WASHINGTON — As the U.S. Navy and Missile Defense Agency move into the second half of 2018, the SM-3 Block IIA missile is heading for a crucial test that the Pentagon hopes will dispel nagging doubts after two successive failures.
Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, the head of the MDA, told lawmakers in April that the next test of the IIA will come before the end of the calendar year, a test in which the agency will try to put a string of bad luck behind it as it pushes toward the ultimate goal of testing the interceptor against an intercontinental ballistic missile by the end of 2020.
Following a successful intercept in February 2017, a test that same year failed after a sailor error caused a IIA launched from the destroyer John Paul Jones to self-destruct in flight. A second test failed in January 2018 went awry because of an as-yet unnamed component misfired, the significance of which Greaves has downplayed.
“The component that we’re concerned about has flown successfully nine out of 10 times,” Greaves told a Senate panel in April. “So, as of now, I am not concerned that it is a true design issue. And we’re following through to identify the problem and then correct it.”
A spokesman for MDA said the failure review board is still ongoing for the most recent test.
Despite the failures, MDA seems to feel good about the trajectory of the program, and SM-3 IIA will likely forge ahead, according to Tom Karako, a missile defense expert with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
“Even with the failure, the test accomplished the things they were doing the test for,” Karako said. It just does not sound as if the future numbers or pace of the program are contingent on the failure review board. Based on what they say thus far, these are separate tracks.”
The fact that so many of the main elements of the failed tests went right is a source of immense frustration for the Pentagon and contractors working the problem.
The SM-3 that misfired in January, for example, successfully received targeting data from an AN/TPY-2 radar through an encrypted link track and relayed it to an Aegis Ashore system on which it used the data to launch.
The implications of that technology for ballistic missile defense and for more conventional warfare are enormous. If a forward sensor can get a kill quality track that it can then, through a data link, transfer to another system such as Aegis Ashore, it can conceivably send that data to any number of Aegis-capable units up in the link. That means anyone who is in position to take a shot can do it without having a track on the missile with an organic sensor.
The same principle applies to more conventional engagements, meaning that, ultimately, ships in a network can rely on a sensor — maybe one Aegis ship or an aircraft equipped with a powerful radar or, even more ideally, an unmanned offboard sensor — to radiate while the other ships passively receive the data and launch without giving away their position.
For the SM-3 IIA, the question that people should be asking is what is the next evolution of the missile and what can MDA do to meet evolving threats, Karako said.
“All indicators are that the IIA is going forward. The real question that ought to be asked, given the reorientation of the National Defense Strategy’s laserlike focus on hypersonics, is what’s increment one and what is increment two for SM-3 IIA.”
Make the Navy maneuverable again
While MDA makes progress on IIA development, the Navy is losing patience with its current role in the national missile defense mission.
While the mission has been both a cash cow and a technological revolution for the service, standing patrol requirements have put an enormous strain on the Navy’s already overtasked surface combatants.
The Navy’s top officer said June 12 that he wants the Navy off the tether of those patrols so those ships can perform other missions and move as much of the standing requirements to shore-based systems.
“Right now, as we speak, I have six multimission, very sophisticated, dynamic cruisers and destroyers ― six of them are on ballistic missile defense duty at sea,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson said June 12 during his address at the U.S. Naval War College’s Current Strategy Forum. “And if you know a little bit about this business, you know that geometry is a tyrant.
“You have to be in a tiny little box to have a chance at intercepting that incoming missile. So, we have six ships that could go anywhere in the world, at flank speed, in a tiny little box, defending land.”
Richardson went on to say the Navy could be more effectively used for BMD in emergency or high-threat situations rather than as a permanent fixture.
Some relief could be on the horizon. Japan announced in 2017 that it plans to buy the Aegis Ashore system. But analysts and experts warn that the Navy shouldn’t be too hasty to ditch BMD patrols. The service has a disproportionately large number of highly capable (and expensive) surface combatants, a fact that has the Navy quickly pushing to develop a smaller surface combatant to complement the force, as threats are on the rise from Russia and China.
But the BMD mission is a big reason why the Navy is so Aegis-heavy.
“The BMD mission is part of what creates the force structure requirement for large surface combatants,” said Bryan McGrath, a retired destroyer skipper and defense consultant with The FerryBridge Group. “Absent it, the number of CGs [cruisers] and DDGs [destroyers] would necessarily decline.
“It cannot be forgotten that while the mission is somewhat wasteful of a capable, multimission ship, the fact that we have built the ships that (among other things) do this mission is an incredibly good thing. If there is a penalty to be paid in peacetime suboptimization in order to have wartime capacity, should this not be considered a positive thing?”
From the perspective of layered missile defense, moving standing requirements to shore makes sense. But the Navy isn’t going to get away from BMD anytime soon, said Karako.
“Shifting more of the requirements to land, that’s all goodness,” he said. “But the Navy isn’t going to get out of air and missile defense so long as there are air and missile threats.”
David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.