Last September, when President Obama announced plans for a revised missile defense shield for Western Europe, we predicted potential problems. Among them: converting enough Naval vessels for the BMD role to meet global commitments.
With Mr. Obama's decision to scrap missile interceptors in Poland--and limit deployment of land-based defensive missiles in Alaska and California--much of the defensive burden fell on the U.S. Navy, and ships equipped with the Aegis battle management system and SM-3 interceptor missiles.
While the Aegis/SM-3 combination is (arguably) the world's best missile defense system, those assets are limited. Fielding the required number of ships for the BMD mission will be a challenge, particularly in the near-term. As we noted last fall:
The current Navy program to convert 18 cruisers and destroyers to the Aegis ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability, which will be completed by the end of this year, will have to be expanded to cover roughly 90 ships, a senior Navy officer said.
“Eighteen ships is not enough to provide a robust missile defense capability,” said Vice Adm. Barry McCullough, deputy chief of naval operations, speaking before a National Defense University breakfast forum at the Capitol Hill Club.
“The real number is somewhere around 90,” he said, because there are increasing requests for BMD coverage coming from combatant commanders in the European theater, the Central Command theater and the Pacific theater.
It's also worth noting that Admiral McCullough made his remarks before Aegis vessels became the preferred option for regional missile defense. The Navy currently has plans to upgrade 26 additional vessels for the BMD role over the next seven years, giving it a total of 38. But that's far below the 90 ships that Navy officials say are needed to fully cover the missile defense mission. Reaching that number would require the conversion of additional Aegis cruisers and all 62 Arleigh Burke-class destroyers in the Navy's inventory. The Burke vessels are also equipped with the Aegis system and would become a key component of regional missile defense, under current operational plans.
But the demand for BMD ships has some naval leaders worried. According to Navy Times, participants at a recent National Defense University seminar expressed concerns that Aegis vessels will become "locked into" the missile defense role. "We can't constrain assets to a single mission," said one senior officer.
Still, combatant commanders want missile defense ships on station, to deal with potential threats from countries like North Korea and Iran. And, with only a handful of BMD vessels now available, the Navy is scrambling to keep up with operational requests, with some vessels traveling long distances--even by naval standards--to fill deployment slots.
In early 2009, for example, the Florida-based destroyer The Sullivans moved to Japan for a few weeks, filling a gap created by the deployment of a BMD vessel to the Persian Gulf. Last fall, another Burke-class destroyer, the USS Higgins, deployed from San Diego to the eastern Mediterranean, providing missile defense for U.S. European Command, and participating in regional exercises. Such "cross-fleet deployments" are expected to continue, as the Navy tries to balance its BMD assets against operational requirements.
Meanwhile, no one is talking about a plan (or the money needed) to field those 90 BMD ships. Having 38 missile defense vessels by 2016 will be nice, but it's a far cry from the 90-vessel requirement outlined by the Navy brass. If Mr. Obama and his national security team want to build our missile defenses around the naval option, they need to pony up, and provide the necessary resources.