LIVING LEGEND The father of the Navy's Aegis weapons system was honored by having a ship named after him.

Posted: November 28, 2006

Retired Rear Adm. Wayne E. Meyer gave up on trying to prepare his speech for Sunday night because, he said, it was starting to sound too much like an obituary.

The 80-year-old Meyer, widely hailed as the "Father of Aegis," the Navy's weapons system, was accorded yesterday an honor rarely bestowed upon the living: having a fighting ship named after him. Meyer managed the development of the system at what was then the RCA Advanced Technology Laboratories in Moorestown during the 1970s.

Phalanxes of sailors from the ranks of admiral on down, as well as hundreds of Lockheed Martin Corp. employees, watched video tributes to the three-decades-old Aegis and its chief architect, Meyer, at Lockheed Martin's radar-building complex in Moorestown yesterday.

Like the original Aegis, the mythical shield of Zeus, Meyer enjoys near-mythical status in the Navy.

His name already adorns the Naval Postgraduate School's Wayne E. Meyer Institute of Systems Engineering in Monterey, Calif.

Adm. Mike Mullen, chief of naval operations, said Aegis would remain cutting-edge because the Navy had been swapping out "legacy" computer systems for "open architecture" systems that use the massive processing power of commercial hardware and software.

An Arleigh Burke-class destroyer under construction at Bath Iron Works in Maine is scheduled to receive the 100th Aegis system built. Lockheed Martin certified the radar system at a ceremony yesterday as ready for shipment to Maine.

"The namesake of a warship inspires the crew," Mullen said.

"That's why DDG-108 will forever be known as United States Ship Wayne E. Meyer."

The ship is scheduled to be christened next summer and put into service in 2009.

Aegis changed the face of naval warfare decades ago. As guided missiles and unconventional conflicts threatened to make traditional gunboats obsolete, Aegis equipped U.S. ships with powerful radars and their own precision-guided missiles.

A video montage of Meyer's career mentioned some of the sayings that have become his trademarks: "Build a little, test a little, learn a lot," "Whatever you do, do it the best you can," and, perhaps his best known, "We ain't done yet."

Meyer, who uses a cane to get around, wryly noted: "Most ship namings are after people who are dead . . . Well, I hope to be around for the commissioning and decommissioning."

Today, it is ballistic missiles - the longer-range, surface-to-surface rockets one would use to lob a nuclear weapon at an enemy - that are making headlines.

The latest iteration of Aegis is capable of intercepting them, its proponents say.

So-called ballistic missile defense has been controversial to say the least. The United States began pursuing the strategy in earnest with the "Star Wars" program promoted by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s. But trying to "hit a bullet with a bullet" has proven a tough proposition, with many high-profile missile-killing tests ending in failure in recent years.

The ground-based Patriot missile system used by the United States was revealed to be almost a total failure in its trial-by-fire against Scud missiles in the 1991 Gulf War.

MIT professor Theodore A. Postol studied Patriot performance and told a congressional committee in 1992: "The evidence from these preliminary studies indicates that Patriot's intercept rate could be much lower than 10 percent."

Earlier this year, Air Force Lt. Gen. Henry A. Obering, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said the United States would have 12 ground-based missiles suitable for ballistic missile defense by the end of this year.

Missile defense lost one of its staunchest proponents in Congress this month when Rep. Curt Weldon (R., Pa.) was not reelected.

In an interview yesterday, Meyer said the lack of instant and total success was not sufficient reason to back away from the strategy.

"People dismiss the fact that engineering is 'plod, plod, plod.'

"The country is going to need defense from ballistic missiles. . . . We have cruisers at sea that can engage ballistic missiles."

Coincidentally, India announced yesterday that it had successfully tested its own antiballistic missile over the Bay of Bengal.

Meyer acknowledged his role as the Aegis system's originator, but said: "Aegis has all kinds of fathers today."

Contact staff writer Akweli Parker at 215-854-5986 or aparker@phillynews.com.

Aegis at a Glance

What is it? Named for the mythical shield of Zeus, it is a shipboard missile-guidance system first used by the U.S. Navy in 1973. It is now also deployed by the navies of five other countries.

What can it do? It can track more than 100 targets from a distance of more than 115 miles. Using a combination of radars, it can shoot down aircraft, missile and submarine threats. Upgrades are under way to enable intercepts of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Where is it built? Lockheed Martin's Moorestown facility builds and tests the systems inside full-scale mock-ups of ship superstructures. The units are then dismantled and transported to shipyards for final installation.

Service history: It was first installed aboard the test ship USS Norton Sound in 1973. In 1988, the Aegis-equipped USS Vincennes mistakenly shot down Iran Air Flight 655, killing 290 civilian passengers and flight crew; investigations identified operator error as the cause, and Aegis received improvements to its crew interface. In 1991, the first Arleigh Burke class destroyer was launched, using a sleeker hull, stealthier profile and major upgrades to the Aegis.

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