McCain, Fitzgerald accidents have an impact on the Navy’s ballistic missile defense capabilities


Although much of America’s attention has focused on finding the causal factors behind Monday’s collision between the USS John S. McCain (DDG-56) and a Liberian-flagged oil tanker off the coast of Singapore, we should not ignore the strategic impacts, either. They’re big and worrisome.

The U.S. 7th Fleet, stationed in Japan, possesses eight Arleigh Burke-class destroyers, including the McCain and the also-disabled USS Fitzgerald, assigned to Destroyer Squadron 15. This ship class is equipped the Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense system, which enables warships to intercept short to intermediate-range missiles — the type of missiles that an aggressor like North Korea might fire at U.S. ground bases in the Pacific. Indeed, when North Korea launched a test missile back in February, both the USS Stethem and the USS McCampbell — sister ships to McCain in DESRON 15 — were in the region.

The Aegis defense system works as part of a broader U.S. missile defense architecture comprised of space and land-based sensors. For example, destroyers can be positioned around the Korean peninsula to detect ballistic missile launches; those same ships can also be outfitted with SM-3 interceptors that are capable of destroying ballistic missiles during their midcourse phase of flight — that is, when they’re in space.

Ballistic missile defense is not as simple as positioning a couple of DDGs around a contested region, though. Although all eight of the ships in Destroyer Squadron 15 are equipped with the Aegis defense system, not every ship is always outfitted with interceptors. Because destroyers are intended for both offensive and defensive capabilities, deploying them strictly as ballistic counter-measures would limit the overall offensive abilities of their parent carrier strike groups.

Aren’t there other BMD-capable ships in the U.S. Navy? Overall, 33 destroyers and 5 cruisers—including one stationed in Japan—are BMD capable. However, shifting assets to cover gaps in BMD defense means the U.S. either loses forward-deployed BMD coverage elsewhere, such as Europe, or incurs the costs of sending additional vessels to sea.

Source: Task & Purpose

Why it’s on our radar: All of the deadly accidents and other incidents involving Navy ships over the past 12 months have been within the U.S. Pacific Fleet Command’s 7th Fleet, based in Japan. 7th Fleet BMD warships are principally concerned with missile launches from North Korea; the timing surrounding the loss of these vessels couldn’t be worse.

These incidents may even lead a suspicious person to conclude that 7th Fleet ships are being intentionally targeted with cyber attacks that throw off electronic navigation systems with the specific intent of reducing the number of BMD warships available to PACOM.

We have not seen any evidence that electronic navigation systems on 7th Fleet vessels are being targeted for spoofing by a nation-state actor, mind you, but are merely pointing out the obvious and ironic in noting that these accidents are all occurring within the same fleet and in the same part of the world — a region that just happens to feature a country threatening the U.S. and its regional allies with ballistic missile attacks. 

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