It looks like the U.S. Navy may not need to wait until the end of the decade to have a defensive system capable of coping with longer-range ballistic missiles launched by countries like North Korea. Earlier this week, the USS O’Kane guided-missile destroyer equipped with the Lockheed Martin Aegis combat system successfully intercepted a modified Trident ballistic missile. The missile was being flown in unarmed test mode as an intermediate-range ballistic missile, meaning a weapon with a range of between 1,800 and 3,300 miles.
That’s a much longer range than the missiles the current Aegis system is supposed to be able to intercept. Ballistic missiles typically move faster the longer their ranges are, and the current Aegis configuration is designed to intercept missiles with less reach. But the Aegis destroyer managed to hit the target using a Raytheon Standard Missile 3 interceptor in its least capable version, known as Block 1A. In other words, the Navy achieved the first successful kill of a longer-range ballistic missile in recent times using a combat system and interceptor that weren’t supposed to be up to the job.
This is sort of like killing a main battle tank with a machine gun, and it suggests that current sea-based missile-defense systems are more capable than previously thought. The Navy was planning to upgrade both the combat system radar and the interceptor to defend against longer-range missiles by 2018, but apparently service design margins are so conservative that it already has some of the needed capability today. That increases the likelihood that when improved technology is deployed later in the decade, the Navy will have a highly reliable defensive capability against intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
The story gets even better because the interception was achieved using tracking information from an off-board radar in an engagement concept called “launch on remote.” What that means is that Aegis warships will no longer be constrained in the future by the reach of their radars in providing protection to friendly forces and the American homeland, because they will be able to rely on threat information from far-away sensors. Launch on remote in effect nets together a diverse array of radars at different locations to provide defense in depth at any given point — defense that is far beyond what would be feasible using local assets alone.
The bottom line is that the U.S. Navy is making big strides forward in missile defense, which is one reason why the Obama Administration decided to rely on the Aegis combat system and Standard Missile to defend Europe. As this story unfolds, the Navy is becoming the dominant player in U.S. missile defense efforts.