As a result of the President’s decision to cancel land based missile defense and shift responsibilities to shipboard systems, the Navy is moving warships into the Persian Gulf to guard against an Iranian missile threat. While the Navy’s Standard Missile (SM-3) system coupled with the Aegis radar has performed admirably, the Obama plan over-tasks the system and forces it into situations for which it was never designed.
Properly positioned along any threat axis, Navy ships present an effective threat to ballistic missiles. Due to size limitations, however, the radar acquisition system and its interceptor missiles are range restricted. While the Navy system is a formidable defense in a limited geographic area, outside of its radar and missile envelope, the system is useless.
Land based missiles have larger radar systems. The missiles themselves have an extended range and carry a bigger payload. Storage facilities are larger and reloading capability is much more efficient. With a larger detection and kill envelope, land based systems allow for multiple shots at the incoming missile. Land bases are also cheaper to build than warships.
Aegis ships are primarily designed to defend Carriers and Amphibious Strike Groups in a multi-threat environment, provide gunfire support to expeditionary forces, conduct surveillance, search and rescue, etc. These missions will be compromised or degraded if several ships are diverted to the Persian Gulf. The need to rotate ships through the deployment and maintenance cycles requires several Aegis Cruiser/Destroyer hulls to be dedicated to this operation. Today’s Navy is half the size of its Cold War counterpart. Simply speaking, we cannot afford to divert these ships from their primary missions.
Additionally ships in the Persian Gulf are susceptible to attack. Cruisers and Destroyers are deigned for open ocean blue water operations where they have room to maneuver. The Persian Gulf is a shallow restricted waterway. When entering or exiting through the Strait of Hormuz, the ships’ crews have their attention focused on a narrow channel with tricky winds and currents. While concentrating on the navigation problem, the ship is very vulnerable to attack.
The geography of the Persian Gulf complicates the problem. Once into the Gulf, United States ships are also forced to transit and patrol along the western portion of the waterway. The Iranians claim sovereignty over a number of islands in the Gulf, which requires the American ships to steer to the west. Under international law, warships cannot pass within twelve nautical miles of these islands. As a matter of policy American ships give them an even wider passage. This also reduces the ability of the ships to maneuver.
Aegis Cruisers and Destroyers are at their best when they are in front of the target. Incoming missiles approaching at virtually the same target angle allow for follow-up salvos. In the Gulf, missiles launched from Northern Iran towards Israel will pass at a right angle, forcing a cross shot. The ship will be limited in the number of interceptor missiles they can fire. If the Iranians launch a multi-missile salvo, the American missiles may quickly find themselves in a tail chase as the enemy missiles pass out of range.
The Iranians have a moderate multi threat anti-ship capability. This includes surface to surface missiles, fighter bombers and quiet Kilo Class diesel submarines capable of laying on the shallow bottom undetected until an American ship passes. Additionally they possess a number of fast attack boats manned by the Revolutionary Guard capable of carrying anti ship missiles. These boats can also be used to ram a larger ship such as occurred with the U.S.S Cole. This exposes the ships to a surface, subsurface and air threat which could overwhelm shipboard defenses. The sailors countering these threats would be same people trying to shoot down a ballistic missile. Missiles launched against Israel at the same time as a combined arms attack against the ships could sneak past them.
The Navy has a place in the strategic and tactical anti-missile environment. The entire burden of theater ballistic missile defense should not fall on the Navy’s shoulders, however. Proper funds must be made available to develop and deploy land based systems. The ballistic missile threat, especially if topped with nuclear warheads is substantial. We need to foster a comprehensive and effective defense that works the first time. We cannot afford to get this one wrong.