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Surface Forces: Fixing The Empty Cell Blues
   Next Article → WARPLANES: Blackjacks Showcase Surprising Stamina
June 14, 2010: Thanks to Iranian and North Korean ballistic missiles, the U.S. Navy is now scrambling for a way to enable its warships to reload their missile launch tubes at sea. For over two decades, this was not seen as a priority. But with the widespread use of the Aegis anti-missile system on ships, and the prospect of having to shoot down a lot of hostile ballistic missiles, while also fending off hostile aircraft, the need for reloading VLS cells at sea is now, well, important.

Over the last three decades, the United States, and later several other nations, have adopted the eight cell VLS (Vertical Launch System), where anti-aircraft, anti-ship or cruise missiles are launched directly from the vertical launch tubes (cells) just beneath the decks of warships. The launch tubes also contain electronic connections that enable the crew to monitor the condition and readiness of the missiles. Most cells contain only one missile, although the smaller Sea Sparrow anti-aircraft missile can fit four to a VLS cell. Since 1982, over 11,000 VLS cells have been installed in nearly 200 American and foreign warships. The most common VLS user is the American Burke class destroyer, with 90 VLS cells. A smaller number of cruisers have 122 VLS cells each. Some of the older Spruance class destroyers got 61 VLS cells.

In the 1980s, there was some debate over the need for an at-sea reloading capability. A system was developed, but it meant losing six cells (three for the forward VLS cells, and three for the ones aft, in the rear of the ship). This crane system was dropped, so that the ships could use more cells for missiles. Back then, it was believed that any future war would mainly be a series of hard fought initial battles, when every VLS cell counted. But with ballistic missile defense, an Aegis ship might only be carrying 20-30 Aegis guided anti-missile missiles (the rest being anti-aircraft), and you might not want to send that ship all the way back to a base that could reload the VLS tubes.

At the moment, Aegis anti-missile systems are hot. The U.S. government, encouraged by the high success rate (83 percent) of Aegis SM-3 missiles to shooting down ballistic missiles, has been expanding the number of SM-3 equipped ships. With 18 Aegis anti-missile equipped ships in service now, and plans to have more than twice as many in the next few years.

Converting Aegis ships to fire anti-missile missiles costs about $12 million a ship, mainly for new software and a few new hardware items. This is seen as a safe investment. To knock down ballistic missiles, an Aegis equipped ship uses two similar models of the U.S. Navy Standard anti-aircraft missile, in addition to a modified version of the Aegis radar system, tweaked to also track incoming ballistic missiles.

Now the government wants to use Aegis more aggressively to block Iranian or North Korean ballistic missiles. This means buying over a thousand SM-3 missiles. These currently cost about $10 million each, and the next upgrade (which will deliver more accuracy and reliability) will raise that to $15 million each. While the expanded Aegis program will cost about $20 billion, it's seen as the cheapest way to provide reliable anti-missile defense against Iran and North Korea.

The basic anti-missile missile RIM-161A, also known as the Standard Missile 3 (or SM-3). It has a range of over 500 kilometers and max altitude of over 160 kilometers. The Standard 3 is based on the anti-missile version of the Standard 2 (SM-2 Block IV). This SM-2 missile turned out to be effective against ballistic missile warheads that are closer to their target. One test saw a SM-2 Block IV missile destroy a warhead that was only 19 kilometers up. An SM-3 missile can destroy a warhead that is more than 200 kilometers up. But the SM-3 is only good for anti-missile work, while the SM-2 Block IV can be used against both ballistic missiles and aircraft. The SM-2 Block IV also costs less than half what an SM-3 costs.

The SM-3 has four stages. The first two boost the interceptor out of the atmosphere. The third stage fires twice to boost the interceptor farther beyond the earth's atmosphere. Prior to each motor firing it takes a GPS reading to correct course for approaching the target. The fourth stage is the 20 pound LEAP kill vehicle, which uses infrared sensors to close on the target and ram it. The Aegis system was designed to operate aboard warships (cruisers and destroyers that have been equipped with the special software that enables the AEGIS radar system to detect and track incoming ballistic missiles). However, there is also a land based version that Israel is interested in buying.

 

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jkolak       6/14/2010 12:04:54 PM
"encouraged by the high success rate (83 percent) of Aegis SM-3 missiles to shooting down ballistic missiles"

I'm thinking back when everyone said Ronald Reagan was crazy for promoting the "Star Wars" system for shooting down ballistic missiles. This change in circumstances seems to have come upon us quietly without much attention from the media. I especially don't remember seeing any, "Oops, we were wrong" articles. 
 
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RtWingCon    MAS vs MAD   6/14/2010 6:01:02 PM

"encouraged by the high success rate (83 percent) of Aegis SM-3 missiles to shooting down ballistic missiles"




I'm thinking back when everyone said Ronald Reagan was crazy for promoting the "Star Wars" system for shooting down ballistic missiles. This change in circumstances seems to have come upon us quietly without much attention from the media. I especially don't remember seeing any, "Oops, we were wrong" articles. 

Well, the professors were worried they would lose their grant money, the congress was worried their social programs would suffer, then the peacenics howled. With all the tech advances and achievements made up to that point you would think the clowns mentioned above would think its possible! And who could argue against MAS (mutually Assured Security) instead of MAD! Yet today you still hear those idiot voices speaking out against such systems.
GO NAVY!
 
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Photon       6/14/2010 7:22:01 PM
Reagan's or someone else's SDI would have been a collection of expensive rubbish against thousands of Soviet ballistic missiles, in case of an all-out nuke exchange.  If SDI were such a hot thing to pursue, the Russians would have tried something more grandiose than setting up a handful of ABM sites around Moscow.  On hindsight, SDI and stealth programs were used by the Reagan Administration to unnerve the Soviets and put the US in a stronger position on the arms-reduction treaty negotiations of the late '80s.
 
Even with the current fleet of Aegis warships, it is not much of use against someone who launches hundreds or thousands of ballistic missiles.  In other words, useful against up-starts like Iran and North Korea, but much less useful against any one of the established nuke powers.
 
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The Drill SGT       6/14/2010 10:13:42 PM

Reagan's or someone else's SDI would have been a collection of expensive rubbish against thousands of Soviet ballistic missiles, in case of an all-out nuke exchange.  If SDI were such a hot thing to pursue, the Russians would have tried something more grandiose than setting up a handful of ABM sites around Moscow. 

      

I agree with your general point about SDI, but offer three observations:
1.  Though SDI would not stop every Russian MIRV, it would stop some, and the result was that targeting got more complicated.  How many warheads did you need to expend to be reallly certain that a target was going to be hit and destroyed?  You have to factor in loss of launcher before lift-off (those pesky US SSNs), missile failures, CEP problems and then SDI.   
 
2.  The Iranians on the other hand, might not be sane (from our perspective), but a limited ABM shield again introduces uncertainity.  Say you launch both of your IRBMs on Tel Aviv, one blows up on the pad, and the Israeli ABM turns the other into radioactive confetti over Aman.  The Israeli counterstrike would be brutal. 
 
3. Though SDI would not provide a shield against a Russian strike, the Russians ultimately are sane and MAD worked.  But the actors for which MAD doesn't work don't have hundreds of MIRVs to swamp us.
 
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