During the tension-filled 1960s, as Russian and American submarines and surface combatants carefully jockeyed for position across the globe, Soviet engineers quietly turned their attention toward a new weapon capable of breaking the longstanding naval stalemate.
It was a highly maneuverable new missile, dubbed an “antiship” missile, designed to skim just above the surface of the water, evading radar while locking onto seaborne targets in the harshest of weather conditions.
The devastating new technology debuted on October 21, 1967, when an Egyptian gunship fired four Russian-built Styx missiles at the Israeli warship Eliat. The missiles streaked toward their target, impervious to countermeasures, sinking the Eliat and killing 47 of its crew members.
For years, the Navy had studied various combinations of radar, armor and onboard missile systems to protect its ships at sea. Now, it was time to double down, to develop a new defense system—a system that, in time, would become the most effective combat system ever put to sea.
Protector of the Open Seas
Originally named the Advanced Surface Missile System (ASMS), the Navy’s new initiative called for the creation of an onboard defensive missile system capable of detecting and intercepting incoming missiles launched from air and sea. Renamed AEGIS as a homage to the magical shield used by Zeus, the program launched in 1969 with Lockheed Martin legacy company RCA as lead contractor.
Unlike conventional rotating radar of the period, which gauged the speed and direction of a target once every 10 to 30 seconds, AEGIS was designed to lock onto multiple incoming missiles and aircraft, continuously tracking their movements while assigning each a potential threat value. It operated according to a fire-control loop, which sought to detect, track and engage threats. Once fixed on a target, the system relayed the oncoming missile’s position back to the ship’s main computer and helped crew members quickly and decisively calculate how to best intercept it with defensive countermeasures.
Under the direction of Rear Admiral Wayne E. Meyer, who subscribed to a “build a little, test a little, learn a lot” philosophy, the AEGIS Weapon System was carefully refined over the next five years. In 1974, it was tested aboard the USS Norton Sound and successfully intercepted aerial targets along the Pacific Missile Test Range.
By 1981, the USS Ticonderoga (CG 47) became the Unites States’ first AEGIS-guided missile cruiser. It was a game-changer. Even new advances in Soviet missile technology could not keep pace with the new defensive capabilities of the AEGIS, providing the United States with a critical new asset in the all-important strategic chess game at sea. On January 22, 1983 when Ticonderoga was commissioned, the rallying cry was: “Stand by, Admiral Gorshkov, AEGIS is at sea!”
Sword Meets Shield
Lockheed Martin continued to help the Navy improve the AEGIS system throughout the 1980s. The introduction of specialized radar equipment allowed for tracking of several hundred targets at once, and an upgraded guidance system extended the range of antiaircraft missiles by calculating more precise flight paths.
But it was the introduction of Martin Marietta’s MK-41 Vertical Launching System (VLS) in 1986 that turned AEGIS into a formidable first-strike weapon. The VLS could rapidly fire a host of different missiles, launching Tomahawks at land targets, Standard Missiles into the air and Antisubmarine Rockets at enemy vessels lurking beneath the water.
The system’s versatility was proved during Operation Desert Storm, when the AEGIS-equipped cruiser Bunker Hill took over tactical control of 26 warships and more than 300 aircraft, directing attacks against Iraqi forces and coordinating the interception of enemy missiles.
AEGIS cruisers and destroyers were used in Kosovo and during Operation Iraqi Freedom, further solidifying their reputations as floating shields for allied forces. But by 2008, AEGIS would be called upon to intercept something unlike anything it had ever targeted before: an errant US built satellite with toxic fuel onboard.
Operation Burnt Frost
The late 1990s ushered in improvements in radar, missiles and guidance systems that allowed AEGIS to intercept ballistic missiles midway through their flight paths before they descended toward their targets. AEGIS-equipped ships could now strategically occupy key locations across the globe and pick off incoming missiles over the open ocean.
So when U.S. officials discovered in 2008 that one of America’s own satellites was about to fall back to Earth–containing over 1,000 pounds of potentially hazardous hydrazine chemicals–they turned to the highest-performing AEGIS cruiser in its fleet: the USS Lake Erie.
In less than two months, Lockheed Martin helped the Navy customize the AEGIS system for this unprecedented challenge, and the USS Lake Erie sailed off to a point hundreds of miles northwest of Hawaii on a mission code-named Operation Burnt Frost. After tracking the satellite’s trajectory for days, Lake Erie launched a single missile on February 20, 2008.
A few minutes later, sensors and radars confirmed a direct hit. The missile had struck the satellite with such accuracy that the hydrazine was completely neutralized, averting the release of a potentially dangerous chemical into the atmosphere.
“AEGIS is not a one-trick pony,” said Jim Sheridan, Director of AEGIS USN Development for Lockheed Martin. “It’s a multi-mission platform—capable of anti-aircraft warfare, ballistic missile defense as well as anti-surface and anti-submarine warfare—which is why there is a high level of interest in AEGIS from our allies.”
Shielding the World
A little over a year after the successful satellite intercept, President Obama outlined a new four-phase strategy to defend Europe against short- and intermediate-range Iranian missile attacks using a combination of land- and sea-based AEGIS ballistic missile systems. What was once the United States’ most valuable defensive technology now provides a shield under which friendly nations across the world can find protection and safety.
Phase one, which is already in place, positions AEGIS warships in the Mediterranean to counter regional threats and is followed by the phase two and phase three positioning of a land-based AEGIS defense system, dubbed AEGIS Ashore, in Romania and Poland. The plan calls for the stationing of advanced AEGIS systems, each designed to intercept intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the United States, by 2021.
Currently, Australia, Spain, Japan, Norway and South Korea use or are planning to deploy AEGIS systems in their naval warships.
Sources and Further Reading
- Boslaugh, David L. When Computers Went to Sea: The Digitization of the United States Navy. Los Alamitos, Calf.: IEEE Computer Society Press, 1999.
- Chambers, John Whiteclay, II, ed. The Oxford Companion to American Military History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.
- Coalson, Robert. “European Missile Defense: What’s on the Table at NATO Summit?” Radio Free Europe, Radio Liberty.http://www.rferl.org/content/european-missile-defense-explainer/24586198.html, accessed August 23, 2012.
- Daalder, Ivo H. “A New Shield Over Europe.” The New York Times. June 6, 2012. http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/07/opinion/a-new-shield-over-europe.html, accessed August 23, 2012.
- Grant, R.G. Battle at Sea: 3,000 Years of Naval Warfare. New York: DK Publishing, 2011.
- Horowitz, Michael C. The Diffusion of Military Power: Causes and Consequences for International Politics. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2010.
- Middendorf, William J., II, Potomac Fever: A Memoir of Politics and Public Service. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2011.
- Pearn, Michael. “Seek and Destroy: The AEGIS Combat System.” http://www.naval-technology.com/features/feature45460/, accessed August 23, 2012.
- Polmar, Norman. The Naval Institute Guide to the Ships and Aircraft of the U.S. Fleet. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 1991.
- Sheridan, James. “Interview with The History Factory.” Dec. 4, 2012
- Tucker, Spencer C. The Encyclopedia of Middle East Wars: The United States in the Persian Gulf, Afghanistan and Iraq Conflicts, Volume 1. Santa Barbara, Calf.: ABC-CLIO, 2010.
- Tucker, Spencer C. A Global Chronology of Conflict: From the Ancient World to the Modern Middle East. Santa Barbara, Calf.: ABC-CLIO, 2009.