The Sky, the Sea

Armscontrolwonk has a seriously unreported scoop about the great Czech radar kerfuffle. Namely, why is the US playing down the capabilities of the one element of the missile defence plan that actually works, and wouldn’t need anything as politically contentious as a new missile base? Defence geeks will already guess what we’re talking about, which is the capability of the US Navy’s Aegis air defence cruiser to shoot at missiles in the boost phase. It seems the Missile Defense Agency isn’t keen on the notion.

There’s a lot going for it. For a start it, ah, works – the problem is much simpler. In the boost phase, the rocket is going up, but not covering much ground towards you, so it’s easier to shoot at. And the enemy ends up with the bits. Ships go to sea, and lurk in international waters – they can move to cover a specific threat, and don’t need to be based very near their patrol areas.

So, a suggestion. ACW mentions a souped-up version of the SM-3 rocket that’s being developed with the Japanese. They, after all, have bought four destroyers equipped with the missiles and the fancy radar and computer systems. Why, then, can’t Europe buy its own? A lot of objections to the whole plan are based on them being “American” bases. After all, we can’t be totally sure that the missiles would hurtle up to intercept nukes inbound to London, Vienna, Toulouse, or Tallinn – can we? So why not have our own? – during the cold war we thought this argument very important with regard to offensive nuclear weapons. Presumably, such a purchase would bring in lucrative workshare for Thales, Astrium, Matra-BAE Dynamics & Co.

And you could even call it a force de défense spatiale tous azimuts. Ships sail, right? Including to the North Atlantic, if need be. There is, however, a probby. Putting ships in the eastern Mediterranean is easy enough. Putting them in the high North and the North Sea is politically and militarily easy, although it’s a tough job in winter. The Baltic? Well, there’s nothing to stop you, and both sides are in friendly hands. The Russians wouldn’t be happy. But then, they wouldn’t anyway. ACW, though, reckons you might need one in the Black Sea.

Special international agreements exist regarding the transit of the Straits, to which Russia is a party. Specifically, you can’t send aircraft carriers through. An Aegis ship is no carrier, but that don’t mean they aren’t going to make a big fuss about it. Update: WSI Brussels Blog has more.

7 thoughts on “The Sky, the Sea

  1. For quite a number of reasons.

    1. Ships can be sunk.
    2. Ships need a crew to operate them, even more if because of (1) you need ships to protect the ships
    3. Ships cannot stay at sea indefinitely, neither can the crews be expected to do so. So you need three times the numbers of missiles.

    Furthermore, your opponent will then forgo the locations near the sea and station his missiles as far inland as possible, so you are in an arms race of who can launch faster. You’ll lose that race.

  2. 1. So can a land-based missile installation, perhaps with short-range ballistic missiles that neither system could do anything about. Unlike a ship, it can’t move – so its location is always known. In an open society, we’ll also need to take precautions against sabotage/terrorism.

    2. Obvious and trivial. You need a crew to operate the radar site and the missile base, and a security force to guard them.

    3. No, they can’t. But they are cheaper than midcourse BMD systems that still need more years of multizillion development spending, and they are useful for other tasks as well. And having more of them than a strict minimum is a feature, not a bug – there will only be one BMD radar site, and if anything happens to it..

    4. Bollocks. How much further inland could Iran go – they’ll run out! Further, considering Russian rockets, once you start looking at launches from beyond the Urals you’re looking at great circle routes over the high North and the, ahem, sea.

  3. 1. Anything can be destroyed, but destroying a ship is easier. Building a missile defense site that cannot defend itself against missiles is kind of pointless.

    2. Nevertheless one fixed installation will need less crew than a ship which needs people to tend the ship, its defenses against submarines and surfaces ships.

    3 + 4
    To do a boost phase interception you need to be close enough to cover the distance between launchers during the boost phase.

    Unfortunately certain countries’ military does not tell me how long the boost phase lasts. I’ll give you ten minutes comparable to a conventional rocket launch. The interceptor needs some time to find a launching solution and to get his missile to speed. Let’s say about 6 minutes remain. At mach 6 you’ll cover about 600km.

    Looking at launch over the northern seas is possible, but you’ll be too late to catch the missiles in the boost phase. Mid course interception is hard enough to do from a fixed platform, why make the task harder by firing from a mobile platform?

  4. destroying a ship is easier.

    What on earth makes you think that? They’re surrounded by water, steam at 30 knots and carry their own defensive armament? I’m beginning to see how Germany started two world wars without thinking a navy might be useful.

    Building a missile defense site that cannot defend itself against missiles is kind of pointless.

    Don’t be bloody stupid, man. The planned one is intended to shoot at ICBMs in midcourse. It would be completely useless against short-range missiles – they simply don’t get far enough above the horizon. Aegis is actually quite good at shooting down incoming SRBMs.

    Mid course interception is hard enough to do from a fixed platform, why make the task harder by firing from a mobile platform?

    Aegis has actually hit its targets in proper tests, and has been in service for 20 years. Harder? Apparently not.

  5. Isn’t there some problem with international law and boost phase missile defense, or was that resolved when Bush withdrew from the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty?

  6. I’ve no idea. Outside the ABM treaty I certainly can’t think of one – it’s clearly self-defence as per Article 51 of the UN Charter.

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