Hicks Sees Aegis Missile Defense System Useful In Obliterating Enemy Missile In Ascent Phase

Navy Aegis Program Needs 200 To 250 More Standard Missiles Than Planned By 2015

By Dave Ahearn

There aren’t enough Aegis missile defense ships at this point to provide a fully complete and effective shield protecting Europe, Rear Adm. Brad Hicks said.

Hicks, the Aegis program director with the Missile Defense Agency, spoke in an interview with Space & Missile Defense Report about the Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] Aegis sea-based ballistic missile system, with its Raytheon Co. [RTN] Standard Missile interceptors

He was asked — if the European Missile Defense system that the United States has planned isn’t built — how many Aegis ships it would take to defend Europe from missile attacks by rogue Middle East nations such as Iran. The answer, basically, is more BMD-capable Aegis ships than the Navy currently has in its fleet. The math works this way:

To defend Europe with Aegis-equipped ships (DDG 51 Arleigh Burke Class destroyers, plus Aegis Ticonderoga Class cruisers built by Northrop and General Dynamics Corp. [GD]), the Navy would have to deploy six of the sea-based missile defense platforms at a time, Hicks said.

It would take "about six ships to cover Europe completely … six ships on station," Hicks said. That would constitute, he observed, "a very intense level of sustained presence."

To provide a 24/7/365 coverage, of course, would mean the Navy would need far more ships, to relieve those on duty as they headed to port calls, crew training, shipyard maintenance availabilities and the like.

As to precisely how many Aegis-equipped ships would be required to provide a constant, uninterrupted missile shield for Europe, Hicks said he would defer to the Navy to make that vessel assignment decision.

But clearly, since the Navy has but 18 BMD-capable Aegis ships with the missile defense upgrade currently in the fleet, and only three more in train, they couldn’t perform all the missions they now must accomplish, and still add on top of that a huge new task of guarding Europe, he said. The Navy would "need to take a hard look" at just how many ships would be required to form a continuous missile shield for Europe, before assuming that there would be enough warships for the job, Hicks said.

Aegis-equipped ships, he noted, are "high-demand assets" with innumerable requests for their services being voiced by combatant commanders worldwide.

Not Enough Ships

That includes the Pacific where North Korea has built nuclear weapons and completed an underground detonation test, and is developing the long-range Taepo Dong-2 missile.

Thus with the 21 Aegis-BMD-equipped ships now or soon to be operational, the vessels "won’t do that kind of presence" needed in a European missile shield operation, Hicks said.

At least for the near term, with just one score of Aegis ships available, adding a European missile defense mission would be "a bridge too far," Hicks said.

Hicks spoke with Space & Missile Defense Report as President Obama prepares to write his first defense budget — including funding for missile defense programs in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2010 — and send it to Congress for approval.

Hicks was asked about the possibility of using Aegis ships to guard Europe because some Democrats in Congress have put the brakes on plans for the European Missile Defense (EMD) system, which would involve a radar in the Czech Republic and interceptors in ground silos in Poland.

Beginning with the House Armed Services Committee strategic forces subcommittee, in a defense authorization bill two years ago, the panel demanded that NATO first must agree to the EMD system. Since all the NATO nations would have to agree, that was seen as unlikely. But it happened, and NATO now sees the EMD as part of a multi-layered missile shield for Europe, paired with a shorter-range NATO air defense capability.

Democrats also demanded that no EMD construction work could begin until a politically tricky approval for it came from the Czech Republic and Poland. But the Czech and Polish administrations did approve the EMD plan, which now awaits full parliamentary approvals in those nations.

And, even though the EMD interceptors would be variants (minus one stage) of interceptors in the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system by The Boeing Co. [BA] already installed in Alaska and California, Democrats demanded and Congress legislated a requirement for the EMD interceptors to be tested against target missiles. Those tests will consume about extra two years added to the program.

Meanwhile, Iran has 4,000 or more centrifuges whirling to create nuclear materials, in defiance of world opinion and United Nations demands. While Iran says it needs the material only to power electrical generating plants, Russia has offered to supply any needed nuclear reactor fuel there, so no Iranian nuclear materials production is needed.

Western observers fear that Iran will use the fissile materials to produce nuclear weapons, and indeed the isolated state already has cranked out enough material (if it is processed further) for one bomb, with enough for several weapons by the end of this year.

Iran also has launched multiple missiles in a salvo, launched a missile from a submerged submarine, and announced plans for a space program that would involve the same general technology as an intercontinental ballistic missile, or ICBM, capable of striking European capitals or targets in the United States.

As well, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said Israel, a stalwart U.S. ally, should be wiped from the map, and that Israel soon shall cease to exist.

While the GMD interceptors and, eventually, the ABL and its plane-mounted laser will be the systems to kill ICBMs aimed at the United States, Hicks said in response to a question that Standard Missile interceptors ultimately will be able to provide a "robust capability" that could take down enemy missiles with ranges of 3,000 to 5,000 kilometers (1,864 to 3,107 miles).

One concern voiced by Europeans was whether the EMD, if it demolished a nuclear-tipped missile from Iran, would thus cause debris or fragments of the nuclear weapon to rain down on Europe.

Such fears are unwarranted, Hicks indicated, responding to a question as to whether a sea-based system such as the Aegis-SM package would be more likely to cause warhead fragments to rain down on the sea, rather than on cities or elsewhere on populated land.

"Our experience is," he said, that "generally an intercept [is accomplished at] such a velocity that debris is burned off in the atmosphere" as it reenters at thousands of miles an hour. Or, a warhead may be totally obliterated by the kinetic forces of the impact when the interceptor slams into the enemy weapon.

The United States never has recorded debris coming all the way down to Earth after successful missile defense tests, he noted.

And that is unsurprising, he observed, since missile boosters — which are much larger than warheads — burn up completely in the atmosphere during reentry.

Therefore, he said, the possibility of debris striking a populated area must remain "a very minor consideration."

And, he said, as far as the debris issue is concerned, one should step back to gain a better perspective. Which would be worse: successfully killing an incoming enemy missile tipped with a nuclear warhead, and perhaps creating debris in the missile-kill impact, or standing back and doing nothing while the enemy missile and its atomic warhead continue on to devastate an allied or American city and kill or maim countless people?

"Taking some action is better than taking no action," he reasoned, when the existence of a city is at stake.

Ascent Phase Capability

Separately, Hicks said the Aegis/SM system could be able to expand from annihilating enemy missiles in their midcourse and terminal phases of trajectory flight, to also hitting them during their ascent phase.

The Aegis system already has proven itself capable of an ascent-phase hit in a target-takedown test, but the system in tests has focused more on killing enemy weapons later in their phases of flight.

Hicks said an ascent phase capability is being looked at as an option.

However, the Aegis weapon control system and Standard Missile interceptors won’t have a role in killing enemy missiles in their boost phase, just after launch, Hicks said. That mission will remain the assignment of the Airborne Laser, a separate ballistic missile defense (BMD) system by The Boeing Co. [BA] with Northrop Grumman Corp. [NOC] and Lockheed, assuming that the still-developing ABL passes a target missile shoot-down test this year.

Looking at the Aegis system, especially its high-powered radar, Hicks said in responding to a question that it is a work in progress, not a finished, static system.

While Lockheed has upgraded the Aegis combat system and its radar repeatedly since the Aegis system development began well more than three decades ago, and it is an excellent asset, Hicks doesn’t see a day when MDA, Lockheed and the Navy would say it reached perfection and leave it untouched in future decades.

"You have to go forward with the next radar," he said, especially an even higher-powered radar for the next-generation CG(X) cruiser. That ship for years has been planned as a variant of the cutting-edge, futuristic DDG 1000 Zumwalt Class destroyer that has Raytheon providing electronics, though critics have complained about the Zumwalt being expensive.

The Navy at first planned to build more than 30 Zumwalts (then called the DD(X) or DD21 destroyer), then cut that plan to only seven ships, and then cut that to only two ships. Finally, the Navy reversed course and proposed building three Zumwalts, while also shifting back to construction of seven to 10 of the former Arleigh Burke Class destroyers with the Lockheed Aegis system.

Aside from CG(X), Hicks also said that the military must examine the current fleet of Aegis-equipped destroyers and cruisers for possible upgrade. "I want to look at options to offer" Lt. Gen. Patrick J. O’Reilly, the MDA director, Hicks said.

The aim with Aegis must be "to keep it relevant to the threat," which is evolving rapidly. "We are always looking at options," he said, and in the face of an expanding threat of a missile attack by potential enemies, "we owe that to our leadership" to come forward with ways to keep Aegis ahead of the danger.’

That potential for optional upgrades applies to all 84 Aegis-equipped destroyers and cruisers, and also would be a potential for inclusion in another seven to 10 of the Arleigh Burke destroyers if they are built, he indicated.

More Standard Missiles

Finally, Hicks was asked about the Standard Missile arsenal, and whether more interceptors are required.

They are.

While the current plan is to procure 240 to 250 of the interceptors by fiscal 2014 – 2015, Hicks said, "we need at least double that," referring to the Standard Missile-3 Block IA and Block IB variants.

"We need more capacity," he said, for a total buy of 450 to 500 SM-3s in the IA and IB versions "in order to effectively get them on ships,"

That many interceptors should be in hand "sometime in the middle of the next decade," he said.

Hicks was asked whether Raytheon has the production capacity to ramp up production to a double-time pace.

Hicks said that to obtain the Raytheon infrastructure to increase production capacity sufficiently, that "requires some investment" in Raytheon production facilities. However, until a review of the situation by Navy and MDA leadership, the Navy will wait to articulate that need, he said.

The situation will be decided after top-level consultations including major stakeholders in the Navy, and the combatant commanders who request Aegis missions, he said.