Aegis, Missile Defense and the US Pivot
Image Credit: flickr/U.S. Pacific Fleet

Aegis, Missile Defense and the US Pivot


Geopolitical developments across the Western Pacific region are generating a rise in military modernization efforts among U.S. allies and partners and other countries.  One of the military systems receiving increased focus and resources is missile defense—especially ship-based defenses against cruise and ballistic missiles.  In that regard, the U.S. Navy’s Aegis Weapon System is emerging as a centerpiece of these efforts, and will play a significant role in enhancing regional missile defense cooperation, interoperability and integration against common adversaries––particularly North Korea but also China as well.

Regional Missile Threats

Many nations in the Pacific are growing increasingly uncomfortable with the pace of China’s military modernization as well as its regional expansionism. Likewise, the North Korean regime’s continued bellicosity combined with its testing and deployment of new, longer-range ballistic missiles is ratcheting up regional tensions.

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According to the Pentagon’s 2014 report to Congress on China’s military, the PLA Navy has experienced at least a decade of modernization that has yielded an impressive force with modern ships, submarines and an aircraft carrier entering the fleet.  In mid-2014, the PLAN boasts nearly 200 major combatants, and some experts project it will surpass the size of the U.S. Navy as early as 2020.  In 2013, the PLAN laid down, launched or commissioned more than 50 ships and similar numbers are expected  in 2014, including a new-generation guided missile destroyer armed with anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCMs), land-attack cruise missiles, surface-to-air missiles and anti-submarine missiles––the PLAN’s equivalent of the U.S. Navy’s Burke guided missile destroyers (DDGs) that first went to sea in 1991.  New destroyers and guided-missile frigates provide a significant upgrade to the PLAN’s air defense capability, which will be critical as it expands operations into “distant seas” beyond the range of shore-based air defenses.

Particularly troubling for the U.S. Navy and its Asian partners has been the PLAN’s “demonstrable progress in anti-surface warfare,” with new generations of advanced, long-range ASCMs linked to more effective command and control networks across the fleet.  Most PLAN surface combatants are now equipped with YJ-8A or YJ-62 ASCMs, while some newer Luyang III-class destroyers are fitted with vertical launching systems for these weapons.  Likewise, there is growing concern about land-based, conventionally armed medium-range ballistic missiles, particularly the CSS-5 Mod 5 (DF-21D) anti-ship ballistic missile. The CSS-5 Mod 5 gives the PLA the capability to attack large ships, including aircraft carriers, at ranges greater than 1,000 nautical miles and with a maneuverable warhead.  As a larger percentage of the PLAN includes modern combatants equipped with more capable anti-ship weapons and advanced radar and command systems, Asian navies will have to devote more resources to boosting their missile defense efforts.

Similarly, during the last two years the North Korean regime under Kim Jong-un has acted erratically and increasingly provocative, sparking concern in Japan, South Korea and the United States.  As the U.S. Director of National Intelligence noted in his 2014 Worldwide Threat Assessment:

North Korea has publicly displayed its road-mobile ICBM [KN-08] twice.  We assess that North Korea has already taken initial steps towards fielding this system, although it remains untested. North Korea is committed to developing long-range missile technology that is capable of posing a direct threat to the United States. Its efforts to produce and market ballistic missiles raise broader regional and global security concerns….  We do not know Pyongyang’s nuclear doctrine or employment concepts.

The North Korean regime also successfully placed a satellite in orbit in 2012, using a modified three-stage version of the Taepo Dong-2 missile, called Unha, which is based on UN-banned ballistic missile technology. A few months later, the regime also announced it had conducted a third nuclear test.  The mobile KN-08 mentioned above could similarly threaten South Korea, Japan and parts of the South China Sea. In April 2013, the North abruptly severed communications with South Korea, sealed their common border and threatened Guam and Hawaii.  After North Korea launched two ballistic missiles in March 2014, the Japanese government authorized BMD forces to attempt to intercept any incoming North Korean missile.

In response, the United States moved Aegis destroyers equipped with ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems closer to the area and dispatched a Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) battery to Guam.  “Our number one security concern is North Korea,” Adm. Harry Harris said in January 2014. “I don’t understand them, I don’t understand their leadership, and I don’t understand their intent.”

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