WASHINGTON, D.C. – As demand for regional ballistic missile defense (BMD) capabilities sharply increases, the BMD forces’ operational tempo is trying to keep pace while funding is not – leading defense officials to question if a new BMD strategy is needed.
During a House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee hearing Thursday, several members spoke of a Nov. 5, 2014, memo from Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Adm. Jonathan Greenert and Army Chief of Staff Gen. Raymond Odierno to then-defense secretary Chuck Hagel, asking for a revised BMD strategy.
“The recent Army-Navy Warfighter Talks highlighted the growing challenges associated with ballistic missile threats that are increasingly capable, continue to outpace our active defense systems, and exceed our Services’ capacity to meet Combatant Commanders’ demand,” according to the memo obtained by USNI News.
“Additionally, looking ahead at the long-term budgetary horizon and the attendant financial pressures that the Budget Control Act would impose, we believe a Department sponsored ballistic missile defense strategy assessment is warranted.”
Adm. Bill Gortney, the current commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command who served as U.S. Fleet Forces commander from 2012 to 2014, explained the Navy’s position during the hearing.
“I was in the staff talks, Navy-Army staff talks that generated that particular lecture, and the fundamental issue from the services comes down to, are we spending our money correctly, and what is the impact for the money that we are spending?” he said.
“The primary concern that they have … is that we’re really emphasizing being a [missile] catcher and shooting a rocket down with a rocket. That’s a very expensive proposition, and it drives low-density high-demand assets, their operational tempo, up. So when [Greenert and Odierno] talk about unsustainable, it’s not only in terms of cost, but it’s in terms of the operational tempo of the forces that are doing it. And so what we really need is … a deterrence policy that helps keep missiles on the rail through deterrence, we have kinetic and non-kinetic options to keep missiles on the rails, and then we start attriting the threat once they get airborne, starting with the boost phase and throughout that particular flight so that we start knocking down missiles in a more effective and cost-effective manner.”
In the memo, Greenert and Odierno criticize that the Pentagon’s strategy is “acquisition-based,” “unsustainable” and “favors forward deployment of assets in lieu of deterrence-based options to meet contingency demands.”
Gortney added that homeland defense, including missile defense, is meant to be “an away game” but that sequestration cuts have already wrecked the accounts that fund training and overseas operations, and future rounds of cuts would only further hurt force readiness.
“That is going to drive these low-density, high-demand assets, be it Patriot, [Terminal High Altitude Area Defense] or Aegis BMD ships – their operational tempo is going to go up, only stressing a very very stressed force as it is,” he told the subcommittee.
“Ballistic missile defense ships are at the highest OPTEMPO that we have, and those are the forces that are going to feel that impact that’s going to directly affect how well we defend ourselves in the away game.”
Navy officials, including acquisition chief Sean Stackley, have spoken recently about the challenges of maintaining the cruisers and destroyers to meet the combatant commanders’ BMD needs even as the ships are aging and maintenance budgets are tight.
At a recent conference, Stackley called the Aegis-equipped cruisers and destroyers the “backbone” and “workhorse” of the fleet. He noted “we have 84 today at sea and that number is growing, but the reality is that our cruisers are at midlife, they’re eclipsing midlife, and our destroyers are entering midlife. Two things we’ve got to do: one, we’ve got to get them to their full service life … and we’re going to look to extend their service life. So we’ve got to get them, at that midlife, get their upgrades in place, get the degree of ballistic missile defense that we need to get our BMD ship count up.”
Subcommittee member Rep. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) noted in the hearing that the combatant commanders requested about 44 BMD ships a year from Fiscal Year 2012 to 2014, but in the 2016 request they ask for 77. Gortney said the demand for regional missile defense has skyrocketed as the threat proliferates, making it even more important to tackle OPTEMPO and the cost curve.
Vice Adm. Jim Syring, director of the Missile Defense Agency, noted in the conversation that the combatant commanders are asking the CNO for “more and more and more, and I see that escalating over the next several years.”
“CNO and the Navy have other things for those ships to do in terms of sailing with strike groups and protecting the strike groups, and [in the memo] I think you see the CNO saying that I don’t have the assets in the future to cover all the requirements from the combatant commanders around the world, I’m just asking for a new strategy in terms of how do we do that, how do we integrate left and right of launch, how do we move this into advanced technology and get on the right side of the cost curve, in his words.”
Subcommittee chairman Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Ala.) said he was disappointed with Hagel’s response to the memo, characterizing the former secretary’s response as supporting the current BMD strategy.
As badly as the BMD force is stressed now, Syring warned that sequestration in FY 2016 would devastate the MDA budget, which does not have a operations and maintenance account to raid and is not authorized to receive Overseas Contingency Operations account funding, which has helped shield the services’ budgets from the full effects of the sequester.
Syring said that earlier cuts forced delays in testing, including for the Raytheon-built Standard Missile-3 Block IIA missile.
“I took further risk on the SM3 IIA development program and essentially removed all of the margin in that very important program,” he said.
“We must deliver that missile in 2018.”
Syring suggested that sequestration could bring the MDA’s requested spending level of $8.1 billion down to $6.7 billion, at which point “you’re starting to jeopardize our future capability in terms of what we’re able to say to the American people on our ability to defend the homeland.”
MDA has a flight test planned for the SM3 IIA in May at Point Mugu, Calif., and in June the agency will conduct the first intercept test with the SM3 IB from an Aegis Ashore test site in Hawaii, MDA spokesman Rick Lehner told USNI News.
MDA intends to buy 209 SM3 IBs by the end of FY 2016 and is working through the process to request multiyear procurement authority.
“Given the design stability of that missile and the successes that we’ve had with intercept and where the predicted reliability is with that missile, we are pushing a multiyear certification authority through the [Defense] Department to send over here to request multiyear procurement authorization,” Syring said.
“We estimate it will be a 14-percent savings over annual procurements, and we view that as a good deal for the American taxpayer and the right thing to do.”