090730-N-XXXXX-003“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.

Posted by galrahn in Hard Power, Navy

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  • Moose

    More thinking along those lines, from not long ago:

  • The “battle box” is inventive, and may be more effectively used as a decoy/deterent much like the shell game of moving Peacekeeper missiles about in trains. An adversary might learn of boxes being towed out of a submarine base, and not know if they are empty, full, stationed just off their shore, etc.

    However, I think it much more apparent or likely that Ageis is simply expected to be the (short term) BMD tool.

    But, since the Airborne Laser completed a successful in-flight test just a few weeks ago, perhaps it is thought to become the primary BMD tool; as it should be up to task by the time would-be adversaries have developed missiles that need to be defended against; in addition to being the “boost phase” weapon of choice.

    Which would keep BMD in the air (Force); unless the Navy makes a change and again operates very large capable aircraft that can field the ABL; as well as carry huge radar array for BMD and linger airborne on station for months.

  • Gal,
    First, you assume an exceptionally sterile and secure sea – that is as wrong of an assumption as the PPT slides and advertising we saw this decade of DDG-1000 cruising a half mile off uninhabited shores being “stealthy.” To think that by mid century that large swathes of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, among others, will be American lakes where we can park $billions of offensive weaponry relatively unguarded thousands of miles from our nation – but right off the shore of others – without those nations taking steps, easy ones, to counter is myopic at best.

    We are not the only nation with national security needs, requirements, or technology programs.

    Heck, big submarines towing even bigger sleds sends so many sonar and acoustic equations going off in my head …..

    I would also make the point that it counter productive to, as many have in the last 24 hours, dance a merry jig over the supposed BMD grave of our sister services. It is that type of parochial mindset that creates many of the Joint problems we continue to have meeting the national security requirements of this nation.

    Our goal, off the grid-iron of course, is not to defeat the USAF or Army, but to find the best Joint solution to the challenge ahead in the 21st century as more nations refine 1940s/50s 1st World technology — while at the same time not p155ing on the shoes of those who wish to be our friends.

  • I would also make the point that it counter productive to, as many have in the last 24 hours, dance a merry jig over the supposed BMD grave of our sister services.

    Is that the impression you get here? If I was going to give that impression I would have gone more all out on the specific event than this.

    To think that by mid century that large swathes of the Pacific and Indian Oceans, among others, will be American lakes where we can park $billions of offensive weaponry relatively unguarded thousands of miles from our nation – but right off the shore of others – without those nations taking steps, easy ones, to counter is myopic at best.

    I think we could potentially see this by 2020, as I noted. I also think we could see similar stuff deployed from ships. I’m going to secretly go hide something somewhere 200+ miles off the coast at an unknown depth, maybe 100 meters. I think you will find it much more difficult to find than you are suggesting, assuming you even know it is there.

  • Gal,
    Point 1: Many does not equal you in an entirety (however, for another example of the type, your co-blogger at your home-blog, Bryan is one). But again, the story here isn’t what is in it for the Navy. This is a Strategic POL/MIL story.

    As for your final paragraph, that is only if everyone plays by a Marquess of Queensberry type rules combined with a “Hide-and-go-seek” tactic of closing your eyes while your opponent runs and hides.

    Things just don’t work that way. As for assuming – you need to work on your own assumptions before you make guesses about other’s.

    BTW, as if it needs saying — all of this is with the most friendly of tones between the two of us. Hard to get that across on the web. You and I have known each other for a long time in web-time —- I’m just making that comment in case others didn’t know that who may be reading.

  • Oh ….. and I am falling off the grid until MON….so I am not just being a snob when/if you reply Gal.

    I am just wallowing in the “wrong spirit,” mother nature, and good friends.

    I’ll feed the mosquitoes for you.

  • Byron

    Gotta be hunting or fishing… 😉

  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf

    Many interesting things to comment on here.

    1. I believe it was Colin Powell’s Rule #8: “Be careful what you ask for, you might get it.” Yes, the Navy has demonstrated impressive ability to shoot down low orbit satellites. Yes, the mobility, access and persistence of sea power offers distinct advantages in some scenarios over air or land based options for missile defense. However, given the likely decline in defense budgets in general and in my view likely declining share of defense budgets for ships and planes at sea, if the Navy becomes the pillar of ballistic missile defense, there will not be much room in the Navy budget for anything else. Note that much of the early Navy investment in ballistic missile defense was funded through MDA or other R&D accounts. If the Navy assigns high priority to ballistic missile defense, it will likely have significant impact on everything else the Navy does.

    2. I recommend Joshua Cooper Ramo’s The Age of the Unthinkable for some interesting observations on unpredictability in today’s world. As applied to ballistic missile defense, one could argue that building very expensive ballistic missile defense systems, either on land or at sea, plays right into the hands of Iran, North Korea, or other so-called rogue states and may actually encourage the behavior these systems were expected to deter.

    3. Put yourself in the shoes of a rogue state leader with theoretical ballistic missile capability. Without a WMD warhead, these weapons may cause public fear and generate a lot of publicity, but they do not have major military impact on the battlefield. The recent Israel-Hezbohlah conflict is a case in point, though it is noteworthy that an Israeli warship was hit by a cruise missile in that conflict. Why that happened is another interesting discussion. Getting back to the rogue state with ballistic missile capability, the only way to use that weapon system with significant impact on the battlefield is with a WMD payload. Because it is very easy to determine the launch point of a ballistic missile, with the notable exception of ballistic missiles launched from submarines in international waters, any rogue state who decides to launch a WMD attack with ballistic missiles should expect a lot ot retaliation. Therefore, would it not make a lot more sense for that rogue state (or terrorist organization) to deliver that WMD attack covertly so as to create uncertainty about who was responsible for the attack? I am working in Hampton Roads where over 2 million container equivalents come in or go out of this port every year. The amount of those containers that are thoroughly inspected after they arrive may be classified so I will not say more than it is less than 100% and the inspections occur after the container arrives. In some ports such as Long Beach, international containers are not inspected until they are delivered hundreds of miles away from the arrival port. I realize this threat has been recognized and do not mean to disparage the great improvement CBP, USCG and others have done in improving security in this area, however there is some food for thought in the sick joke that the best way to smuggle a nuke into the US is to hide it in a bale of marijuana.

    4. In my 34 years of commissioned service in the Navy and several thousands of days underwater, I have done just about everything that can be done in a submarine at least once. Based on that experience and some of the cogent comments above, I would not recommend further consideration of battle boxes as suggested in the article, but that does not mean there is not a lot of potential for other unmanned underwater combat and ISR systems.

  • sid

    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.

    Minor historical nit.

    Actually, it was the commissioning of the “big deck” Forrestal in 1955, carrying a full complement of A-3’s, that brought the CVA into full flower as part of the nuclear deterrent force.

    (burma shave)

  • sid

    In 1960, the USN surged A-3 equipped CVA’s around the entire periphery of the Soviet Union. Here is a shot of the 6th fleet contingent taken in November that year (photo taken for the January ’61 50th anniversary cover of NavAir News), and you can clearly see the very large number of attack aircraft the three carriers had aboard. The Independence deployed with 18 A-3s on this -her first- deployment. And she landed her F-8 squadron in Rota in order to bring aboard another squadron of A-4s. I’ve always wondered how many nukes are in that picture.

    Arguably, late 1960 represented the zenith of the CVA in the nuclear deterrent role. Shortly thereafter, even though the supersonic replacement to the A-3 the A3J, was coming on line, the USN “Heavy Attack” nuclear delivery role was deemphasized by President Kennedy in order to ramp up the SSBN force.

    Ironically, by the time the Enterprise deployed with her complement of never really fully operational A3J/A-5’s, the CVA as a primary nuclear strike platform had passed.

    By 1966, carriers were out of the SIOP altogether.

  • sid

    I really should’ve started here…

    If you want to go to the start, you have to back to 1949 with the P-2’s aboard the Midways.

    They did not participate in Korea, because their nuclear delivery role was deemed a higher priority.

    And it was during this timeframe carrier designations were split into CVA/CVS.

  • sid

    First, you assume an exceptionally sterile and secure sea…

    cordon sanitaire

    Can’t say I ever saw it really work, no matter the number of assets or amount of effort.

  • Kevin

    China is developing anti-ship ballistic missile, so the idea of having the Navy invests more into effective ballistic missile defense is making a lot of sense.

    Beside, having the US ballistic missile defense on its ships are more secured, more cost effective than on a fixed location on some other countries.

  • Derrick

    Personally, I think battle boxes would be a little expensive because the US Navy would have to check on them from time to time to make sure they were still working and nobody tampered with them. They also need to ensure other parties could not take remote control of them by hacking the encryption and passwords.

    I know they have discussed airborne lasers for BMD, but why not lasers/rail guns/particle beams deployed on surface combatants as BMD options? Would that not be cheaper than airborne? I guess the risk with sea-based BMD is that it will take longer to move the interceptor weapon in range of the threat missile, but one would hope the CIA would have given us enough advance notice to deploy a carrier battle group to the threat area.

    BTW, please excuse my ignorance (a long time since being in the navy), but aren’t naval pilots given training on intercepting and destroying WMD missiles in flight?

  • RADM (Ret) Ben Wachendorf

    It is very important to understand the difference between what technology can do in sterile laboratory environments and in which technology we should invest limited defense procurement dollars. I believe the Obama administration has decided to reduce funding for the USAF airborne laser program because they understand that difference. My recommendation is be very suspect of defense corporations who advocate large investment in high technology weapon systems without having an agreed upon concept of operations to employ those expensive weapon systems.

    Derrick is correct that lasers and particle beam weapons on ships have potential use for ballistic missile defense, but I do not believe rail guns, despite their very long range capability, have utility against ballistic missiles after launch because the energy of rail gun projectiles is bled during flight and these projectiles have limited maneuver capability in flight. Rail guns make a lot of sense in taking out a ballistic missile prior to launch.

    Advantages of lasers and particle beam weapons on ships include the availability for large electrical power generation and energy storage capability which limits use of these weapons on aircraft, especially for salvo fires. Ships also have the advantages of persistence over airborne platforms.

    One of the many challenges in ballistic missile defense is very short time lines to engage at ballistic missile target. Unless the ballistic missile launcher is very near the coast, by the time the missile comes up from the horizon after launch, it can be moving very fast. It is also likely to be at a considerable distance and opening the range from a ship with ballistic missile defense capability unless that ship is located near the ballistic missile’s target. The time to direct energy from a laser or particle beam weapon to the ballistic missile is not impacted by that range to target, but atmospheric conditions like clouds can diffuse energy from these weapons. The U.S. Navy demonstrated impressive results in overcoming these challenges when it destroyed a low orbit satellite, but in that case the satellite trajectory was known well in advance of intercept and the ship could be optimally positioned for attack. In the rogue state scenario, just consider the command and control issues of our current Unified Command Plan in the case of a Tae Po Dong launch from North Korea against the Western US. The launch and any possible boost phase intercept occur in PACOM, the land based X band radar in Shemya are in both PACOM and NORTHCOM AOR, terminal defense occurs in NORTHCOM, STRATCOM has launch I+W capability. Missile flight time is measured in minutes. The command and control challenges in this scenario are significant, not to mention the implications of an intercept of a ballistic missile with a WMD warhead over an ally like Japan.

  • Distiller

    All missile defense effectors except terminal and strategic/mid-course, and a good deal of sensors and C2 should become airborne as far as possible. That is by far the most flexible, scalable, and survivable option. Carried by anything from a F-15E, a B-52, a mod airliner, or a B-2 sized stealth UAV. That would be the USAF part in the strategic defence theatre – “Chrome Dome” reversed.

  • Distiller:

    And it is by far the most expensive to maintain, protect and support. There is a role for air-launched BMD, but that’s still a ways off and most likely in the early stage of flight. And as far as sensors go, take a look sometime at the size of the X-band radar the SBX carries. There’s a reason it’s on a former floating oil platform…
    – SJS


    In the early 1970’s I was very fortunate to sail in Joseph Strauss (DDG 16) through a yard period in Pearl and the conversion from analogue to digital fire control Systems. We also had ORDALTS that permitted us to fire the early standard missiles. I was a “Cherry” Lieutenant and Missile Fire Control Officer. After loadout we fired about 30 birds at Barking Sands. We shot everything in the envelope. What a show!!! RADM Meyer (one of my real heroes – the Rickover of the missile business and an AEDO) was busy with the Aegis program and you know the rest. Phenomenal. BRAVO ZULU’s E500.

  • waverider

    I wonder what additional BMD capability would be provided with a 28inch interceptor? (larger than the currently planned 21inch and able to fit in the new VLS on DDG-1000)

  • Derrick

    Perhaps the real challenge of BMD is early warning: if the missile launch is detected early enough so that the BMD weapon can lock onto the target during the missile boost phase, the chances of intercepting and destroying the enemy missile are very high. Once the missile reaches orbit/mid-phase, it’s no longer fighting gravity and it speeds up, and by rentry/final phase, I think it’s way too fast for current radar technology to accurately track.

    Perhaps a hypothetical solution would be some form of laser-based active sensor system, similar to radar, but uses low powered and harmless laser beams that travel at the speed of light to track the target, then uses this information to appropriately aim and fire some form of directed energy weapon, like laser or particle beam. Obviously such a system would have huge power requirements to would probably be most economically feasible to be a naval based BMD platform…nuclear powered ships should allow the energy weapons to be fired in salvo mode, as suggested in an earlier post.

    Deploying BMD systems to naval warships should be cheaper, but would probably require these ships to be constantly patrolling asian and middle eastern waters, in order to be nearby the most likely suspect launching spots (locations where terrorists are most likely to have access to ICBM launching facilities).

  • Byron

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but doesn’t radar move at the speed of light? I’d think the limiting factor is processor power.

  • Derrick

    Radar works by sending radio waves in different directions, and recording the reflections of the radio waves off of objects. Radio waves travel significantly slower than the speed of light.

  • Derrick

    Sorry…I was wrong. Radio waves travel at the speed of light.

  • Derrick

    Therefore, the limiting factor should be processing power.

  • Grandpa Bluewater

    Actually, there is no one single limiting factor per se. Each characteristic interacts with every other. Certain critical components degrade with use and change characteristics over time.
    Some are factors of the state of art of the technology. Optimization for a specific use or optimization for maximum reliability and/or flexibility are a function of many design compromises and choices of component characteristics.

    It’s complicated.

    The question is probably more properly is the target too fast for the system design to track any more. I wouldn’t even guess, and I doubt those in the know are telling.

    Speed of the incoming target across the defending system’s line of sight and in the line of sight, i.e., fire control geometry, and the receiver sensitivity and the pulse length, transmitter frequency, and pulse repetition rate would likely combine to determine if the set could even detect the target, or more properly, detect it at a given speed and target geometry.
    Then there are the antenna characteristics and target reflectivity. Don’t forget environment factors. Radar propagation in the Baltic might be a wee bit different from the nice warm empty central Pacific.

    Certainly the FCS processing and display time interaction with the OODA cycle for FC problem computation and missile flight command updating could be critical, which is what I take your meaning to be for “processing power” (roughly).

    Murphy will get his input too. If you don’t believe me, maybe somebody can declassify the after action stuff on the USS Higby vs Mig set-to long ago on Yankee Station. Subject to my swiss cheese aged memory…. (Sailor – FIXED the damn thing! DLG TAO – Fire One, Fire Two. (seconds later) DLG TAO to CAPT – Target destroyed. Uh, I did have weapons free, right?). .

    He did. That’s their story, and they’re sticking to it. As they should. BZ. Or so I heard tell (I simply state, what was told to me by the chinese plate – apologies to Eugene Field in “The Gingham Dog and the Calico Cat”).

    Like I said, it’s complicated.

    The proof of the pudding is in the boom (ABM missile engine start)
    to boom-splash (of target hitting the water) cycle. It worked for less than a dozen test shots.

    But so did the Mk 14 torpedo.