The Cassandras said it couldn't be done. On April 15, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) conducted the first "launch-on-remote" test of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (ABMD) system against an intermediate-range warhead separating from its booster missile.
The Flight Test Mission (FTM)-15 event featured an ABMD-equipped ship firing a Standard Missile-3 Block IA missile in response to remote sensor data provided by a forward-based AN/TPY-2 radar.
Aegis BMD is now 22 hits against 25 shots -- 19 for 22 with the SM-3 missile -- since the first test in January 2002. Not bad for a program that, until recently, accounted for only 10 percent of annual MDA budgets. With the string of successes, however, MDA has boosted ABMD spending to about a quarter of its total funding.
In comparison, the Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system went zero-for-six during the 1990s before two successes. Then, after a five-year hiatus and redesign, the system has gone eight-for-eight.
The last two tests of the Ground-based Mid-course Defense (GMD) system, in January and December 2010, were failures, however. The GMD system has had eight successful intercepts in 15 attempts. This performance was behind the MDA's February decision to restructure the GMD test program, including canceling this year's buy of ballistic missile targets that replicate the long-range threat GMD is intended to defeat.
The FTM-15 test featured a standard, in-service ABMD system installed on board the guided-missile destroyer USS O'Kane, and pitted for the first time an in-service SM-3 Block 1A missile against an intermediate-range (1,800-3,400 miles) modified Trident I/C-4 ballistic missile target, called the "LV-2."
This test was well beyond Aegis BMD's original design, which focused on short- and medium-range threats. The LV-2 has flown in two previous BMD live-fire tests but was not hit. Until now.
What is important is that FTM-15 used technologies and systems that are at sea and in service. There were no changes to the O'Kane's BMD suite for the test. And the success unveiled new possibilities for Aegis BMD using technologies and systems available today -- taking advantage of design, engineering and operational excellence and some $80 billion investment in Aegis technologies, systems, ships and weapons since the late 1960s.
Perhaps more critical to ABMD's success has been a policy of building a little, then testing extensively before moving forward.
What's also important is that the FTM-15 launch/engage-on-remote concept linked the ship to remote sensor data to increase coverage area and responsiveness. Once this capability is fully developed, the interceptors, no longer constrained by the range of the Aegis radar to detect an incoming missile, can be launched sooner and fly farther.
That's one reason why the president focused on ship-based ABMD systems for the Phased Adaptive Approach effort to put Aegis ashore in 2015. The first phase focuses on existing sea-based Aegis missile defense ships and radars in southern Europe to defend against short- and medium-range ballistic missiles. That's already happened. In March, the Navy deployed the Aegis cruiser USS Monterey, armed with SM-3 Block 1A missiles, to European waters.
"The USS Monterey is at sea today, and when paired with the AN/TPY-2 radar, will provide initial BMD protection of southern Europe from existing SRBM, MRBM and IRBM [short, medium and intermediate-range] threats," U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Patrick O'Reilly, MDA director, told the House Armed Forces strategic forces subcommittee on March 31.
Future decisions might also see Aegis ashore in the Middle East and East Asia. Because of the inherent multimission qualities of the ABMD warships and their mobility, they are highly survivable against a broad spectrum of threats, not just ballistic missiles.
FTM-15 was the last test of the SM3 Block IA, and the program now turns to the first firing of the SM3 block IB from the USS Lake Erie using the next upgrade of the Aegis BMD weapon system. This firing will test the Phased Adaptive Approach phase 2 architecture, due for deployment in 2015.
The focus of FTM-16 is on the SM-3 Block IB, the next-generation sea-based missile spiral upgrade. The seeker, signal processor and propulsion system of the SM-3 Block IB's warhead are improved versions of the Block IA missile and will increase missile effectiveness against longer-range, more sophisticated ballistic missiles.
These engineering upgrades have already undergone laboratory and ground tests, and flight-testing of the SM-3 Block IB missile is scheduled for this year. Aegis BMD in 2010 began sea trials of Aegis BMD 4.0.1, the next-generation system that will fire the SM-3 Block IB missile. Fleet deployment could begin soon thereafter -- roughly 18-24 months ahead of the test/deploy schedule.
"Nonetheless, I remain concerned that the schedule is overly optimistic," Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., remarked April 13 before the strategic forces subcommittee.
"Development of the SM-3 Block 1 was an eight-year effort for an incremental upgrade of the proven SM-2 Block 4. The SM-3 Block 2B concept appears to be a far more significant upgrade, and according to some initial descriptions could represent a significant departure from standard missile variants," Sessions added.
"Furthermore, I question the decision not to include the Aegis program office in the early stage development, ignoring, in my opinion, the design philosophy that has epitomized success."
Good question, senator.
Scott Truver directs national security programs at Gryphon Technologies, Greenbelt, Md.