Arsenal Ships for Ballistic Missile Defense
It is welcome news the US Military won’t be placing vulnerable and intimidating anti-ballistic missile sites right up against the Russian border in Eastern Europe, but I fear the plan to place them on US Navy ships will do this service more harm than good. Already completely obsessed with land threats, the USN will now have less concern for the essential role of defending the sealanes. With a shrinking fleet and declining funds, they can hardly protect the fleet they have, let alone fight new space wars.
The Navy seems to consider the oceans as their own personal domain and it can afford to dispose of essential anti-submarine escorts and coastal warships, while building large Aegis battleships which are currently doing the work once performed by cheaper, less capable, but vital small warships. Already the cruisers and destroyers are duplicating the aircraft carrier’s land attack role, with 400 mile range cruise missiles and now are shouldered with yet another burden of defending our allies from rogue Iranian or North Korean rockets. Already we see the infighting of whether even more $2 billion new Burke destroyers will be needed, on top of the 60+ already in service or ordered. Colin Clark at DoD Buzz wonders about this conundrum:
One of the most difficult issues is, do we have enough Aegis cruisers to execute the mission. Gates wants two to three cruisers in the Mediterranean and North Sea on a regular basis. That comes on top of the Pacific mission. And I hear that the Aegis fleet is already operating at 160 percent of its readiness rate, mostly to cope with the North Korean threat. One source with detailed knowledge of European missile defense efforts said the new mission will require at least one and perhaps more Aegis class ships to do the job.
As an alternative to our over-worked missile battleships in the role of ABM defense, we would suggest reviving the 1990s proposal for an Arsenal Ship. You may recall this revolutionary hull design as an attempt to replace the Iowa class dreadnoughts with a low cost “missile barge”, until canceled in favor of a more traditional and more costly Zumwalt class destroyer. The arsenal ship was a great idea which never saw the light of day, but also refused to die out completely.
The modern concept would be to use a low-cost ship hull, preferably of mercantile specifications (T-AKE?) equipped with vertical launchers (VLS) for missiles. Keeping the hull cost low would mean the SM-3 missiles would be worth more than the ship, as it should be. Other benefits would be extremely low manning, which could allow for crew swapping, keeping the ship on station for as long as possible.
The arsenal ship would carry nothing but a basic navigation radar, but would depend on other Aegis vessels in service for targeting. This would not be stretch for the service, since common practice already is to use 2 vessels for this role, one for tracking the other as the shooter. In this case, instead of less than 100 Standard missiles on average with the 2 Burkes, there would be up to 1000 (just potentially though not very practical) on the arsenal ship alone! It may also be possible to use aircraft or satellites for targeting purposes, or even a low cost Aegis mothership proposed earlier on this site.
The cost of the hull would be run between $300-$500 million. The Standard SM-3 is priced at $10 million each with the older Block IV Standard at $1/2 million each, so depending on how many you can afford would be the ultimate cost of the vessel. When you think about the real cost, the relief to our sailors and stretched thin fleet for not adding yet another burden on them, the arsenal ship would be Priceless!