“This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack.” – President Barack Obama
Nineteenth-century military theorist Karl von Clausewitz wrote that war is an extension of politics, but by other means. Applying that philosophy to the fallout from the Presidents decision to change the approach for an Eastern European ballistic missile defense shield, In note both the size and scope globally of the political response. This event is final validation that ballistic missile defense has arrived as a strategic pillar of global political power, and represents the third strategic arm of the US Navy.
The first arm of strategic power for the US Navy came with the commissioning of the USS George Washington (SSBN-598) in 1959. Today ballistic missile submarines represent both the front lines and last line of defense in the deterrence of nuclear war. It is unlikely this strategic role of the Navy will go away in any of our lifetimes.
The second arm of strategic power for the US Navy has been the big deck nuclear aircraft carrier since the USS Enterprise (CVN 65) was commissioned in 1961. This is not to be confused with less capable, smaller carriers that cannot field the range of military capabilities US Navy big deck carriers can. By comparison to many countries globally, a US nuclear aircraft carrier forward deploys air power capabilities that exceed the total Air Force capabilities of many foreign nations. No conventional military capability in the world can match the geopolitical and military influence of a US nuclear powered aircraft carrier, making them a national strategic asset.
With today’s news we see evidence that ballistic missile defense has arrived as a strategic capability capable of influencing the geopolitical condition globally. BMD represents a technology with the potential of tilting the strategic balance of power. Conventional wisdom suggests that as the submariner community in the Navy operates their SSBN strategic capability and the naval aviation community operates their CVN strategic capability, ballistic missile defense represents the strategic capability emerging for surface warfare within the Navy. This is true, but to a much lesser degree than you think.
Shifting away from the geopolitical ramifications of today’s decision, one can’t help but notice that the President stated clearly “This new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack.” The implication here is that the existing AEGIS Ballistic Missile Defense capability will be the replacement for the land based ballistic missile technologies no longer to be deployed to Eastern Europe. This would lead to the question whether AEGIS BMD will become the DoD’s primary ballistic missile defense capability. I believe it will.
There are concepts out there today that all of the political talking heads discussing ballistic missile defense today don’t know anything about, and it may reshape at the conceptual level how war is fought in the 21st century. Gates discusses these concepts in a generic way all the time, indeed he discussed the concept today in his speech to the Air Force Association.
All told, the combination of F-22s, F-35s, and legacy aircraft will preserve American tactical air supremacy far into the future. Moreover, a key additional – and yet untapped – part of this mix of capabilities is unmanned aerial vehicles. Today, because of their effectiveness in Iraq and Afghanistan, these systems are mostly thought of as counterinsurgency platforms. But they have enormous game-changing implications for conventional conflict as well.
“And yet untapped.” ” But they have enormous game-changing implications for conventional conflict as well.” Gates is specifically discussing the potential of what unmanned technologies will do to the battlefield of the future. That future is not as far off as people may believe, and the implications of unmanned systems technology extends beyond the Air Force.
The biggest challenge in the future of Navy ballistic missile defense is fielding the missile launching system. Theater ballistic missile interceptors are too long for existing vertical launch systems used to launch missiles from surface combatants. Indeed ground based interceptors for BMD are so large, that the 24,000 ton LPD-17 hull has been discussed as a possible hull for deploying long range BMD interceptors in the future. While I believe the detection of ballistic missiles will remain primarily a surface warfare role, I expect that by 2020 we will be talking about ballistic missile defense interceptors being launched from underwater.
There are various competing ideas how submarines may operate in the future, and that future may be closer than people think. One side effect of fielding the Ohio class SSGN on the submarine warfare community has been a wealth of creativity on what is possible when submerged submarines in forward areas are integrated into communication networks and are able to access remote systems. Has anyone noticed the Navy has never listed a SSGN on any future fleet plan in the past? Have you ever wondered why? The operational concepts emerging from the development and experimentation of unmanned underwater vehicles in the underwater warfare community have led to the conceptual development of new potential strike options for underwater warfare.
The “battle box” concept is one such emerging concept, and could potentially play a major role in future ballistic missile defense. The battle box concept is not new, indeed it is similar to a program developed during WWII in Nazi Germany, stolen and tested by the Soviets in the 1950s in a program known as the Golem submarine towed missile launcher.
The idea is for an attack submarine to tow a large container system when deploying forward, and park the battle box in the middle of the sea – underwater – in its patrol zone. The battle box would remain submerged and stationary in the patrol zone, remain linked to the submarines network, and carry a strike payload on behalf of the submarine. For example, a “battle box” could potentially be 80’x30’x30′, and once towed into location pivot 90 degrees to wait in deep water. Stationary underwater, the battle box becomes a stealthy weapon system giving a remote operator the capability to surface the battle box to ~30′ and launch missile payloads at enemy targets. In the AEGIS ballistic missile defense network, a battle box would act as a stealthy underwater missile silo for large ballistic missile defense interceptors.
With the emergence of new energy technologies, which the US Navy is very interested in, a battle box could potentially remain on station using very low power longer than the rotation of a submarine. This means the Navy could theoretically position battle boxes off an enemy coast over periods of years, stockpiling battle boxes having them positioned underwater… just in case.
Battle boxes could be sized to deploy multiple types of weapon payloads. For example, in response to a regional crisis 5 nuclear attack submarines could pull into the patrol zone, drop off their battle boxes 200 nautical miles and 300′ below the deep blue ocean, and run off to conduct operations while maintaining a rapid strike capability against a belligerent power. In a BMD role, battle boxes could be stealthily inserted by submarine and positioned off the coast of a belligerent nation threatening with ballistic missiles. The key advantage of the battle box is that launching weapons from the battle box does not reveal the position of the submarine operator, indeed, the submarine does not even necessarily have to be the operator of the battle box.
Gates is not blowing smoke when he casually tossed out “untapped” “game-changing implications for conventional conflict” when discussing unmanned systems, indeed he could have easily used the term ‘nuclear conflict.’ Warfare in the 21st century is being influenced by rapidly emerging technologies, not only in asymmetrical scenarios like Iraq and Afghanistan but high end ballistic missile defense scenarios as well. These emerging technologies will influence ballistic missile defense. Obviously much will be discussed regarding the political ramifications of the BMD announcement on Thursday, but when the President says “this new approach will provide capabilities sooner, build on proven systems and offer greater defenses against the threat of missile attack,” taking a technical view into present and future of ballistic missile defense systems, history will likely judge the President 100% correct.