HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The Missile Defense Agency director says he’d like to see the Aegis Ashore ballistic missile defense system — which currently requires significant permanent infrastructure — become a less complex and more mobile asset.
The U.S. has had a fully operational Aegis Ashore site in Deveselu, Romania, since 2016, but has struggled to build a second fixed site in Redzikowo, Poland. This location was supposed to be in operation by August 2018, but will likely not be up and running until fiscal 2022 at the earliest.
A fixed Aegis Ashore site looks like the top side of cruiser, essentially a ship built on land that hosts radar arrays and a command-and-control system with launchers nearby.
The contractor in Poland encountered problems that have led to the project sitting for several years at the “last tactical mile,” as Vice Adm. Jon Hill, MDA’s director, has said. The contractor has struggled to configure the auxiliary controls, heating, power and cooling, which feed the combat system and are part of the construction contract.
The Aegis Ashore system is still at roughly 95 percent complete, Hill told Defense News in an update during its SMD Debrief event at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium last week.
At the same time, he said, MDA’s program manager was on the ground in Poland assessing the situation.
“I don’t think I’m ready to make any [schedule] adjustments to the left or to the right until the program manager comes back,” Hill added.
Hill said the agency has learned from the experience of setting up two fixed sites.
For future Aegis Ashore systems, “we have to decide, are we going to have long-term emplacement or are we going to just short-term land it there and pull it out if we need to,” he said.
With a more mobile option, Hill said, “you’re less worried about the ability to survive earthquakes, you’re less worried about surviving through [electromagnetic pulse] attack, if you’re going to be there for a long time.”
The final decision, he added, will influence the complexity of construction.
“I would be an advocate to reduce complexity and maybe even go back to the requirement to be transportable,” Hill said.
He noted Aegis Ashore is already modular because it is built that way in the U.S. and shipped to the sites.
Hill stressed that the way Aegis Ashore is built and deployed is a Pentagon-level decision and not his to make, but said he can see benefits to “the argument that you may want to disaggregate it,” meaning putting the sensor in one place, a command-and-control system somewhere else — possibly in a bunker — and a launcher in another spot.
One thing Hill doesn’t want to repeat is letting “the construction get so complex that when a contractor comes in and bids, then they don’t have the right skill set to go do it.”
The idea of disaggregating missile defense capability is not new. Missile defense analyst Tom Karako of the Center for Strategic and International Studies has spent roughly five years considering it.
“Element distribution, mobility, and other means of deception will be fundamental to adapt the air and missile defense enterprise to the high-end challenge,” against Russia and China, Karako told Defense News.
The 2019 Missile Defense Review and, more broadly, the 2018 National Defense Strategy call for more distributed military assets, but Karako notes, these strategies did not directly apply that principle to active air and missile defense elements.
What’s helping these ideas gain traction are recent calls to defend Guam and establish a robust missile defense architecture there, Karako said, which could serve as a test bed for more mobile, disaggregate capability like a more transportable Aegis Ashore.
MDA has yet to release a plan for the defense of Guam, but Hill said in his recent interview with Defense News that the agency has finished a report due to Congress. It’s now going through a review process within the Pentagon. Hill said the document will inform the FY23 budget request.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.