Modern US Navy guided missile cruisers perform primarily in a Battle Force role. Due to their extensive combat capability, these ships have been designated as Battle Force Capable (BFC) units. They are designed to operate in a high-density multi-threat environment well into the 21st century. Equipped to operate as an integral member of a aircraft carrier battle group or as part of surface action group (SAG), the ships are able to control engagements of friendly US interceptors against enemy aircraft to ranges in excess of 500 miles.
Built to be employed in support of Carrier Battle Groups, Amphibious Assault Groups, as well as interdiction and escort missions, their mission is two-fold. First, to prevent the employment of weapons against friendly forces by destroying enemy missiles, aircraft, submarines and surface ships. Second, to conduct offensive actions against the enemy through the employment of long range anti-ship and land attack missiles, and through naval gunfire support.
The Navy commissioned the first Aegis cruiser, USS Ticonderoga (CG 47), Jan. 22, 1983, and changed the shape of naval warfare. The introduction of Aegis marked a major expansion in naval surface force capabilities, and indeed the service as a whole.
The Aegis system was developed to counter the serious air and missile threat that Soviet air and naval forces posed to U.S. carrier battle groups and other task forces. With Ticonderoga-class cruisers in company, battle group commanders had weapons that could deal comprehensively with massed missile attacks, and ships could act as effective anti-air warfare command-and-control platforms during an engagement at sea.
The foundation of Ticonderoga's capabilities - and the surface warships that followed - is the Aegis combat system, which coordinates the operation of all sensors and weapons. The heart of Aegis is the Aegis Weapon System (AWS), which is centered on the AN/SPY-1 radar, the planar phased-array radar mounted in the ship's superstructure. This system is inherently capable of directing nearly 20 missiles at one time. Moreover, Aegis integrates the system with a crew of highly trained operators to perform a variety of different functions.
Aegis had its genesis in the air defense challenges of World War II and the changing post-war operational environment. The Navy had relied on layered air defenses that combined Combat Air Patrols (CAP) by carrier-based fighters, air-search radars providing input to shipboard Combat Information Centers (CIC), and ship-mounted anti-aircraft guns. But as the conflict neared its end, Japanese kamikaze attacks in the Pacific along with German guided-missile technology made it clear to Navy leadership the days of this type of defense were numbered - a fact that became even clearer when the Soviet Union introduced long-range anti-ship missiles.
In the '50s, the Navy attempted to counter these and other Soviet air threats by developing the "3-T" series of missiles - Talos, Terrier, and Tartar. In the '60s, the Navy improved air defense coordination by developing the Naval Tactical Data System (NTDS) - which replaced manpower-intensive plotting methods used in CIC - and the associated Link 11 data link. NTDS ships shared radar contact information and created a common situational plot.
Combined with NTDS, the resulting system worked well against a small number of manned aircraft or missiles, the major threat of the era, but could not effectively deal with the rapidly growing Soviet anti-ship missile threat, which continued to expand through the '60s.
To keep pace with this threat, the Navy began work on the Typhon air defense system, built around long-range radar and medium- and long-range missiles. However, Typhon was soon canceled due to weight, cost, and operational considerations. This led the Navy to establish the Advanced Surface Missile System (ASMS) in 1964.
By the end of 1969, the ASMS program was renamed the Aegis program, and the radar developed as part of ASMS would evolve into the prototype AN/SPY-1. On a parallel track, the Navy built an improved Standard Missile-1 (SM-1) to replace the 3-Ts. SM-2 had improved flight performance and a new guidance system needed to complement the Aegis Weapon System. During the next decade and half, the Aegis Program Office would develop and deploy the integrated shipboard combat system that would change the face of U.S. Navy operations.
Ticonderoga made the first deployment of an Aegis warship in October 1983, a tense period at the height of the Cold War. In the Mediterranean, a United States peacekeeping mission in Lebanon suffered a severe blow when the Marine barracks in Beirut was destroyed in a terrorist bombing. Ticonderoga steamed into harm's way and provided U.S. commanders with capabilities not found on any other single ship in the nation's arsenal.
CG-47 was put through qualifications trials in April 1983. That summer, Representative Denny Smith (R-Oregon), a frequent critic of high-cost military procurement programs, alleged that CG-47's Aegis combat system had failed operational evaluation. His criticisms were echoed in the Senate by Gary Hart of Colorado, a candidate for the Democratic Party's nomination for President. The CNO acknowledged that there had indeed been software system failures in the April trials. In February 1984 the Under Secretary of Defense for Research and Engineering informed the Secretary of Defense that Aegis had serious design problems, and the Secretary of the Navy admitted to reporters that "actual missile kills ... have not been that impressive." The May 1985 Naval Institute Proceedings carried a glowing description of the Aegis system and praised the performance of CG-47 during the ship's tour of duty off of the Lebanese coast in the Fall of 1984, but the question of Aegis' operational performance was left unresolved.
Ultimately Aegis so revolutionized the way in which warfare at sea could be conducted, that it permitted the Navy to alter its Maritime Strategy to meet the new challenges of littoral warfare.
About eight years after Ticonderoga entered service, the Soviet Union dissolved, and the U.S. Navy had a new enemy to fight, and a new way to conduct new types of operations. Iraq's invasion of Kuwait in 1990 highlighted the danger posed by rogue regional powers bent on conquest and war. To combat this threat, the Navy emphasized littoral offensive and defensive operations, as part of a larger joint, multiservice, multinational effort. Aegis cruisers protected U.S. and coalition ships operating within the tight confines of the Arabian Gulf and acted as a linchpin in coalition maritime air defense operations.
Operation Desert Storm brought Ticonderoga-class cruisers armed with SM-2 surface-to-air missiles and Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles (TLAM). The addition of Tomahawk was particularly significant. For the first time, warships could deliver a precise offensive punch against enemy targets deep inland; a capability exercised vigorously against Iraq and later in southwest Asia and the Balkans.
Today, the Navy is engaged in another type of conflict, a global war on terrorism. Aegis warships - cruisers and destroyers - played important roles in Operation Enduring Freedom, and launched the first Tomahawk strikes of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
One key to the success of Ticonderoga-class cruisers has been the continual upgrade process and enhancements carried out since 1983. Each new group of ships in the class is more capable than its predecessors, incorporating technologies and systems previously unavailable. Then, as technical, engineering, and fiscal constraints permitted; they were "back-fitted" into earlier cruisers. This upgrade process allows the Navy to incorporate new systems and capabilities into existing cruisers during the course of their service lives, thereby keeping the entire class current.