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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.”

Regional Missile Defense Cooperation

To counter these troublesome trends, the United States, its allies and partners throughout the Western Pacific have stepped up cooperation, especially in the area of ship-based missile defense.  This includes greater cooperation between the U.S. and its allies in Australia, Japan and South Korea.

Australia

Australia’s contribution to regional BMD has remained strong for more than 40 years, largely through providing early warning capabilities. In his 1992 address to the Australian Parliament, President George H.W. Bush cited the “invaluable role” joint defense facilities in Australia played in detecting Iraqi Scud missiles during the Gulf War.  The 1995 exchange of letters between the Australian Defense Science and Technology Organization and the U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense Organization signified formal cooperation.  A BMD Framework memorandum signed in 2004 called for increased “policy collaboration and information sharing.”  Then-Defense Minister Robert Hill lauded the 2004 agreement and called for Australia to take advantage of increasing BMD technology to support its future security needs. The BMD Framework facilitates information sharing among close allies and cooperation on research and development issues. The Labor Party has also become more open to BMD possibilities in recent years, after a history of opposition to the program.

Accordingly, the Royal Australian Navy is building three new Hobart-class air warfare destroyers (AWDs) that feature Aegis as the ship’s radar system. These ships are expected to perform “blue water” operations in the future and can be expected to deploy across the Pacific region. While the current focus is on air defense missions alone, these ships could incorporate the latest ballistic missile upgrade of Aegis in the future.  However, “structural and systemic issues” have combined to create concerns about AWD program resources and timing.

When Aegis-equipped Hobart-class BMD warships are eventually deployed, this capability will provide the RAN with immediate interoperability with U.S. Navy ships and smooth the waters for future joint and multinational operations across the region.

Japan

During the last year, Japan has initiated unprecedented changes in its national security legal framework and defense strategy that hold enormous implications for future defense cooperation between Tokyo and Washington, as well as  other regional allies.  These changes, particularly the adoption of “collective self-defense,” will permit Japanese forces to assist or come to the aid of American forces under attack.  This should also open new avenues for cooperation in missile defense and, over time, lead to more integrated operations with Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces (JMSDF).  “Think BMD patrols together, Japan and the United States, with collective self-defense,” Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert told a Washington think-tank event last year. “We need to reconcile our BMD capacity and capability over there.”

JMSDF has long been closely linked to the U.S. Navy’s Aegis fleet, given its acquisition of the radar system for installation on its Kongo-class of destroyers. Japan has six Aegis-equipped ships in its fleet in mid-2014, of which four are BMD-capable.  In 2007, Kongo successfully destroyed a ballistic missile target using the Aegis BMD system—becoming the first allied warship to achieve this significant milestone.  In December 2013, the government issued new National Security Guidelines that call for the acquisition of two additional BMD-capable destroyers during the next decade. Recent reports suggest this timetable has been accelerated. The guidelines specifically state that boosting Japan’s ballistic missile defenses is a new priority.

The U.S. and Japan have also had a long, cooperative relationship developing the improved Block IIA version of the SM-3 Standard anti-air missile. Japan has taken the lead on this effort, which will result in a larger more dynamic air-defense missile configured for BMD missions.

Republic of Korea

South Korean Navy officials have announced plans to procure three additional Aegis-equipped destroyers in the 2020-2025 timeframe. This marks an acceleration of previous modernization plans, and South Korean Navy officials have emphasized that these newer ships will be BMD-capable. Korea already deploys Aegis on all three of its KDX-III King Seojong the Great-class destroyers, which at more than 11,000 tons are the largest ships equipped with Aegis. But these three KDX-III destroyers do not have BMD capabilities built-in. Korean officials maintain the three additional ships will be outfitted with the latest BMD version of Aegis. While its ships operate Aegis, the Korean Navy does not employ the SM-3 missile.

“In Korea, there are a lot of opportunities still,” Greenert said at the Center for a New American Security last year. “It takes cooperation and a deliberate, relentless approach to this.”

Trilateral Cooperation

South Korean growing operational experience with Aegis and its continued exercises and deployments with similarly equipped U.S. Navy cruisers and destroyers opens up new avenues for missile defense cooperation. This cooperation could also include Japan’s MSDF over time as these two former enemies work through mutual suspicions and focus on the larger threat posed by North Korea’s ballistic missile program. Indeed, animosity between South Korea and Japan continues to hamper real cooperation across the northwest Pacific. Gen. Martin Dempsey, Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, highlighted this issue in 2013, when he noted that there is extensive information exchanged between the U.S. and Japan and between Korea and the U.S., but the lack of a common operating picture across all three militaries is detrimental in the long term. “I think we should see this [period of North Korean provocation] as an opportunity to become interoperable.”

A seamless trilateral missile defense cooperation relationship between Japan, Korea and the United States could emerge, with the U.S. Navy’s Aegis fleet serving as the key linking mechanism, an “Aegis Hub” as it were. This linkage will not happen immediately, but events are moving in a positive direction. Although South Korea has become more willing to discuss missile defense with Washington, it remains hesitant to go beyond its low-tier system of Aegis/SM-2 and land-based Patriot (PAC-2) missiles. Japan, Korea and the United States have been conducting more joint naval exercises, including with the USS Nimitz (CVN-68) operating in conjunction with a Korean destroyer and a JMSDF destroyer last year.  China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in December 2013, combined with rumblings of imminent missile tests from North Korea, all combine to push the process of cooperation forward. Indeed, on the sidelines of the 2014 Nuclear Summit, the leaders of South Korea, Japan and the United States met to discuss the shared threat their countries face from North Korea.

Aegis BMD is Key

What this all means is that a nascent regional missile defense capability based on the Aegis Weapon System is emerging across the Western Pacific. While developing piecemeal in 2014, given political, economic and other strategic issues that will have to be resolved, the fact remains that during the next decade a growing number of BMD-capable warships, all operated by close American treaty allies and sharing a common radar system, will be deployed to sea and able to conduct multi-national operations.

In March 2014, Vice Admiral James D. Syring, Director of the U.S. Department of Defense Missile Defense Agency, confirmed that the U.S. Navy had 30 BMD-capable Aegis ships in the fleet. In testimony to a House subcommittee, Syring said Aegis BMD capabilities will be incorporated into the Navy’s Aegis modernization program and new destroyers. By 2019, the U.S. Navy plans to have an operational availability of 43 BMD warships. The improved-performance SM-3 Block IIA missile, which the United States is co-developing with the Japanese government, and an upgraded version of the Aegis Weapons System, are on schedule for deployment in 2018.  The upgraded Aegis Weapons System combined with the faster, longer-range SM-3 IIA, will provide the capability to counter more sophisticated threats.

Key to the entire concept of regional interoperable missile defense is Aegis, and more specifically the sequential ballistic missile upgrades that continue to be deployed across the Fleet. The latest version just now exiting its operational test and evaluation phase and to be deployed in coming years is designated Aegis BMD 5.0. This upgrade to Aegis is nested within the larger Baseline 9 capability package that will be deployed on all Navy Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers in the coming years.

Baseline 9 integrates BMD capabilities into the legacy Aegis anti-air warfare (AAW) computer program, thereby bringing those two separate missions into a single, fully integrated computer program and equipment suite.  The U.S. Navy calls this the Integrated Air and Missile Defense (IAMD) capability. BL 9 Fleet Introduction is proceeding through a series of tests with the USS John Paul Jones (DDG-53), which will serve as the U.S. Navy’s lead IAMD-outfitted ship.  The ship’s BL 9 IAMD capabilities will serve as the foundation for future Aegis IAMD developments.  John Paul Jones went into dry dock in September 2012 for BL 9 installation, which is being co-funded by the Navy and the Missile Defense Agency.

The overall objective of IAMD is to enable the dynamic allocation of the ship’s finite computer resources to maximize BMD without degrading AAW defense.  Based on the tactical threat picture, IAMD dynamically allocates radar resources between AAW and BMD within this single computing environment.  A dynamic resource scheduler aggregates computing capacity across multiple servers to prevent bottlenecks and increase response time according to operational priorities.  For the first time, IAMD-equipped destroyers can conduct ship self-defense, strike group area air defense and ballistic missile defense missions simultaneously with full capability in all air/missile-defense domains—a major advance in Aegis defense against emerging air and missile threats.

The principal IAMD capability-enabler for BL 9 destroyers is the Multi-Mission Signal Processor (MMSP) for the SPY-1D radar. Earlier BMD computing suites for the radar used a separate signal processor, meaning a BMD-equipped surface warship could engage either a ballistic missile or an aircraft/cruise missile threat, but not both simultaneously. The new upgrades enable the SPY to go from a single-beam to dual-beam capability to meet the power resource priorities for simultaneous anti-air warfare and BMD sector coverage.  The MMSP’s up-to-date COTS hardware and software algorithms control radar waveform generation and allow for simultaneous processing of both AAW and BMD radar signals.  Critically, the MMSP improves SPY radar system performance in littoral environments, e.g., against sea skimmers in a high-clutter environment.  For BMD, the processor also enhances search and long-range surveillance and tracking and BMD signal processor range resolution, discrimination and characterization, as well as real-time capability displays.

The MMSP leverages the capability already provided by the third variant of the SPY-1D, the SPY-1D(V) Littoral Warfare Upgrade.  This upgrade replaced the SPY-1D in newly-constructed ships beginning in FY 1998 and started deploying in DDG 51 Flight IIA ships in 2002.  The SPY-1D(V) improves the radar’s capability against low-altitude, reduced radar cross-section targets in heavy clutter environments with intense electronic countermeasures.  Under development for installation in some Flight IIA ships, this upgrade has additional moving target indicator waveforms and a greater ability to counter deceptive electronic attack measures.

Catalyst for Greater Cooperation

“Our fleet should place a premium on certain operationally required attributes suggested by the character of the vast Pacific region and its security challenges,” naval strategist Frank Hoffman wrote in early July. “In particular, we need a fleet that has reach, endurance, and lethality…. We need a Navy Fighting Machine that deters competitors, reassures allies and friends and, when crisis erupts, can fight and win against a projected antagonist.”

Given the range of threats and strategic challenges in the Pacific, especially the rapid escalation in the range and sophistication of North Korea’s ballistic missiles, there is growing interest in missile defense. Since several nations––Japan, Korea and Australia––are already building new warships equipped with the U.S. Navy’s Aegis Weapon System, the idea of adding a BMD element into these ongoing programs is gaining greater attention. Doing so would increase cooperation among allies, deepen operational linkages and potentially lead to integrated operations where allied BMD-equipped warships can be seamlessly embedded in U.S. carrier strike groups or amphibious ready groups. That is a positive development for the entire region and will help promote presence, stability and engagement.

Robert Holzer is senior national security manager with Gryphon Technologies’ TeamBlue National Security Programs group.  Scott Truver is TeamBlue’s director.

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