Sea-Based Missile Defense Test Success a Major Step Forward

Baker Spring /

In the wee hours of the morning of April 15, the U.S. Navy conducted a successful test of its Aegis ballistic missile defense system.

The test marks a major milestone in U.S. missile defense capabilities because it signals that the Aegis system’s existing interceptor, the Standard Missile-3 Block IA (SM-3 IA), likely has an inherent capability to counter strategic missiles. This is because the target missile destroyed in this intercept test, which is of intermediate range, has characteristics that are not that different from strategic missiles. On this basis, the U.S. may be able to accelerate the fielding of sea-based missile defenses, as well as their land-based counterpart (called Aegis Ashore), for countering strategic missiles well in advance of the current 2020 target date.

The LV-2 target missile, which has a range of between 1,864 miles and 3,418 miles, was launched from Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands. The USS O’Kane, a navy destroyer, launched the SM-3 IA interceptor from a location west of Hawaii. The interceptor was launched approximately 11 minutes after the launch of the target. The interceptor destroyed the target at a point in space over the Pacific Ocean by direct impact.

The key to the success of this test was that multiple sensors—including the Space Tracking and Surveillance Satellites (STSS), the AN/TPY-2 X-ban forward-deployed ground-based radar based on Wake Island, and the O’Kane’s own radar—all contributed data to the 3.6.1 version of the Aegis Weapons System in order to develop a firing solution. This permitted the O’Kane, for the first time in a ballistic missile intercept test using this version of the Aegis Weapons System, to launch its interceptor on the basis of remote data. It is hard to overemphasize the great advancement for missile defense that this “launch on remote” capability represents.

It is also important to understand the nature of the LV-2 target missile used in this test. The LV-2 target uses the first- and second-stage rocket motors of the Trident I (C4) sea-launched ballistic missile (SLBM). For the purposes of arms control, the Trident I SLBM has been categorized as a strategic missile. Until now, the Obama Administration has assumed that it would require the development and deployment of a new version of the SM-3 interceptor, called the Block IIB, to obtain the capability to use the Aegis ballistic missile defense system to counter strategic missiles. The SM-3 IIB is not projected to be available until 2020. The success of this test shows that there is an alternative path to achieving a defense against strategic missiles using the Aegis system at an earlier date.

Missile defense supporters have been pointing out that the Aegis ballistic missile defense program could be made even more capable for some time. Accordingly, Congress can use this alternative path to making the Aegis ballistic missile defense system as capable as it can be by directing the missile defense program to take several steps.

The first is to continue to refine U.S. space capabilities to support ballistic missile defense. The STSS has demonstrated the ability to track ballistic missiles in flight from launch to impact, or “birth to death” tracking. Congress should make sure that limits are not placed on U.S. space-based capabilities because of misguided complaints about “weaponizing” space.

Second, Congress should make sure that innovative navy solutions to missile defense command-and-control arrangements are supported by the Missile Defense Agency and the other services. This means that non-navy sensor systems, such as the AN/TPY-2 radar, are linked to the Aegis Weapons System in as seamless a fashion as possible and that needless layers in the overall command-and-control structure for ballistic missile defense are eliminated.

Finally, Congress should direct that the navy conduct an intercept test of an available version of the SM-3 interceptor, which may be a Block IA or IB, against a strategic ballistic missile as soon as it is technically feasible. If this requires providing additional resources to the missile defense program, Congress should appropriate them.