Real Clear Defense
By: Robert C. O'Brien
The world is in crisis. Russia’s invasion and occupation of Crimea and grand pronouncements about its right to intervene militarily in any nation where there are Russian speakers reminds us of the dark days of the late-1930s. China has declared vast swathes of the Pacific Ocean in the South China Sea and the East China Sea to be its sovereign territory in disregard for international maritime law.
Beijing ignores the recent ruling of the UNCLOS Tribunal and continues to build a “great wall of sand” in the South China Sea and surrounds the Japanese-Administered Senkaku Islands with a fishing fleet of “little blue men”, the counterpart to Russia’s “little green men” who roam Ukraine, Georgia, and Moldova. North Korea continues to be, well, North Korea.
ISIS has established a Sunni jihadi caliphate in Iraq and Syria that is the size of England. At the same time, Iran’s archipelago of Shi’a terrorist proxies stretches from Lebanon on the Mediterranean Sea to Yemen on the Arabian Sea.
America’s adversaries and rogue nations are investing in missile technology at a frightening pace in an effort to develop an asymmetric advantage over American forces.
Lt. Gen. David L. Mann, Commander of Army Strategic Forces, recently said that “[r]ight now, 22 countries have ballistic missile capability ... of those 22 countries, we believe nine have nuclear capability." As if to put an exclamation point on General Mann’s statement, in July, North Korea launched three missiles – reportedly a Soviet-vintage Scud and two locally manufactured No Dongs – in a show of force against South Korean and US troops on the Peninsula—and again launched another missile into Japanese waters earlier this month.
Two months earlier, Iran tested its own medium-range ballistic missile, possibly the Sajjil, which has a range of 1,200 miles that could hit Israel. Near-peer competitors Russia and China have both announced this year that they intend to send their boomer SLBM-equipped submarines on patrol within range of the American homeland.
Fortunately, the United States has existing proven defenses to deter and, if necessary, defeat this growing ballistic missile threat to the homeland and to our allies – primarily the Aegis combat system and the Standard Missile 3 (SM-3). Unfortunately, the Administration that brought us defense sequestration, is unwilling to adequately fund these systems that our warfighters require to defend us.
Aegis Ashore is a sophisticated land-based radar and combat system that tracks incoming missile threats and guides anti-ballistic interceptors to destroy those targets. It is virtually the same system used on the Ticonderoga-class cruisers and Arleigh Burke-class destroyers that are the backbone of the US Navy’s ballistic missile defense capability.
The demand by our combatant commanders for ballistic missile defense warships has far outstripped available platforms as America’s once-600 ship navy hovers at 272 ships and will shrink further if sequestration is not reversed. Aegis Ashore can help meet this demand and has been tested in Hawaii and stood up in Deveselu, Romania to defend our Asian bases and friends and Southern Europe from North Korean and Iranian missile threats, respectively. Another site has been announced for Poland to defend Northern Europe and should be completed in December 2018. More Aegis Ashore sites are needed in both Europe and the Pacific.
While the Aegis Ashore sites in Romania and the planned site in Poland are a good first step, without the missiles to intercept targets, they will merely identify but not be able to eliminate incoming threats. They are like having a gun for home defense without any bullets. And, that is where we will be if the Administration gets its way with the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act as currently drafted.
The Administration’s proposal cuts the SM-3 IB spend by $159 million, bringing inventory procurement totals from 49 to only 35 interceptors. Given the increasing demand and since each Aegis Ashore site requires 24 interceptors for its launch cells, there are not enough interceptors to go around. In an interesting twist, the Missile Defense Agency (MDA), just inked a deal to buy more SM-3’s in the years to come, but the Administration isn’t going to fully fund procurement this year. The Administration’s math just does not add up.
The Standard missile family of interceptors is among the most successfully tested platforms in the US military. The SM-3 has been deployed since 2014 and has the capability to destroy ballistic missiles in space. They can protect large regions from short to intermediate range ballistic missile threats. The SM-3 Block IIA will even have a limited ability to target and kill intercontinental ballistic missiles. These systems are what the United States needs today.
Research is underway for a redesigned kill vehicle (the bullet that hits the bullet in a missile) that will stay ahead of our adversaries’ technological advances and keep another generation of Americans safe. Funding for that research must be robust also, so that we can defeat the threats of tomorrow.
In today’s dangerous world, the downsizing and hollowing out of America’s defenses cannot continue. Defending our warfighters as well as our homeland and our allies from ballistic missile threats is simply critical. Sufficient funding for additional Aegis Ashore sites and for the SM-3 interceptors those sites and our warships require for their mission is not a luxury, it is a necessity.
Robert C. O'Brien is a partner at Larson O'Brien LLP. He served as a US Representative to the UN General Assembly. His book, While America Slept: Restoring American Leadership to a World in Crisis, will be released on September 6 by Encounter and is available for pre-order on Amazon. Robert can be followed on Twitter @robertcobrien.