On December 14, Under Secretary of Defense for
Acquisition Edward C. Aldridge announced that the Department of
Defense is canceling the Navy's missile defense program for
protecting small areas such as port facilities. This program-until
recently known as the Navy Area-Wide (NAW) program-was designed to
destroy attacking missiles in the terminal phase of flight.
Although media attention has focused on the
cancellation of this program, a more important announcement
regarding national defense was Under Secretary Aldridge's related
statement that the Department of Defense will continue to pursue a
sea-based terminal defense capability. According to Aldridge, the
cancellation of NAW was due to growth in program costs; it does not
imply that a sea-based defense is infeasible.
In fact, the NAW program was only one of three
viable alternatives for sea-based missile defense. It is now up to
the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), the Pentagon
office that runs missile defense programs generally, to define the
program to replace NAW. The Bush Administration and Congress should
insist that BMDO propose an alternative program as quickly as
Three Sea-Based Missile Defense Programs
Earlier, BMDO maintained three sea-based missile defense programs. The first-the NAW program-was designed to counter ballistic missiles in the terminal phase to protect small areas. The second, and more promising-formerly known as the Navy Theater-Wide (NTW) program and now called the Sea-Based Midcourse program-is designed to protect entire regions by destroying attacking missiles outside the atmosphere. With upgrades, this system will also be capable of defending U.S. territory against long-range missiles. The third program-the Sea-Based Boost-Phase program-uses surface-to-air missiles to destroy target ballistic missiles shortly after they are launched and is being designed to counter the North Korean threat in particular by deploying Navy ships off the Korean coast in the event of a crisis.
The most important of the three alternatives for
sea-based missile defense is the Sea-Based Midcourse program, which
offers the best near-term option for providing a reliable defense
of U.S. territory against ballistic missile attack. The
cancellation of the NAW program does not affect prospects for the
Sea-Based Midcourse program, which the Department of Defense and
the BMDO will continue to develop.
Congress has provided additional funds for this
program in recent years and should continue to consider it a
priority. Now that the ABM Treaty is being set aside,
counterproductive legal impediments to missile defense have been
removed, and opportunities for refining the system are available.
With proper support, BMDO should be able to make this system
capable of defending U.S. territory.
Defining an Alternative for the NAW
The Department of Defense canceled the NAW program because the law requires that a program that exhibits a 25 percent increase in unit cost may continue only if the Secretary of Defense certifies, among other things, that there is no reasonable alternative for providing a capability that would ensure national security to the same extent. The Department of Defense chose not to make the certification. It did not cancel the program because it believes a sea-based terminal defense is infeasible.
The Department of Defense seems to believe an
alternative is available. Under Secretary Aldridge stated that BMDO
will continue to work on obtaining the kind of capability that
would have been provided by the NAW system. Congress should press
BMDO to provide the alternative plan as quickly as possible.
The nation needs a sea-based terminal defense
against ballistic missile attack, primarily for the defense of U.S.
friends and allies. Given that several of these important friends
and allies-Saudi Arabia and South Korea, for example-now face a
serious missile threat, the United States should field a system
quickly. While the Army has begun initial production of the Patriot
PAC-3 ground-based terminal defense, there may be political or
logistical factors that would bar the timely deployment of the
Patriot PAC-3. A highly mobile sea-based system, which also can
patrol in international waters, presents a logical alternative.
BMDO has a responsibility to Congress and the American people to
quickly define and present a plan for the replacement to the NAW
The Defense Department's decision to cancel the NAW program is a disappointment, but it is not a disaster. The decision does not signal that either missile defense generally or sea-based missile defense in particular is technologically infeasible. Nor does it signal that the United States is abandoning the sea-based terminal defense as an essential part in the design of an overall missile defense system.
Fortunately, the cancellation of the NAW program
does not interrupt the more important work taking place on the
Sea-Based Midcourse program. The cancellation of the NAW program
must be viewed in perspective, in the context of a range of missile
defense program activities that are varied and widespread.
President George W. Bush understands, and has stated publicly, that
the nation's missile defense development effort is designed to
determine what systems will best meet defense needs. In the
process, it is to be expected that some programs will be set aside
while others take on a more prominent role.
The Administration must remain focused on putting
the most capable defenses into the field as quickly as possible.
The missile threat to the American people and U.S. allies is
growing. President Bush's decision to withdraw from the outdated
ABM Treaty has removed the single most debilitating obstacle to the
design and deployment of an effective missile defense system. The
Administration should now take advantage of this moment of
opportunity to move the nation's missile defense programs forward
with all deliberate speed.
Baker Spring is
F. M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy in the
Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for International Studies
at The Heritage Foundation.