The U.S. Navy is upgrading three more Aegis-equipped guided missile cruisers and destroyers to ballistic missile defense (BMD) capability, Defense News reported Jan. 7, citing Pentagon and defense industry sources. All three ships to be upgraded are based on the Atlantic with the U.S. 2nd Fleet. When the U.S. Navy recently started upgrading Aegis-equipped guided missile cruisers and destroyers for BMD, all but two of the 18 upgraded warships were based in the Pacific with the U.S. 3rd and 7th fleets. There is reason behind this disposition. North Korea's Taepodong tests in 1998 and 2006 are one matter of concern; meanwhile, China's work on anti-ship ballistic missiles is also beginning to unnerve the U.S. Navy. But the latest plans will upgrade two Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruisers and one Arleigh Burke-class guided missile destroyer from the 2nd Fleet, based on the U.S. Atlantic Coast. The upgrade will include the capability to launch the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptor, one of the most successful operational BMD systems currently fielded. (An SM-3 fired from a BMD-capable Ticonderoga-class cruiser brought down an errant U.S. spy satellite earlier this year.) (click image to enlarge) This will bring the total number of BMD-capable warships based in the 2nd Fleet to five. Unlike having only two there, having five will suffice to maintain — hypothetically — a constant BMD presence in, say, the Eastern Mediterranean, Black or North seas while still having a BMD-capable warship or two available for deployment in a contingency, or as an escort to a carrier or expeditionary strike group. As far as ballistic missile proliferation and an emergent crude intercontinental ballistic missile capability go, Iran is the principal concern for East Coast-based warships, which also reinforce the 6th Fleet in the Mediterranean and provide ships for deployment to the 5th Fleet in the Middle East. Thus, while this latest upgrade would indeed be the next logical step for the U.S. Navy in expanding SM-3 BMD capability, there are two additional potential considerations. First, the U.S. Navy might be concerned about anti-ship ballistic missile capability proliferating beyond China. Iran has claimed to be pursuing this capability. Second, President-elect Barack Obama has not yet affirmed a commitment or articulated an explicit opposition to the Bush administration's long-standing effort to park ground-based midcourse defense interceptors in Poland and an X-band BMD radar in the Czech Republic. This has long been the central concept for BMD coverage of Iran. While progress in Iran's ballistic missile program certainly provides a reason for pushing forward with the U.S. BMD system in Europe, the system also could be a powerful concessionary tool for dealing with Russia. If those installations are canceled, the Pentagon will find itself scrambling for an alternative — and the Aegis/SM-3 system is the most appropriate and most mature alternative. Indeed, even if Obama does continue to support the Poland and Czech Republic installations, it will be years before they are operational. Thus, the Aegis/SM-3 upgrades are not necessarily a major shift in U.S. naval and BMD strategy, but could be simply an attempt to bolster BMD capability as a stopgap measure. Nevertheless, the announcement certainly comes at an interesting moment, given the presidential transition under way.