Our ballistic missile defense efforts took a potentially important step yesterday, with a successful test of a Navy Standard Missile 2 (SM-2) against an incoming missile in the final seconds of flight. The test marked the first time that any sea-based missile conducted a successful intercept of a ballistic missile in its terminal flight stage. The SM-2 (a modified, Block IV variant) was fired by the Aegis cruiser USS Lake Erie, operating in the Pacific Missile Range Facility near Hawaii.
The significance of this test cannot be understated. For years, the U.S. has been attempting to extend its ballistic missile defenses to sea-based platforms, with mixed results. In 2001, the Pentagon cancelled the Navy's SM-2 IVA Area Defense program, which was built around modified SM-2 missiles (equipped with an imaging infrared seeker, to track incoming missiles), fired from surface vessels equipped with the Aegis system. At the time of the cancellation, the initial SM-2/BMD effort was at least two years behind schedule, and $400 million over budget. Efforts at developing medium-range missile defenses proved more successful (more on that in a moment), but the lack of a sea-based, terminal defense capability meant that U.S. forces would have to rely on land-based Patriot missiles for short-range defense. In some regions (namely the Taiwan Strait), that capability either doesn't exist, or would be quickly overwhelmed by enemy ballistic missiles, underscoring the importance of terminal defenses on naval vessels.
To meet that requirement, the Navy and DOD's Missile Defense Agency (MDA) pursued more affordable variants of the SM-2 Block IV, culminating in yesterday's successful test launch near Hawaii. Additionally, the Pentagon has developed the longer-ranged SM-3, in an effort to create a layered, sea-based missile defense. The SM-3 is designed to intercept ballistic missiles in mid-course (outside the earth's atmosphere), and has been successful in 6 of 7 test flights (so far). Deployment of the terminal phase SM-2 would complement the SM-3 on 15 modified Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and 3 Ticonderoga-class cruisers, optimized for theater missile defense.
According to the Missile Defense Agency, "considerations to deploy SM-2 terminal defense missiles" are still under review, indicating that the project's future is far from assured. But, given the requirement for short-range defense of naval forces and shore facilities from missile attack (and yesterday's successful test launch) the terminal defense program should find more support in Congress and the Pentagon.
When Ronald Reagan first raised the possibility of missile defense two decades ago, he was roundly ridiculed, and program managers were chided for wasting money on technology that "would never work." Despite some over-publicized failures, BMD programs have advanced steadily over the past 20 years, affirming both the validity of Reagan's original vision, and his faith in America's ability to make the dream a reality.