“Aegis Ashore”: The Navy’s New Missile Defense Mantra

The Navy has done a real about-face on ballistic missile defense during this decade and that’s a good thing. “Aegis ashore” is the Navy’s new catch-phrase for moving the phenomenally successful anti-ballistic missile capability off ships and onto land sites in allied nations. “Aegis ashore” is not a bumper sticker or the sudden brainchild of a new administration. It turns out Aegis was more or less “born” ashore. See the picture below? That’s a Navy facility in New Jersey, where the integration of the Aegis weapon system has been tested for decades.

Just as important, this generation of leaders in the Navy grew up with Aegis. Several top admirals — including NATO commander Admiral James Stavrides — commanded Aegis-capable ships long before the anti-ballistic missile mission made headlines. Others like Admiral Robert F. Willard at U.S. Pacific Command and Admiral Pat Walsh, who took over the Pacific Fleet last month, see a huge need for Aegis-ballistic missile defense (BMD) because of North Korea and other threats in that theater.

All this is in complete contrast to the groans and complaints heard about sea-based Aegis-BMD early in the decade. Back then the Joint Staff office responsible for theater missile defense decided it was a good idea to keep an Aegis-BMD Navy ship deployed forward on a picket station in the Western Pacific. Howls ensued. Keeping one ship continuously on station was a real drain on the Navy since so few ships were modified for Aegis-BMD. Even a year or two ago, it was far from clear whether the Navy would embrace an expanding BMD role as a core strategic identity. Now the answer is visible in the fleet numbers. Over 20 ships — mostly destroyers, some cruisers — will be Aegis-BMD capable by January 2010, and the Pentagon wants to retrofit many more ships.

Expect the “Aegis ashore” transition to go a lot smoother. Everything about it is good: production synergy with the expanding sea-based fleet; the same training, the same procedures, and bet on it: sailors ashore performing the mission. After all, what’s not to like about a shore tour?