Aegis BMD: Correct the Record and Go Navy!

by AMBASSADOR HENRY F. COOPER September 19, 2017

North Korea claims to have "a multi-functional thermonuclear nuke ... which can be detonated even at high altitudes for super-powerful EMP [electromagnetic pulse] attack according to strategic goals." What will we do?

We had better be prepared to deal with this claim, especially since President Trump has indicated we will shoot down North Korean ballistic missiles that threaten us - and that better include an existential EMP threat from the South that could shut down our electric power grid indefinitely, leading to the death of most Americans within months. 

In my judgment, our homeland ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems are poorly postured to counter this threat - and we should assure that our Aegis BMD ships are prepared and ready to do so.

But at the same time, we must contend with the defense community that is being exposed to fallacious arguments that underestimate the inherent, and actually demonstrated, Aegis BMD capabilities that can be used to counter this EMP threat from North Korea.

Trump administration officials should be and hopefully are sufficiently informed to counter such naysayers. If not, listen up!

I've heard arguments that our currently deployed Aegis BMD systems are capable only as a "terminal" defense - to be used as the attacking ICBM/warhead is descending toward its target. And I've heard arguments that the currently deployed Standard  Missile-3 Block IA or IB (SM-3 Blk IA/B) interceptor would be in a "tail chase" unable to keep up with an attacking ICBM in its ascent phase - as it rises on its way to its highest trajectory point - its apogee - before beginning to descend toward its target in the United States, or to be detonated over the United States to produce an EMP that could present an existential threat to all Americans. Moreover, they argue that even the faster Blk IIA would only have limited capability, so we need the bigger, faster Blk IIB to accomplish such a daunting task.

These arguments are wrong, because those in charge of our currently deployed Aegis BMD systems can do better if commanded and authorized to do so.

Such capability was clearly demonstrated by the Burnt Frost mission almost a decade ago on February 20, 2008, when the SM-3 Blk IA interceptor was used to shoot down a non-cooperating satellite 153 miles above the earth, with a closing velocity of 22,500 miles an hour, according to RADM Brad Hicks - then Director of the Aegis  BMD Program and Commander of Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense (a Naval Sea Systems Command Field Activity) in an August 3, 2009 presentation at the George Marshall Institute in Washington. 

Click here for a video of that important mission that was in response to President George W. Bush's decision to choose Aegis BMD to protect the American people from toxic fuel carried on a dying satellite on its way to reenter the atmosphere (traveling faster than an ICBM).   By the way, this was done by the well trained operational crew of the Lake Erie, not by a bunch of scientists - and using the SM-3 Blk IA, the first generation SM-3 interceptor. 

Click here for a more detailed official description of the mission and click here for the Wikipedia version with numerous pertinent references.  See below for a summary chart from RADM Hicks' Marshall Institute briefing. 

operation burnt frost missile intercept

From page 25 of the Marshall Institute report on his presentation, RADM Hicks answered a question that is pertinent to evaluating current claims about the limits of Aegis BMD capabilities.

Question: How effective would Aegis be to intercept a missile shot from a boat two hundred miles off the coast of the United States, or against a missile armed with an electro-magnetic pulse (EMP)-inducing warhead over the continental United States?

RADM Hicks: I won't speak to EMP because that exceeds the classification for this discussion. Like anything, if a ship is on station and has search fences up against that particular area for a defended area, then exo-atmospheric, endo-atmospheric, if it meets the engagement criteria, it will kill it. But you have to have a ship on station to defend an area, whether it is Los Angeles or New York City. Pick it and you can do it. It is a capacity issue; how many ships do you want to put at sea to do this? And then you want to hunker them down. Now a lot of the debate is on the asymmetric threat or the shot out of the blue, and that gets into voodooism and it is up to combatant commanders, with the national command, to figure out how to deal with that predictive potential attack against the United States. So the system is what it is; you have seen the design space. It doesn't care whether it is firing off a barge or from land. If it meets the engagement criteria against a defended area and passes through the search fence, it will tell you there is a threat and you can engage it if you so desire.

Let me elaborate on that important comment for you.  It is as important today as it was then. But first consider a couple of important facts.

First, the EMP threat from North Korea is no longer a secret, if ever it was. At least now it is widely recognized, if for no other reason because North Korea itself claims it includes an EMP attack in its "strategic goals" - click here for my discussion last week. 

Second, President Trump has reportedly said we will shoot down North Korean missiles that might attack U.S. territory - and the nation's BMD capabilities had better be up to the task.

Click here for my September 8, 2017 Newsmax article on this issue, in which I argued that President Trump, like President Bush before him, should make sure Aegis BMD is prepared to carry out that mission. Let me clarify why this is important, using RADM Hicks' above statement and the demonstrated Aegis BMD capability on Burnt Frost.  

As I noted in Newsmax, North Korea has launched previous satellites over the South Polar regions to approach the United States from the South, and our homeland BMD systems are oriented to intercept ballistic missiles arriving from over the North Polar regions.  

Thus, our homeland defenses are poorly oriented to defend against an EMP attack from the South. 

Aegis BMD can fill this gap - if prepared and ready. 

Another issue is that the attacking North Korean satellite might orbit over the United States at an altitude that exceeds the reach of our current Aegis BMD interceptors to create an EMP - so intercepting it may be difficult. Therefore, we had better be prepared to intercept it on its way up as well as on its way down if North Korea decides on a lower altitude attack. 

Such an ascent phase intercept should be as plausible as was Burnt Frost's demonstration in intercepting the equivalent of an ICBM heading down.

Needed is a "design space" defining appropriate "engagement criteria" and sensors that provide an appropriate "search fence" to identify the penetration of a threat target missile - whether it is going up or down, and provides the ship's commander with a launch/intercept opportunity. In principle, this is no more complicated than was Burnt Frost. And all our current SM-3 interceptors are capable of executing that order.

Most important is to properly deploy and operate sensors to provide needed track information. We have now demonstrated "launch on remote"  and "engage on remote" capabilities, which have long been understood to be possible but apparently were not yet tested for the Burnt Frost intercept.

That major improvement now makes it straight forward to link into all pertinent available tracking sensors without the extraordinary effort that was required to accomplish Burnt Frost.  And these key sensors should be maintained and ready to support this mission.

So, to summarize, Aegis BMD interceptors are capable of intercepting ballistic missiles in their "ascent phase," above the atmosphere, until they exceed the interceptors' reach and then above the atmosphere on the attacking missile's way down toward their targets.

Note, these intercepts are more properly described as "side shots," as illustrated in the above Burnt Frost chart, so arguments about "tail chases" are nonsensical. 

In conclusion, there seems to be confusion between the "ascent phase" intercept above the atmosphere that is quite plausible for the SM-3 interceptors on our current Aegis BMD ships, and a "boost phase" intercept that would occur while the target rockets are still burning should we develop that capability, that the SM-3 does not have.

If we wanted such a boost phase intercept capability, the nearest-term Aegis BMD option would be to modify the software for the SM-2 Block IV air defense interceptor (or its replacement) and to get close enough to the satellite launch site, which would be an operations challenge.

A better option would be to employ AMRAAM air-to-air missiles from our Air Force and Navy fighter aircraft operating off-shore to attack North Korean launches. Click here for my August 28 Newsmax discussion of this option and follow-on High Altitude Long Enduring (HALE) Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) boost-phase intercept options.

But, by all means possible make Aegis BMD all it can be! Go Navy!

Bottom Lines.

North Korea has geared up to present America with an existential EMP threat. 

President Trump reportedly has said we will shoot down future North Korean Ballistic missile that threaten our interests.

This can be challenging for North Korean EMP threats approaching the United States from over the South Polar regions.

Aegis BMD ships are potentially capable of carrying out the President's wishes, if they are prepared and ready.

Enough said, don't you think?

And getting ready will be consistent with President Trump's September 2016 campaign promise in Pennsylvania: "We propose to rebuild the key tools of missile defense, starting with the Navy cruisers that are the foundation of our missile defense capabilities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East."

So, stand by and see what our leaders do-and take the time to press them to act!

What can you do

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Ambassador Henry F. Cooper is Chairman of High Frontier and a former Acquisition Executive for all U.S. ballistic missile defenses.  He also served in several other senior USG acquisition and policy positions, including as President Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union. He is currently focused on helping local, state and federal authorities protect against the natural and manmade EMP threat by building effective ballistic missile defenses and hardening the electric grid. Otherwise, loss of the electric grid would freeze America's "just in time" economy, leaving most Americans without means for survival.


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