to evolve in the future, it is important to know where we have been and how the U.S. Navy arrived where it is today after this six decade journey. This series of posts will take us on this journey.

This is a remarkable success story. Over a period of sixty years, the U.S. Navy has evolved the most versatile, and most successful, naval air defense system in the world.  However, it is a journey that has been fraught with difficulty, advancing not in linear fashion, but in fits and starts, always pushing the edge of the technological envelope until it arrived where it is today.

USS Savannah hit by a Fritz-X off Salerno

USS Savannah (CL-42) is hit by a German Fritz-X radio-controlled glide bomb during the Salerno operation, Sept. 11, 1943. The bomb hit the top of the ship’s number three 6″/47 gun turret and penetrated deep into her hull before exploding. The photograph shows the explosion venting through the top of the turret and also through Savannah’s hull below the waterline. The Navy began development of a ramjet-powered surface to air missile in an attempt to defeat aircraft launching missiles at stand-off range. U.S. Naval History and Heritage Command photo

This series will begin with missile defense in general, turn the focus specifically on ballistic missile defense, then focus more specifically on Aegis BMD and project where BMD is going in the future with initiatives such as the European Phased Adaptive Approach, the Arabian Gulf BMD Initiative, and most-recently, the Asian BMD Initiative. We will attempt to cover this subject in breadth as well as in depth.

And there a compelling reason for this intense focus on what is, admittedly, just one Navy warfare area. As Undersecretary of the Navy the Honorable Robert Work noted in July 2012 at the Third Annual Symposium on the State of Integrated Air and Missile Defense at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, “Integrated air and missile defense (IAMD) is the foundation of any modern fleet.” We’ll begin this journey by looking at the U.S. Navy’s original transition from guns to missiles.


In the Beginning….

As the U.S. Navy took stock of the nation’s fleet after World War II, as technological development spurred during the war took hold, and as the Cold War began to impel defense priorities, it soon became apparent that the ability of naval guns to defeat a then “high-end” air threat – from aircraft and missiles – was rapidly diminishing. By the 1950s, the U.S. Navy had begun the transition from guns to missiles and embarked on an effort to build up a missile fleet rapidly, even before these missiles had been fully proven. In many ways, the Navy was experimenting with, and also fielding, defensive missiles simultaneously.

Lark missile

A Lark missile on a zero-length launcher at White Sands Missile Range in 1950. The liquid-fueled Lark was the first U.S. surface to air missile to hit a moving aerial target, and was, along with Little Joe, one of the earliest guided missiles developed during and shortly after World War II. United States Air Force photo

This development and fielding happened rapidly for two reasons. One, of course, was the rapidly emerging Soviet threat. But another fortuitous circumstance that facilitated this was the fact that the U.S. Navy had a substantial surplus of ships built during – and especially toward the end of – World War II. Therefore, in order to place large numbers of defensive missiles in the fleet rapidly, the Navy didn’t have to deal with the expense – and time lag – of building completely new ships from the keel up, but rather only needed to outfit many of these ships with defensive missiles. And since a new hull didn’t have to be built just to accommodate a new type of missile, only to have all that sunk cost lost if the missile wasn’t successful, the Navy could, instead, pursue an evolutionary approach of putting different types of missiles to sea and seeing how they worked, spurring rapid development.

It is important to pause to recognize that fleet air defense comprised more than missiles; it also consisted of aircraft carrier-based fighter aircraft. Over time, these companion capabilities became increasingly well-integrated, and by the 1970s and 1980s the U.S. Navy had perfected the art of effectively integrating these capabilities in a synergistic way. However, the complete story of integrated fleet air defense is another, more complex, story and this reporting and analysis will focus strictly on the missile portion of fleet air defense.


The U.S. Navy’s Focus – and Challenge

A natural question that comes to mind – the answer to which has been lost to many who are not intimately familiar with this history – is this: With a three-dimensional Soviet threat, especially a large submarine fleet, how was the Navy able to place so much emphasis on fleet air – and especially missile – defense when there were many other operational needs?  The answer derives from understanding the U.S. Navy’s strategic focus at the time.

Prev Page 1 2 Next Page


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