U.S. Navy lacks ‘Sizzler’ defense plan

By Tony Capaccio Bloomberg

The U.S. Navy, after nearly six years of warnings from Pentagon testers, still lacks a plan for defending aircraft carriers against a supersonic Russian-built missile, according to current and former officials and Defense Department documents. The missile, known in the West as the “Sizzler,” has been deployed by China and may be purchased by Iran. Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England has given the Navy until April 29 to explain how it will counter the missile, according to a Pentagon budget document. The Defense Department’s weapons-testing office judges the threat so serious that its director, Charles McQueary, warned the Pentagon’s chief weapons buyer in a memo that he would move to stall production of multibillion-dollar ship and missile programs until the issue was addressed. “This is a carrier-destroying weapon,” said Orville Hanson, who evaluated weapons systems for 38 years with the Navy. “That’s its purpose.” “Take out the carriers” and China “can walk into Taiwan,” he said. China bought the missiles in 2002 along with eight diesel submarines designed to fire it, according to Office of Naval Intelligence spokesman Robert Althage.

A Pentagon official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Russia also offered the missile to Iran, although there’s no evidence a sale has gone through.

In Iranian hands, the Sizzler could challenge the ability of the U.S. Navy to keep open the Strait of Hormuz, through which an estimated 25 percent of the world’s oil traffic flows. “This is a very low-flying, fast missile,” said retired Rear Admiral Eric McVadon, a former U.S. naval attache in Beijing. “It won’t be visible until it’s quite close. By the time you detect it to the time it hits you is very short. You’d want to know your capabilities to handle this sort of missile.” The Navy’s ship-borne Aegis system, deployed on cruisers and destroyers starting in the early 1980s, is designed to protect aircraft-carrier battle groups from missile attacks. But current and former officials say the Navy has no assurance Aegis, built by Lockheed Martin Corp., is capable of detecting, tracking and intercepting the Sizzler. “This was an issue when I walked in the door in 2001,” Thomas Christie, the Defense Department’s top weapons-testing official from mid-2001 to early 2005, said in an interview.

“The Navy recognized this was a major issue, and over the years, I had continued promises they were going to fully fund development and production” of missiles that could replicate the Sizzler to help develop a defense against it, Christie said. “They haven’t.” The effect is that in a conflict, the U.S. “would send a billion-dollar platform loaded with equipment and crew into harm’s way without some sort of confidence that we could defeat what is apparently a threat very near on the horizon,” Christie said.

The Navy considered developing a program to test against the Sizzler “but has no plans in the immediate future to initiate such a developmental effort,” Naval Air Systems Command spokesman Rob Koon said in an e-mail. Lieutenant Bashon Mann, a Navy spokesman, said the service is aware of the Sizzler’s capabilities and is “researching suitable alternatives” to defend against it. “U.S. naval warships have a layered defense capability that can defend against various missile threats,” Mann said. McQueary, head of the Pentagon’s testing office, raised his concerns about the absence of Navy test plans for the missile in a Sept. 8, 2006, memo to Ken Krieg, undersecretary of defense for acquisition. He also voiced concerns to Deputy Secretary England.