Aegis Missile Defense Success Refutes Critics

Earlier this month, the U.S. Navy successfully tested its Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) consisting of an upgraded radar coupled with the advanced Standard Missile (SM) 3 Block IA against a simulated ballistic missile threat. The new SM-3 Block IA is the first in a series of improved variants of the interceptor that will permit it to engage longer-range, faster flying ballistic missiles, including eventually intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). This test suggests that the planned program to pursue sequential or block improvements in the Aegis radar, associated battle management and fire control and the SM-3 can produce a capable, multi-layered, land and sea-based defense against ballistic missiles of varying ranges.

The Aegis BMDS and Standard Missile-3 rest at the core of the Obama Administration’s approach to a phased adaptive architecture (PAA). The plan for the PAA envisions deploying first sea-based and then land-based Aegis radar/battle managers along with ever-more capable SM-3s. In 2015, the first Aegis Ashore will be deployed along with the SM-3 Block IB. By 2020 the PAA intends to have the first ICBM-capable system in the field including a SM-3 Block II.

This test also would seem to refute the complaints of critics who have denigrated the Aegis/SM-3 construct. No less a figure than Lieutenant General Trey Obering, USAF (Ret.), former director of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), has warned about the PAA aggressive timeline falling afoul of delays in the fielding of improvements to both the Aegis system and the SM-3. General Obering specifically questioned the Navy’s overreliance on the SM-3 as the basis for the interceptors to equip the four phases of the PAA. He warned of the need to have alternative options available to prevent the PAA deployments from slipping out into the future.

The latest test suggests that General Obering’s concerns may be unfounded, or at least need to be taken with a grain of salt. Contrary to what he said, the problems experienced with the development of the SM-3 IA are not likely to find their way into the SM-3 IB missile. The only thing in common between SM-3 IA and IB is the propulsion stack — which has never been an issue. The SM-3 IB has an almost entirely new and much more capable kinetic warhead; including a completely new Throttling Divert and Attitude Control System (TDACS), a new 2-color focal plane array seeker and new intercept algorithms, among other things.

In addition, the General’s suggestion that the Navy and MDA are over-relying on the SM-3 to arm the phases of the PAA is confusing. What possible alternative missile is there that would be available to be deployed starting in 2015? In reality, it is the SM-3 or nothing, particularly for near-term at-sea deployments. It may be that a new missile as well as kill vehicle will be needed for the SM-3 Block IIB, the ICBM killer. But for the earlier phases of the PAA, there is only the SM-3.

The General may be correct in warning of risk in the program. There always is. But this risk is likely to come either as a result of problems with the kill vehicle and seeker or if the threat emerges more rapidly than predicted. But to address these potential risks, MDA can take steps to ensure alternative approaches for the warhead that could be available if something goes wrong with the current plan or there is a sudden change in the threat.