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San Diego Union-Tribune September 24, 2006

San Diego-based warships to help ward off missile threat

By Otto Kreisher

WASHINGTON – When North Korea launched seven ballistic missiles July 4, the U.S. national missile defense system was on operational alert, even though a long string of test failures made most experts doubt the land-based interceptors could stop a threatening warhead.

But closely watching those North Korean test launches from the Western Pacific were Navy warships that had a nearly perfect record of knocking down test ballistic missiles, including a San Diego-based cruiser that two weeks earlier had successfully intercepted a dummy warhead more than 100 miles in space.

Today, that guided-missile cruiser, the Shiloh, is stationed in Yokosuka, Japan, to provide some protection in case North Korea should fire some of its ballistic missiles at that allied nation.

Until last month, the Navy had only an “emergency” ballistic missile engagement capability with three ships, said Rear. Adm. Alan B. Hicks, director of the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense program. But with the recent certification of an improved version of the Aegis missile combat system aboard the Shiloh, the Navy is “fielding an engagement capability” against a range of ballistic missiles, Hicks said.

By the end of this year, the Navy will have six Aegis-equipped ships capable of shooting down ballistic missiles and 12 more that can assist by providing precision tracking of such threats, Hicks said. One of the future shooters and five of the tracking ships are guided-missile destroyers based in San Diego.

The San Diego-based destroyer Decatur will have ballistic-missile intercept capabilities by the end of the year. The Fitzgerald, Milius, Benfold, John Paul Jones and Higgins have detection and tracking capabilities.

By the end of 2008, the Navy will have 18 ships capable of engaging short-to intermediate-range missiles and will be developing the capability to kill the same intercontinental-range missiles that the land-based defense is supposed to stop, the admiral said.

Two independent experts, while acknowledging that the Navy's tests have been much more successful than the national program, questioned how ready for combat the sea-based system actually is.

John Pike, an authority on defense and space technology, said the Aegis ships could “quite possibly” defend Japan if the threat were something like the short-range and relatively crude Scud missiles.

But against a longer-range missile, like North Korea's Rodong, Pike said, “Maybe it would, maybe it wouldn't.”

Phillip Coyle, a former chief weapons tester for the Pentagon, said he did not think the Navy system was ready, “not in the sense of being able to do real-world engagements.”

The Navy has been working for more than a decade to develop an anti-missile capability for its highly regarded air-defense system based on the Aegis combat system, the SPY-1 radar and the Standard missile.

Building incrementally, the Navy has developed a ballistic-missile defense system that ran up a record of eight interceptions in nine test shots, including a June 22 test in which the Shiloh detected and tracked a ballistic missile and destroyed its warhead with an interceptor propelled into space by an SM-3 Standard missile, Hicks said.

Shortly after, the Shiloh was moved to Japan, joining two guided-missile destroyers with long-range search-and-track ability against ballistic missiles, to provide an interim missile defense capability.

The Navy's test record contrasts sharply with the much more expensive land-based national defense program, which until a successful interception Sept. 1 had suffered through several years of embarrassing failures.

In 2007, the Navy will split with the Army a $1.9 billion allocation out of the $9.3 billion total requested for the Missile Defense Agency in 2007.

Hicks said the Navy system is able to intercept only short-and medium-range missiles but will soon be able to handle longer-range threats. It will be eight years before it is able to tackle the intercontinental missiles.

Pike, the founder of the GlobalSecurity.org defense Web site and consulting service, said: “I think it is generally recognized that the lower-tier theater missile defense capabilities are the easiest to do. The exo-atmospheric, intercontinental is more difficult.”

But Pike's main concern about the Navy's claim to have an operational missile defense is the small number of interceptors it can deploy against perhaps 200 North Korean missiles.

“Getting the Aegis battle-management system certified to do ballistic missile defense, that's the easy part of it,” Pike said. “The hard part will be to build up a sufficient inventory of interceptors” to be able to fire two at any threatening North Korean missile.

“They're not going to do that anytime soon,” he said.


Copyright 2006, Union-Tribune Publishing Co.