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The Washington Quarterly 25.3 (2002) 193-206

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Toward Missile Defenses from the Sea

Hans Binnendijk and George Stewart

Events during the past 18 months have created new possibilities for the sea basing of national defenses against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Some conceivable designs would enhance U.S. prospects for defeating a rogue state's missile attack on the United States and its allies, but other deployments could undermine the nation's strategic stability with Russia and China. The most efficacious architecture from both a technical and strategic perspective would include a navy boost-phase intercept program and some sea-based radar.

Where Technology and Policy Stand Today

The Clinton administration developed its national missile defense (NMD) strategy in an effort to defend all 50 states as soon as possible against a limited ICBM threat from rogue states. To secure the nation's strategic stability vis-à-vis Russia, the plan emphasized amending but retaining the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. The resulting architecture relied on land-based midcourse interceptors guided by land- and space-based sensors. The technologies needed for this architecture had not matured by September 2000, however, and President Bill Clinton decided not to deploy the system in 2001. Although the researchers made significant progress toward developing naval-based theater missile defenses during the Clinton administration, the basic NMD architecture had no naval component because that administration sought actual deployments by 2005-2006. [End Page 193]

Once in office, the Bush administration was determined to accelerate progress on missile defenses, expand research and development efforts, accept a greater degree of technological risk, and redesign the NMD architecture. They have not, however, proposed any new missile defense architecture. The clear line established in 1997, which delineated theater missile defenses and national missile defenses, became blurred. The strategy opened the door to a greater seaborne contribution to defense against ICBMs, and the navy began to analyze this possibility's new potential. The government developed a broad array of options to exploit the progress that had been made in the navy's theater programs. Then, three events occurred in December 2001 and January 2002 that further shaped the navy's program.

On December 13, 2001, the Bush administration announced that the United States would withdraw from the ABM Treaty in June 2002. Despite this step's diplomatic drawbacks, the United States can now experiment with ship-based missile defenses that the treaty constrained. When the treaty expires in June, the Pentagon will test the ability of the navy's Aegis radar to track both interceptor and target missiles. The decision to withdraw from the ABM Treaty also removes constraints from the development of navy systems designed to be effective against shorter-range ballistic missiles. As a result, tests of future sea-based systems will begin to move from the virtual world of high-speed computers to the test range.

The day after it announced its intention to withdraw from the ABM Treaty, the administration terminated the Navy Area Missile Defense Program, the navy's program for terminal defense against short-range ballistic missiles, because of cost overruns. Up to that point, some administration officials had envisioned using Navy Area as an emergency boost-phase interceptor against North Korean missiles. This program had been scheduled to begin testing this year, with operational deployment to begin by 2004. One likely consequence of the decision to terminate the program will be the delay of any operational (as opposed to an experimental or test-bed) sea-based missile defense system by some two to five years.

Then, the navy successfully flight-tested the first fully functional SM-3 (Standard Missile) interceptor on January 25 and scored a direct hit, using hit-to-kill technology against a Scud-type test missile. The SM-3 is the missile associated with the core of the navy's Midcourse (formerly Navy Theater-Wide) system. The Midcourse system is the only navy missile defense [End Page 194] program that enjoys any significant funding, with seven SM-3 test firings now scheduled, although there is no funding for procurement or...


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