The United States employs a three-tier missile defense apparatus that allows it to cover as much territory as possible while providing an overlapping blanket of capability in the event the first or even second layer of defense were to fail to intercept an aggressor’s incoming ballistic missile. However, with the U.S. Navy in the Pacific lamenting their high operational tempo, some senior officials have begun calling on the U.S. Defense apparatus to find shore based solutions that free up Naval assets for growing threats like Chinese and Russian naval efforts.

Adm. John Richardson, Chief of Naval Operations, made it clear in his statements last week that he’d like to see the Navy transition away from operating ballistic missile defense patrols, indicating that the use of the Navy’s surface combatants for this role is a waste of capabilities and resources. Richardson said,

Right now, as we speak, I have six multi-mission, very sophisticated, dynamic cruisers and destroyers — six of them are on ballistic missile defense duty at sea and if you know a little bit about this business you know that geometry is a tyrant. You have to be in a tiny little box to have a chance at intercepting that incoming missile. So, we have six ships that could go anywhere in the world, at flank speed, in a tiny little box, defending land.”

Richardson did acknowledge that the Navy’s value as a part of ballistic missile defense is truly there, and even acknowledged that continuing to use the Navy for these purposes in future emergencies makes perfect sense. However, he contended, building and equipping Navy warships for such a singular purpose (as many have been used during heightening tensions on the Korean peninsula) keeps these ships from serving as a deterrent force for naval threats posed by competing nations. Instead, Richardson would like to see land based assets deployed in regions of the world that require persistent missile defense capabilities. He said,

It’s a pretty good capability and if there is an emergent need to provide ballistic missile defense, we’re there but 10 years down the road, it’s time to build something on land to defend the land. Whether that’s AEGIS ashore or whatever, I want to get out of the long-term missile defense business and move to dynamic missile defense.”

Naval vessels tasked with ballistic missile defense have to maintain a presence in very specific places, steaming in figure-eight patterns for weeks on end, waiting for a launch that will hopefully never come. Once satellites detect a missile launch, these Aegis ships along with other regional assets work quickly to assess the trajectory of the missile and determine the level of threat it poses. If that threat exceeds a certain parameter, the decision to attempt an intercept is made, and the Naval asset in the region with launch kinetic interceptors. The thing is, these standoffs usually entail a great deal more waiting than anything else, and with Russia’s Navy claiming to have infiltrated the waters surrounding American East Coast naval bases with submarines and China rapidly expanding their naval presence in places like the hotly contested South China Sea, many like Richardson are beginning to believe that America’s Cruisers and Destroyers might be better suited for the naval combat they were built for, rather than as a floating platform for missile interceptors.

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Some have even argued that the operational tempo mandated by these missile defense patrols has led to the recent issues with readiness — prompted by the number of ships required for patrol rotations and the Navy’s inability to provide the necessary training to sailors tasked with accomplishing these missions. Last year, a number of high-profile incidents involving U.S. Navy ships, including two deadly collisions with merchant vessels, led many to question the way in which the Navy is engaging in Pacific Defense. There can be no question that these missile defense patrols have played a role in the strained scheduling of Navy assets.

“Over time this is one of the places the Navy has made sacrifices in training and readiness,” Bryan Clark, a retired submariner and analyst with the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments told Defense News. “Because of the high demand, when the [cruisers and destroyers] go into their training cycles they’ve had to do abbreviated versions of the work-ups that focus specifically on missile defense instead of training for the full range of missions those ships are capable of performing.”

Image courtesy of the Department of Defense