Ballistic Missile Defense in Europe

The US policy of extending Ballistic Missile Defense capabilities to our European allies originally envisioned building installations in Poland based on our own GMD program as installed in Alaska. Political factors, far more than technical or tactical ones, caused that plan to be scrapped.  US Aegis BMD capable Aegis cruisers and destroyers will be forward deployed to Europe to provide BDM. Significant questions of cost and capability also lead to a decision to forego using the GMD program and instead to install a land based version of the US Navy’s Aegis system in Romania and Poland.

The U.S. and NATO have begun construction on the first deployed Aegis Ashore installation in Deveselu, Romania as part of a wider ballistic missile defense (BMD) strategy on Monday, according to several press reports.

“The facility here in Deveselu will be a crucial component in building up NATO’s overall ballistic missile defense system,” NATO deputy secretary-general Alexander Vershbow said.”By the end of 2015 this base will be operational and integrated into the overall NATO system.”

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Aegis BMD had a bit of stunning publicity back in 2008 when the USS Lake Erie used her Aegis system to knock down a dying satellite.

Aegis, named for the shield of Athena and Zeus, is an integrated shipboard air defense system in service from the early 1980s.  The term Aegis more properly refers to the computers and software that make up the combat system, but is colloquially used to refer to the entire hardware suite of combat system, radar, launcher, and associated equipment.

The radar itself, the SPY-1, is a passively scanned phased array. The launcher, the Mk41 Vertical Launch system, can be loaded with any of a number of types of missiles. Aboard ship, it carries several versions of the SM-2 and SM-3 Standard Missile family to intercept aircraft and missiles, Tomahawk cruise missiles, the Vertical Launch ASROC anti-submarine rocket, and increasingly, the Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile short-range air defense missile. I think we can safely presume the shore based installation will only carry Standard Missile family members.

The SPY-1 radar was developed with open ocean air defense as its priority, and has struggled with tracking targets over land. But because ballistic missile trajectories are so far above the horizon, that shouldn’t be an issue.

Aegis Ashore is a great example of leveraging existing technologies for a low risk, low costs solution to a problem. With over thirty years of use, the basic components are well tested. The systems are already in production for shipboard use, and adapting them to shore use is a far easier task than adapting a shore based system for shipboard use.

Indeed, before the Navy even fielded its first operational Aegis system, it build a shore based system for testing and integration.

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Shore basing the Aegis system is also quite a bit cheaper than providing the same capability via a forward deployed ship. Lower operating and manning costs, and simplified logistics drive down costs.

Aegis and the SM missile family have a good track record of success in testing against short, medium, and intermediate range ballistic missiles. Full capability against ICBMs has yet to be demonstrated, but as capability grows, updating the ashore installations will be relatively simple.