Continue the Sea-Based Terminal-Phase Missile Defense Program

Report Defense

Continue the Sea-Based Terminal-Phase Missile Defense Program

December 17, 2001 4 min read
Baker Spring
F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy

Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition Edward C. Aldridge announced on December 14, 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 was called the Navy Area-Wide (NAW) program and it was designed to destroy attacking missiles in the terminal-phase of flight. According to Aldridge, the program was canceled because of cost growth.

While the press has focused on the cancellation decision itself, as opposed to the reason for it, and its supposedly negative implications for the technical feasibility of missile defense, it has not paid as much attention to the fact that Under Secretary Aldridge also stated that the Department of Defense will continue to pursue a sea-based terminal defense capability. It is now up to the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO), the Pentagon office that runs missile defense programs generally, to define the ongoing effort. The Bush Administration and Congress should insist that BMDO propose this alternative program as quickly as possible.

Three Sea-Based Missile Defense Programs

Earlier, BMDO maintained three sea-based missile defense programs. The first was the NAW program, which was designed to counter ballistic missiles in the terminal phase to protect small areas. It is the program the Department of Defense just cancelled. The second, and more promising program, was until recently called the Navy Theater-Wide (NTW) program. Now called the Sea-Based Midcourse program, it is designed to protect entire regions against missile attack 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 final sea-based program is called the Sea-Based Boost-Phase program. It is designed to counter the North Korean threat in particular by deploying Navy ships off the Korean coast in the event of a crisis and use surface-to-air missiles to destroy target ballistic missiles shorting after they are launched.

Congress should not confuse these three programs. The most important of them is the Sea-Based Midcourse program. This is the system that offers the best near-term option for providing a reliable defense of U.S. territory against ballistic missile attack. This program is not affected by Under Secretary Aldridge's December 14 announcement. The Department of Defense generally and the BMDO in particular are continuing the Sea-Based Midcourse program. Congress, in recent years, has provided additional funds to this program. It should continue to pay special attention to this program. Now that the ABM Treaty is being set aside, BMDO should be able to make this system capable of defending U.S. territory without the legal impediments that stood in the way of the program in the past.

Picking Up the Pieces of the NAW Program

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 essential to national security. 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, face a serious missile threat now, the U.S. needs to field a system quickly. While the Army has begun initial production of the Patriot PAC-3 ground-based terminal defense, Congress needs to realize that there may be political or logistical reasons that bar the deployment of the Patriot PAC-3 in a timely fashion. The highly mobile sea-based alternative, which also can patrol in international waters, is the logical alternative. BMDO has a responsibility to Congress and the American people to share its plan for the replacement to the NAW system.


The Department of Defense's decision to cancel the NAW program is a disappointment; it is not a disaster. The decision does not signal that missile defense generally or sea-based missile defense in particular is technologically infeasible. Further, it does not signal that the U.S. is abandoning the sea-based terminal defense as a part of an overall missile-defense-system-design. Finally, the cancellation of the NAW program does not interrupt the more important work taking place on the NTW or Sea-Based Midcourse program.

Thus, Congress and the American people need to put this decision in perspective. Missile defense program activities are varied and widespread. President Bush understands, and has stated publicly, that the missile defense development effort is designed to determine what systems will work best. It is to be expected that some setbacks will occur. The main thing is that the Administration remain focused on putting the most capable defenses into the field as quickly as possible. The missile threat to the American people and America's allies is growing. By announcing U.S. withdraw from the ABM Treaty, the single most important obstacle to the deployment of effective missile defenses is being removed. The Bush Administration needs to take advantage of the opportunity it has created for itself by moving missile defense programs forward.

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.


Baker Spring

F.M. Kirby Research Fellow in National Security Policy