Russia recently attacked Kyiv with a cruise missile in a menacing demonstration of Moscow’s ability to carry out a long-range strike against a metropolitan target. The attack exposed weaknesses in Ukraine’s air defenses and highlighted similar gaps in the U.S.’s. Now, the Pentagon wants to test technology that can protect American cities from the same type of weapon.
This experiment, a proposed 2023 event called the Cruise Missile Defense-Homeland Kill Chain Demonstration, would combine existing technologies in an effort to better shield cities and critical infrastructure from cruise missiles. “I need [a domestic cruise missile defense system], yesterday, candidly,” declares Gen. Glen VanHerck (commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), and head of U.S. Northern Command. He is responsible for protecting the U.S., Canada, and other countries from such weapons. He says that the threat is present today, primarily from Russia. The four-star general warns of the danger that Moscow’s current technology could allow it to attack American targets within Russian territory or from vessels off U.S. shores. The problem is not only Russia. In “five to 10 years,” VanHerck says, “we’ll be in the same place with China.”
The Problem with Cruise Missiles
A cruise missile is an uncrewed, unmanned aerial vehicle that is designed to strike a fixed target. It flies at a level altitude and follows a preprogrammed path until it reaches its target. Jet engines are used to power cruise missiles. After being propelled by an initial rocket booster, ballistic missiles fly a parabolic trajectory that is largely unpowered.
Dealing with cruise missile threats presents two particular challenges, according to Patty-Jane Geller of the Heritage Foundation, a missile defense expert. Geller states that they are difficult to track and detect. “Cruise weapons fly at lower altitudes that ballistic missiles, which most sensors–both land-based and space–are designed for detection. They can also fly at a slower speed than ballistic missiles, which most of our sensors–both space-based and land-based, are designed to detect. “They give Russia and China a capability to wage a strategic attack … that’s below the nuclear threshold.” The possibility of this kind of conventional attack weakens a crucial pillar of U.S. defense policy: nuclear deterrence.
Senior Pentagon officials claim that
Russia already has a new generation of advanced air-, ground-, and sea-based cruise missiles. These missiles could pose a threat to critical civilian and military infrastructure. These weapons could be used in a future conflict to attack American airfields and ports, as well as utilities. They could also threaten important economic locations, such as major cities in an effort to stop the U.S. from sending forces overseas.
Experts warn that there are a few new weapons that raise concern. One is Russia’s Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile. It boasts an extended range of nearly 2,500 miles, enabling bombers flying well outside NORAD radar coverage to threaten North America–in some cases even from within Russian airspace. VanHerck states, “This capability challenges me in my ability to detect an attacker and mount an effective defense.”
Other military technology is also causing problems for NORAD. Earlier this month U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency director Lt. Gen. Scott Berrier warned Congress that “in the coming months” Russia will field a pair of new, ultraquiet attack submarines that can carry cruise missiles. Berrier said these craft, the Kazan and Novosibirsk, are capable of threatening North America from the Pacific.
Cruise air defenses, and all air defenses, consist of three main components. They include sensors that detect an incoming threat, shooters who attempt to knock it out of air, and battle management systems which act as the brains controlling everything. These latter must first identify a missile and then calculate a trajectory to intercept it. Finally, they must launch and guide an interceptor (such a missile) to destroy it.
The U.S. military has well-established systems that protect ships and troops deployed in combat zones against these weapons. The Army’s Patriot system, for example, became a household name after its debut during the 1991 Gulf War. Navy destroyers and cruisers equipped with SPY-1 radars and the Aegis combat systems can counter cruise missiles with Standard Missile-6. These assets are rare and highly sought-after.
This is why the Department of Defense would rather keep its inventory available for overseas operations than tie it down to protect, say, Los Angeles or New York City. In fact, the only domestic location currently protected by round-the-clock cruise missile defense is Washington, D.C. After the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the Pentagon created this bespoke cruise missile defense capability as part of what is called the National Capital Region Integrated Air Defense System architecture. This system is not limited to the local area, and relies on technology from Europe (its core is the National/Norwegian Advanced Surface to Air Missile System).
VanHerck would like to collaborate with the Missile Defense Agency (or MDA)–a Department of Defense group responsible for developing new capabilities to counter advanced threats. This will allow them to build a wider cruise missile defense system. They will do this by modifying existing technologies and adapting them to domestic needs. This hybrid system could be less rugged and therefore more affordable than the ones used for military expeditions abroad. VanHerck proposed the Cruise Missile Defense Homeland Kill Chain Demonstration as a starting point. In April he asked Congress for $50 million for the project. This would be in addition to President Joe Biden’s fiscal year 2023 budget, which requested funding for a number of measures to enhance cruise-missile-warning capabilities–including $278 million for new, over-the-horizon radars to improve detection.
If Congress approves VanHerck’s $50-million request, part of the funds will go to the sensor component, a type of radar, for the proposed new domestic system. The radar range of a sensor is the most important factor in determining its effectiveness as a cruise missile defense system. This is greatly affected by the height at which it is located above ground. A recent government study found the minimal elevation for an effective tower-based radar sensor is 700 feet above sea level, including terrain elevation. VanHerck wants to demonstrate a tower mounted radar that can detect an intruder’s coordinates for homeland cruise missile defense sensors. The detector, in this case an x-band sensor, would then transmit these data to a battle control system, which would direct a missile towards intercepting the threat. The section of the electromagnetic spectrum that is most effective for scanning the horizon is called X-band. Mounted on a tower the x-band sensor will provide high-fidelity tracking and electronic identification that can distinguish between routine objects like civilian planes and missiles.
The rest of VanHerck’s $50-million request for the demonstration would support three sessions of one-week exercises at the White Sands Missile Range in New Mexico. These experiments would link the tower mounted radar. The Pentagon states it will use an existing sensor with x-band to simulate the demonstration. It will also use existing shooters and battle management system. In preparation for the proposed 2023 demonstration, the MDA must first conduct a series of simulated cruise missile intercepts. The agency is working to create new connections that will allow existing technologies to work together to make the system more effective. The MDA is working with private firms to accomplish this task. In November, the agency signed contracts for aerospace companies Northrop Grumman (Numerica Corporation) and Raytheon (Raytheon). These companies will help VanHerck demonstrate a simulated system to the MDA.
” The deliverables will include software modifications that are necessary to conduct a simulated encounter within the National Capital Region Integrated Air Defense System architecture,” Heather Cavaliere, spokesperson for MDA, said.
VanHerck states that he doesn’t have a clear vision of the ultimate missile-defense solution. Instead he hopes the 2023 event he is advocating will spur creative thinking. This could include new ways to attack existing tactics, such as debilitating a cruise missile with a powerful electromagnetic weapon or finding other options to shooting at missiles.
“What I want industry, what I want the Missile Defense Agency and the services to do,” he says, “is let their minds run wild on capabilities to accomplish this mission.”