If all goes according to plan, Aegis radar-equipped warships such as the U.S. Navy’s Arleigh Burke-class destroyers and land-based configurations, known as Aegis Ashore, will ultimately be capable of employing these interceptors. Under Phase 3 of the European Phased Adaptive Approach, the SM-3 Block IIA will be deployed in the ground-based role in Poland and Romania.
Eventually, the SM-3 Block IIA could help partially satisfy the demand for enhanced ballistic missile defenses in the Pacific theatre, where the United States is confronted by North Korea’s rapidly evolving missile capabilities. This will be especially significant if the SM-3 Block IIA demonstrates a reliable ability to engage ICBM-like targets. Being based on warships, it would offer a considerable amount of flexibility, especially compared to the fixed GMD missile fields.
The U.S. has previously argued that its entire BMD enterprise, including the SM-3 Block IIA, is not intended to limit the credibility of Russia’s or China’s nuclear deterrents and the fact remains it wouldn’t be able to defeat any kind of large-scale nuclear attack from either of those countries. In fact, we really don’t know how big the envelope of the SM-3 Block IIA actually is, and thus where a ship would have to be positioned in order to defend a certain potential target area. Still, even the ability to successfully nullify a limited strike by less capable foes is very questionable at best. On the other hand, it’s not hard to imagine that Moscow or Beijing might view this latest development in a different light and perhaps use it to legitimize new investments in their deterrent forces.
Russia is already working to improve its anti-missile defense capabilities to defeat just the kind of problem that the SM-3 Block IIA could pose. As long ago as 2016, a Russian television documentary on the RS-24 Yars ICBM claimed that its warheads had advanced maneuvering capability to defeat these kinds of interceptors.
China’s ballistic missiles, meanwhile, present an ever more potent threat, reportedly now including the potential to strike larger-sized warships underway in the Pacific with its “carrier killer” missiles.
The FTM-44 has shown that defense against ICBMs using Aegis BMD-equipped warships is technologically feasible. The U.S. Navy now has to work out how it could employ this defensive capability as part of the wider missile defense system. At the same time, the United States may have to negotiate a potentially hostile reception from China and Russia in regards to this latest breakthrough.
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