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BMD mission demands outstrip fleet's capabilities

April 13, 2015 (Photo Credit: MCSN Ryan U. Kledzik/Navy)

Missile defense ships are in short supply.

Navy officials say the fleet of BMD-capable cruisers and destroyers is far outstripped by unprecedented demand for these shooters. The Pentagon's "unsustainable" BMD strategy lacks the clarity to accomplish the growing mission, needed to counter threats from nuclear-armed countries like Iran and North Korea, they argue.

Combatant commanders last year requested 44 ships in recent years to meet BMD missions, according to congressional data. In fiscal 2016, that need is expected to jump to 77 ships — a tally more than double the Navy's inventory of BMD-capable ships.

"I will not meet that gap," Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jon Greenert told Navy Times on March 24. "The funding that we have today does not meet that gap."

In fact, it is headed in the opposite direction. Budget cuts have forced the Navy to eliminate $500 million in upgrades to five Arleigh Burke-class destroyers. The Howard, McCampbell, Mustin, Chafee and Bainbridge will lack ballistic missile defense capability and be unable to use the new Naval Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air technology in coming years.

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The admiral responsible for protecting the U.S. from missile threats said another round of across-the-board sequestration budget cuts could impair that mission.

"But as I look at the threats, the most likely and the most dangerous that's getting ready to confront us, I think it's sequestration," said Adm. Bill Gortney, the head of North American Aerospace Defense Command, in testimony March 19 before the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee.

Similarly, Gen. Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, told senators in March that "the global demand for ballistic missile defense capabilities far exceeds supply."

And the situation is likely to grow worse, according to one key lawmaker.

"We've gone from being able to meet over 90 percent of combatant commander demands in 2007 to meeting barely 40 percent today," said Rep. Randy Forbes, R-Va., chairman of the House Armed Services subcommittee on seapower and projection forces. "Clearly we have a serious shortfall in BMD capacity. And that being the case, I am consistently surprised to find this administration fighting tooth-and-nail to inactivate the cruisers that provide the core of the Navy's air and missile defense capability."

Forbes takes issue with plans to upgrade five cruisers with anti-air warfare rather than BMD capability during phased modernization. These upgrades are needed to protect carriers according to Navy leaders, who have couched the decisions as risk management.

"Given how much BMD demand is currently going unmet, I think it would be irresponsible to voluntarily and prematurely reduce the supply of these important assets," Forbes said. "This gap is going to continue to grow unless we get serious about funding our Navy and its air and missile defense capabilities."

The Navy is committed to meeting its BMD missions and sees destroyers as the best assets for advanced BMD upgrades, a Navy spokesman said.

"The Navy's plan to deliver BMD-capable ships to support the national and defense strategies optimizes resources by increasing both BMD capacity and capability for Arleigh Burke destroyers during new construction and through modernization," said Lt. Rob Myers. "We have thoroughly assessed all options to best execute the BMD mission moving forward. From a tactical and affordability standpoint, destroyers will meet the requirement for advanced capable BMD ships."

Even if money and manpower were provided, senior service leaders are not sure where the current strategy would have them focus BMD efforts. Greenert and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno, in a Nov. 5 memo to then-defense secretary Chuck Hagel, called for a strategy assessment.

The Pentagon's missile defense shields are a network of BMD-capable ships and shore-based installations. The first Aegis Ashore site, located in Romania, is set to go operational this year. In addition, the Navy is shifting four BMD destroyers to Rota, Spain, where they will routinely sail on four-month patrols.

"For the ballistic missile defense need … what is the end state?" Greenert said in his March 24 interview. "We cannot see it there. As we move and build ashore, as we build more shore capability, what is going to become of the afloat capabilities? Just keep building? To what end?"

With an "astounding" ashore capability, "why are we continuing to develop and evolve afloat options?" Greenert asked. "I do not have an answer for that. I do not see it as a sustainment."

Ship and ashore missile radars and interceptors are expensive. Gortney said BMD is "on the wrong side of the cost curve," in an April 7 news briefing. "We're shooting down not very expensive rockets with very expensive rockets, and we need to look at the entire kill chain … and try, through kinetic or non-kinetic means, and through deterrence, [to] keep them on the rail," he said.

There are 33 BMD-capable ships split between the East and West Coasts, to include those that are or will soon be forward-deployed.

The European Phased Adaptive Approach will see four ships homeported in Rota, Spain, by year's end. The destroyers Ross and Donald Cook arrived in Rota in fiscal 2014; Porter on March 27 departed Norfolk, Virginia, for Scotland to participate in Joint Warrior, a United Kingdom-led semi-annual multinational cooperative training exercise, before heading to Rota. The destroyer Carney will head to Spain from its home port of Mayport, Florida, before October.

A 430-acre Aegis Ashore facility will be operational by year's end in Deveselu, Romania, and manned by about 200 U.S. service members, government civilians and support contractors. It will be armed with SM-3 IB interceptors. A second site planned for Poland, scheduled to become operational in 2018, will be armed with SM-3 IIA interceptors.

In the Pacific theater, Benfold will later this year become the first of three destroyers — two from San Diego and one from Norfolk — to permanently relocate to Yokosuka, Japan. Barry will follow in early 2016 in a hull swap with Lassen, which is scheduled to homeport in Mayport, Florida. Milius will arrive in Japan in the summer of 2017.

All three destroyers will get a midlife modernization anchored by the Aegis Baseline 9 combat system. This includes the Mark-41 Vertical Launch System, which can employ multiple types of guided missiles for offensive and defensive operations against aircraft, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, surface ships, submarines and shore targets. The destroyers will also get a fully integrated bridge and commercial, off-the-shelf computing equipment.

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