U.S. Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Admiral John Richardson made news with his comments at the U.S. Naval War College. “Right now…I have six multi-mission, very sophisticated, dynamic cruisers and destroyers – six of them are on Ballistic Defense Mission (BDM) duty at sea. And if you know a little bit about this business you know that geometry is a tyrant.” As indicated in the report he went on to bemoan the impact of those patrols, saying they were ultimately meaning naval assets were “in a tiny box” in order to intercept any missile threat. “So, we have six ships that could go anywhere in the world, at flank speed, in a tiny little box, defending land.” Clearly Richardson feels significant strain is being place on an already stretched naval fleet and this produces an attention-grabbing headline that doesn’t tell the whole story.
The headline asks if the U.S. will ditch naval missile defense. This is a rather huge question, since much of my analysis has been showing how the U.S. is improving its missile defenses. In response to the Wavell Room, a British military think tank, I wrote about the danger of straight line projections in Chinese economic and military power, the danger of their diplomacy creating a string of alliances against them, and most importantly, the representative example of the J-20 that suggests the missile threat is overblown. I responded to National Interest by saying that Chinese missiles (such as those fired by the J-20) are not as overwhelming as it sounds. Then I described some historical examples such as the battleship and tank, to show how 70-year-old missile technology have inspired numerous countermeasures such as combat air patrols, Arleigh Burke-class missile destroyers armed with Aegis weapon systems, and finally close-in weapon systems. All of these counter measures are being improved even as competitors introduce new and dangerous missiles.
In short, the enhanced missile defense provided by upgraded naval ships is a key part of an argument against click- bait fear-mongering. But this article that suggests that argument may be faulty…at least until you read it closely. CNO Richardson isn’t complaining about his ships providing naval ballistic defense. He is complaining about keeping so many of them in a little tyrannical box when they could move at flank speed anywhere across the world. Stated another way: he is waiting for land-based systems, called Aegis ashore, to be placed in Poland to join the systems already in Romania. This would free those six ships to move to other theaters, such as those in the South China Sea.
So instead of abandoning missile defense, his comments are more about the assets possessed by the navy, how they are being stretched, and how the CNO wants them to be used. Instead of a tiny box near the Port of Roda in Spain, the ships could be used to bolster defense in the South China Sea or with the fleet based in Japan. While it’s not as good at providing keen headlines, this kind of discussion regarding the deployment of assets remains important. Instead of suggesting that ship-based missile defenses are being disregarded, this article instead suggests that the assets might have better uses when they are allowed out of their little box near Europe.