In our just-released Experts Panel study, Stopping a Taiwan Invasion, we point out the urgent need to improve air defenses around Taiwan and Japan.
Now, with the US Navy proposal to retire seven Ticonderoga-class cruisers, allegedly because they are expensive to maintain, it appears there will be nothing to replace these and other Ticonderoga-class cruisers slated for retirement, 21 ships in all.
Ticonderoga-class cruisers are guided-missile destroyers equipped with the powerful AEGIS missile and air defense system. My modest proposal is to redeploy these ships, not scrap them.
The AEGIS air defense system is probably the best general-purpose missile and air defense system in the US inventory. It is exactly this system, known as AEGIS Ashore, that is now operating in Poland and Romania from land bases.
Japan has AEGIS on four of its Kongo-class (Kongō-gata Goeikan) ships, which were built between 1991 and 1996. AEGIS was installed on them in the mid-2000s.
All of them today are equipped with MK-41 launchers, SPY radars and feature AEGIS BMD (Ballistic Missile Defense) version 3.6. The system uses a powerful phased array radar, AN/SPY-1D, the same as the US Arleigh Burke guided-missile destroyers.
The Ticonderoga-class AEGIS cruisers, slated for US Navy retirement, would be a boon in strengthening Japan’s air and missile defenses. The same ships could also be deployed around Taiwan, providing a greatly enhanced ballistic missile and air defense capability.
Currently, Taiwan and Japan both have limited air defenses. Given the proliferation of Chinese short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles and advanced anti-ship missiles such as the DF-21D (Dong Feng, East Wind), more in-depth and dispersed missile defenses are a vital need in the area’s defensive portfolio.
One of the shortcomings of land-based systems is that they are more easily targeted and can be overwhelmed by mass “swarming” attacks. This is less true for moving ships at sea, particularly if they can strike incoming missiles from different locations.
The missing ingredient
As our Experts Study suggests, one of the missing regional ingredients is a common command system and the integration of air, sea, marine and army detachments so they can coordinate, de-conflict and optimize operations.
The US is moving increasingly to the idea of integrating its forces and it is now equipping its fighters, bombers, ships and land operations for exactly this reason. For too long, Taiwan has been left entirely out of this equation and its forces often are operating in isolation from friendly states in the region.
For years, the US provided defense equipment to Taiwan, but only sporadically while offering very limited related training. More recently, the US has stepped up training in Taiwan, but the scale is far too small and needs expanding.
Moreover, based on publicly available information, nothing has been done to tie Taiwan’s forces in with US operations. Japan, while increasingly concerned about Taiwan from a national security viewpoint, has similarly failed to make any progress in joining its forces with Taiwan’s.
The Ticonderoga-class cruisers slated for junking could provide significant mobile air defenses and can be readied quickly for use, meaning that air defenses can be significantly upgraded almost immediately for Japan and Taiwan.
The US could also use these ships around Okinawa and at the vital US-shared ports in Japan, particularly Yokosuka, where the US Navy has its headquarters at Sasebo and White Beach.
In addition, the US and Japan can jointly use these ships to protect Japan’s southern islands, where air defense systems could also serve to protect Taiwan.
Japan and the US Marines have already spoken of installing the HIMARS (High Mobility Artillery Rocket System) on Yonaguni island, Japan’s southernmost island in the Ryukyu chain, which is about 67 miles from Taiwan.
Ticonderoga-class cruisers could simultaneously protect HIMARS and cover parts of Taiwan’s airspace.
Time is running out
The US Congress is mulling the scrapping of the Ticonderoga-class cruisers. One suggestion on Capitol Hill is to increase the build of new Arleigh Burke-class ships from the paltry one new ship requested by the navy to two.
Even if this could conceivably meet the need, which it will not, it will take a number of years before new ships can be built and readied for use. There is also talk of a new generation of guided-missile destroyers, but there is no funding yet available and the target date for introduction isn’t until 2028 at the earliest.
The security situation in East Asia is very fragile and fast-moving. Leaders in Japan and Taiwan are unsure whether the US will help them survive a Chinese attack. The US needs to stop sitting on the sidelines and muster its resources in a way that shows leadership and determination.
Redeploying the cast-off Ticonderoga-class cruisers would be a big help in strengthening air and missile defense in the region.
Follow Stephen Bryen on Twitter at @stevebryen