Navy Gets Bigger Role In Missile Defense

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Navy Gets Bigger Role In Missile Defense

Post by USS ALASKA » Wed Oct 07, 2009 1:16 pm

CQ Weekly
October 5, 2009
Pg. 2206

Navy Gets Bigger Role In Missile Defense

By Frank Oliveri, CQ Staff

When President Obama last month scrapped a Bush administration plan to base missile defenses in Eastern Europe as protection against Iran, he eased tensions with Russia, whose leaders considered the missile system a threat. But he also put a new strategic burden on the Navy’s Atlantic fleet, which has been given the responsibility for shielding Europe from any attack.

Obama wants the Navy to station a few of its most advanced Aegis missile defense ships — destroyers mostly — near Europe to ward off a ballistic missile attack. That new job, in turn, gives the Pentagon and some lawmakers a reason to seek more money for shipbuilding in coming years.

It’s early in the plan, and the White House hasn’t submitted many details or a budget justification, says Mackenzie Eaglen, a research fellow for national security studies at the conservative Heritage Foundation, “but all indicators point to the need for more Aegis destroyers.”

“The Navy’s major combatant fleet,” Eaglen says, “is already too busy, and this only will add more requirements.”

The Navy has 286 ships on its registry, including auxiliaries, and among them are 100 guided missile cruisers, destroyers and frigates with the Aegis combat system, designed to intercept aircraft and missiles. Only 18 of these ships have the most advanced Aegis system, which can shield wide areas from a ballistic missile attack. And 16 of those are with the Pacific fleet, primarily as a precaution against North Korea, leaving two for the Atlantic.

Three more destroyers are scheduled to be upgraded to the ballistic missile defense system by the end of 2010, according to a Navy spokesman, Lt. Thomas W.H. Buck Jr. All told, the Navy plans to have converted 27 of its 77 Aegis cruisers and destroyers by 2012.

The Navy has had a subsidiary role in recent military missions such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Navy leaders and some members of Congress have worried as the fleet has contracted. The chief of naval operations, Adm. Gary Roughead, has said the Navy should have 313 ships, at a minimum.

At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing last month, John McCain of Arizona, the panel’s ranking Republican, asked Gen. James Cartwright of the Marine Corps, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether the missile defense decisions meant “that we could anticipate a budget request for more ships.”

Cartwright indicated that he didn’t know but emphasized that the program currently only modifies existing Aegis ships rather than building new ones. “We’re certainly giving them additional missions,” McCain replied. Afterward, the senator said, “Well, we may need more ships.”

Some members of Congress are ready to get started, including Rep. Gene Taylor , a Democrat whose Mississippi district is home to one of the two shipyards still building surface warships: the Ingalls Shipbuilding division of Northrop-Grumman in Pascagoula. Taylor, who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Seapower and Expeditionary forces, says Obama’s apparent shift in missile defense strategy toward more use of ship-borne systems justifies increasing the number of ships and accelerating the conversion to the most advanced Aegis system.

Likewise, Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, where the other shipyard — Bath Iron Works — is located, also sees a need for more ships in Obama’s missile defense strategy: “It appears the change in missile defense will increase the need for more ships.”

Taylor said lawmakers will probably wait for the Pentagon to finish its Quadrennial Defense Review before acting on their own through legislation to increase the number of warships. The review was started in April and is scheduled to be released in early 2010.