Navy Wants to Shed Aegis Ashore Mission, But Army Still Hasn’t Agreed to Take It

January 12, 2021 5:58 PM
The new Naval Support Facility in Redzikowo, Poland, will be home to the Aegis Ashore Ballistic Missile Defense System(AABMDS) mission. Photo represents construction progress as of August 2019. US Navy Photo

The chief of naval operation’s new call to focus on sea control and power projection could lead the service to shed other non-core missions the Navy conducts today, such as manning Aegis Ashore missile defense sites.

The biggest problem is, no one else has agreed to take over that mission yet.

CNO Adm. Mike Gilday wrote in his Navigation Plan 2021, released Jan. 11, that, “To remain ahead of our competitors, we will divest ourselves of legacy capabilities that no longer bring sufficient lethality to the fight. This includes divestment of experimental Littoral Combat Ship hulls, legacy cruisers, and older dock landing ships. It also includes divesting non-core Navy missions like Aegis Ashore. Transferring shore-based ballistic missile defense sites to ground forces enables Sailors to focus on their core missions at sea and frees up resources to increase our lethality,” reads the plan.

This thinking is in line with what the Marine Corps announced last year, with plans to rid itself of tanks, artillery cannons, bridging companies and law enforcement battalions to free up money and people for new priorities for a peer adversary fight in the Pacific.

In the case of the Marines, the Army already has tanks and cannons, so the joint force wouldn’t lose any capabilities wholesale.

For the Navy, though, no one else operates Aegis systems today, and no one has yet agreed to take over Aegis Ashore, Rear Adm. Paul Schlise, the director of surface warfare on the CNO’s staff (OPNAV N96), said today during a panel presentation at the Surface Navy Association’s annual symposium.

“It’s been an ongoing discussion in the building here. Right now we’ve got the Aegis Ashore sites in Europe, and there’s discussions about potentially more sites in other places. The general discussion has been, this is not a core Navy mission. Sailors really belong at sea serving in ships. And we’ve got a good number of highly qualified folks serving in those sites, they’re going a great job,” he said.
“But I think what the CNO teed up is, is this a core Navy mission? I don’t think it is. And so there’s been some discussion with the Army. The Army, of course, has some missile defense capability and of course great soldiers that serve in those roles. But they don’t have any experience with that [Aegis Combat System], the systems that have been installed or are in progress in Romania and Poland. So that’s been a running discussion.”

Aegis Ashore Missile Defense Complex in Devesulu, Romania. MDA Photo

Schlise said the discussion is taking place at the Office of the Secretary of Defense level. Without any final decisions, though, the Navy could not shed Aegis Ashore spending in its most recent budgeting work, the Fiscal Year 2022 request that will come out after the Biden administration comes in and can review it.

“For the purposes of this past budget cycle, it was just kind of tabled. So we’ll have to see where that discussion goes. As always, here in the building, it’s about money. So if that transition were to be considered and approved for moving forward, to transition it to another service, ‘who’s going to pay’ will of course be part of the discussion,” Schlise said.
“The CNO’s comments are well taken. I know that the type commanders, [Commander of Naval Surface Forces Vice Adm. Roy Kitchener and Commander of Naval Surface Force Atlantic Rear Adm. Brad Cooper], would love to have all those sailors that we have tied up in those facilities back at sea commanding our ships and doing those jobs that sailors do at sea. So that’s part of the approach; I think the CNO said, shedding that mission, the things that don’t advance our sea control capabilities and our power projection capabilities from the sea, we’re trying to shed some of those things and focus on more core Navy, naval missions.”

The Missile Defense Agency operates a system of systems approach to global ballistic missile defense for U.S. forces stationed forward and for allies and partners. The Army operates many of the systems within the Missile Defense System, including the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) and PATRIOT Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3) systems. The Navy conducts missile defense missions at sea from its Aegis-equipped destroyers and cruisers, but Aegis Ashore is the only land-based responsibility for the Navy.

As the Navy and Marine Corps reshape themselves with China as their pacing threat, sea control and power projection from the sea are the key mission areas they’re focused on. For the Marines, this means investing in the Light Amphibious Warship to help Marines maneuver around Pacific as small units that can serve a range of missions, including launching anti-ship missiles or even conducting sub-hunting missions.

For the Navy, this means doubling down on its undersea advantage through more attack submarines, unmanned underwater vessels and undersea sensors, as well as creating the Naval Operational Architecture (NOA) that will connect the fleet’s ships and aircraft to share maritime awareness and targeting data – creating an “any sensor, any shooter” netted fleet, several speakers have said this week at SNA.

To pay for that, and to free up personnel, the sea services have to shed less relevant missions. Gilday noted in his NAVPLAN that “ground forces” would take over this mission, but it’s not clear if the Army will willingly take on that mission, or if Pentagon leadership might make the final decision.

This discussion comes at a time when Pentagon leadership is increasingly supportive of moving away from the one-third, one-third, one-third way of dividing up defense funds between the Navy, Army and Air Force, and instead has expressed interest in giving the Navy more money to grow its fleet at the expense of Army end strength. That ongoing discussion about reallocating resources between the services is likely coloring the discussion about sending the Aegis Ashore mission to the Army.

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein

Megan Eckstein is the former deputy editor for USNI News.

Get USNI News updates delivered to your inbox