Graham Warwick/WASHINGTON DC

As it prepares to begin flight tests of theatre ballistic missile defence (TBMD) systems, the US Navy has set up a dedicated missile defence office which will also oversee studies into a sea-based supplement to the land-based US National Missile Defense (NMD) system.

The USN is developing two TBMD systems - the Navy Area system, which uses a modified Standard SM-2 anti-aircraft missile to intercept short- and medium-range ballistic missiles, and the Navy Theatre Wide system, which uses a Standard derivative to enable it to intercept medium- and long-range missiles outside the atmosphere.

Both involve modifications to the Aegis weapon system which is fitted on USN cruisers and destroyers to allow the SPY-1 phased-array radar to engage theatre ballistic missiles.

Flight tests of the Theatre Wide system will begin this month using the Aegis cruiser USS Lake Erie. The flight will test the new third stage of the Standard SM-3 missile as a precursor to intercept tests beginning next year. The SM-3 carries a kinetic "hit-to-kill" warhead called LEAP (light exoatmospheric projectile).

The USN plans a contingency Theatre Wide capability in 2006 with a single ship. All Aegis ships are to be equipped by 2010. The Area system, meanwhile, is set to be fully operational in 2003. Land-based tests of the SM-2 Block IVA missile are to begin in the third quarter and flight tests from two modified Aegis ships are planned for next year.

The new office of the Assistant Chief of Naval Operations for Missile Defence will also oversee efforts by the US Navy to develop an overland cruise missile defence system.

Beyond-radar-horizon intercepts of cruise missiles using ship- launched air defence missiles directed by an elevated sensor were demonstrated in 1996.

Source: Flight International