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Aegis - Navy's Offensive/Defensive Linchpin Plus Ballistic Missile Defense

Updated: Jan 11, 2023

AEGIS COMBAT SYSTEM (Note: AN/SPY-6 radar has replaced AN/SPY-1 radar in the most recent Aegis baseline)

Since the early 1980's when the Aegis Combat System was installed on the USS Ticonderoga, CG-47, Aegis has been the Navy's premiere integrated weapons system tasked to detect, tract and direct direct the right mix of defensive and offensive systems to protect the ship while executing its mission.

Today all 70 Arleigh Burke destroyers and 22 Ticonderoga cruisers are Aegis equipped. Additionally, the new Constellation Class Frigates, of which 20 are scheduled to be built, will also be equipped with the latest baseline of the Aegis Combat System.

Along with controlling offensive and defensive systems for use against air, surface and underwater targets, the Aegis Combat System was upgraded to be able to engage ballistic missiles in the early 2000's. Aegis ships achieve ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability by incorporating changes to the Aegis system’s computers and software, and by arming the ships with BMD capable interceptor missiles such as the SM3 and the SM6. Older Aegis ships can be modified to become BMD-capable ships, while DDG-51s, procured FY2010 and later, incorporate BMD capabilities from the outset.

The Congressional Report Service estimates that by the end of 2023 there will be a total of 50 BMD capable ships requiring maintenance and support. The 50 ship BMD fleet will be comprised of 3 to 5 Ticonderoga cruisers and between 45 and 47 Arleigh Burke Destroyers. (Exact mix depends on if Navy goes through with its plans to weaken the Navy by retiring 5 Ticonderoga Cruisers in 2023)

Both the SM3 and SM6 have been successful in shooting down a number of test missiles and drones and have further demonstrated the ability to be fired from one ship and be guided by another ship or land-based systems. This is all well and good. Unfortunately, successfully shooting down missiles during carefully crafted scenarios is not the same as shooting down a ballistic missile designed and controlled by an enemy who has spent many years figuring out a way to defeat the United States' BMD systems. Of course those responsible for U.S. BMD have tried to anticipate what a potential enemy might do to try to defeat our BMD, but we will never really know how effective the systems will be until they are actually tried in real combat against a committed enemy.

Uncertainty over how the Aegis Combat System may perform against a real enemy air attack vs modeled or simulated attacks does not diminish the fact that it plays a central role in ship operations, both offensively and defensively. Indeed, for decades the Aegis Combat System provided unmatched situational awareness that only relatively recently is being challenged by other nations' radar and combat systems. Along with the capability to continuously scan vast volumes of airspace with a degree of resolution only a few other systems can hope to match, the Aegis Combat System collects and monitors a vast array of information from dozens of systems, packaging, prioritizing and presenting it in a form that navy personnel and leaders can utilize to make informed decisions without being overloaded.

So, the Aegis system's usefulness is not in dispute. However, there is real doubt about how effective it will be in the role of BMD defense. And this doubt extends into its effectiveness in defending itself and the fleet against anti-ship missiles.

40 Years Into Aegis Program and No Enemy Anti-Ship Missiles Shot Down

While incorporating BMD defense into Aegis ships gained momentum in the mid 2000's, the Aegis Combat System has been installed on U.S Warships since 1983. Interestingly, in the nearly 40 years that the Aegis Combat System has been deployed there is no

confirmed/verified report of it actually successfully engaging and destroying an enemy anti-ship missile. However, there have been numerous successful tests. And it must be believed that the presence of these systems on our ships creates uncertainty in the minds of potential adversaries - acting as a deterrent.


All the above highlights that since World War II the United States has only been in shooting wars with vastly inferior opponents incapable of challenging the U.S. Navy in any meaningful way other than mines taking out some very small Navy ships (mostly minesweepers) , the near sinking of Perry Class frigate by a mine, and an "accidental" firing of Exocet missiles at an unprepared Perry Class Frigate. Also notable is the successful terrorist attack against an Arleigh Burke destroyer, the USS Cole, that had been ordered by senior Navy leadership for political reasons to refuel in the obviously insecure port of Aden with an indefensible anchorage and rules of engagement that ensured the success of almost any terrorist attack.

During this period of U.S. Naval dominance, we have spent 100's of billions of dollars on systems, then 100s of billions of dollar more upgrading these systems again and again and again without ever really having them tested in the heat of battle against a peer opponent. This can viewed positively as being a good thing, as it means our ships, other than the previously mentioned exceptions, have effectively been sanctuaries at sea, and we have not had to deal with the loss of U.S. lives and major combatant ships due to enemy action. And the few times our surface combatants have taken damage due to enemy action, it has largely been written off as being the result of human error or an anomaly.

But the downside to this mindset, is that over the decades of naval dominance we have built up doctrine and tactics that may not serve us well in a real naval conflict against a competent peer or near peer opponent. It also means that we have been designing ships in an environment and time where our ships were not being hit or seriously damaged by enemy combatants. This has resulted in ships for which the concept of operations presume U.S. supremacy in Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR) to the degree that our ships detect and destroy other ships and combatants without getting hit. Or failing that, they destroy our opponents missiles before they strike our ships. Also during this period of time it could be argued that also we have chosen to largely ignore evidence that our current ASW capabilities may not be up to the task.

This means that rather than designing ships for maximum resiliency and staying power, we have been designing ships with thin hulls and expensive light-weighted superstructures (light-weighting adds a lot of cost to a ship) in order to be able to cram more expensive, maintenance intensive, spare parts hungry systems onto our ships.

Of course a lot of very smart people have been involved with designing these systems and there are all kinds of simulations, models and exercises showing just how effective they will be.

So, perhaps they will all work as advertised and our enemies will be befuddled and bedazzled. Perhaps.....

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