The Pentagon calls them, euphemistically, “asymmetric” weapons. The U.S. military fears them because they sneak into blind spots.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan saw the rise of improvised explosive devices as the ultimate asymmetric weapon. Future conflicts, strategists warn, could expose U.S. forces on land and at sea to a deadly weapon that is extremely hard to detect: cruise missiles.
“They are a very tough threat to deal with,” said Philip Coyle, senior science fellow at the Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation. The Pentagon for years “pretended cruise missiles did not exist,” he said. “The Defense Department does not know how to defend against them.”
Cruise missiles have been nicknamed a “poor man’s air force” as they could potentially undercut the military advantage of a much more powerful adversary such as the United States.
Coyle, who served as the director of weapons testing at the Pentagon during the Clinton administration, said his office used to worry about U.S. air defenses against cruise missiles. “They fly low, they don’t travel in a straight line, they can avoid radar detection,” he said. They are just as dangerous for troops on the ground as they are for ships at sea, Coyle said.
While in charge of the testing office, Coyle sought to buy Russian sea-skimming supersonic cruise missiles so they could be used as targets against U.S. air defenses. “The Russians didn’t want to sell them to us,” he said. “The Chinese have similar capabilities.”
The United States does not expect to be going to war against China or Russia, but the U.S. could in the foreseeable future have to fight other nations or non-state groups that are able to acquire missiles from those two powers.
“The concern is not [only] about what China and Russia are building for their own militaries but what they are willing to transfer or willing to give to proxies,” said Andrew Krepinevich, a military analyst and president of the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments.
“Hezbollah is not building its own anti-ship cruise missiles or drones. They are getting them from somewhere else,” said Krepinevich, referring to the Islamist militant group in Lebanon that has launched missiles against Israel.
The guidance technology available for cruise missiles will advance rapidly in the coming decade, said a study by the U.S. Air Force’s National Air and Space Intelligence Center.
“Defending against land-attack cruise missiles will stress air defense systems,” said the report. Most missiles fly at low altitudes to stay below enemy radar and, in some cases, hide behind terrain features. But newer missiles are incorporating stealth features to make them even less visible to radars and infrared detectors, said the NASIC report. Modern systems also can be programmed so multiple missiles can attack a target simultaneously from different directions, overwhelming air defenses at their weakest points. Land-attack missiles, the study noted, can fly circuitous routes to get to the target, thereby avoiding radar and air defense installations.
Krepinevich said the issue is not whether potential U.S. enemies have access to technology but how much money they are willing to spend.
Money, too, is a concern for the Defense Department as it develops plans for confronting future enemies that might be equipped with guided missiles and armed drones. The Pentagon is studying ways to counter these threats as part of a larger “air-sea battle” concept. The thinking is that U.S. adversaries will use precision-guided missiles to keep U.S. ground forces and aircraft carriers from approaching their shores, which would, thus, deny to the American military the freedom of movement to which it has grown accustomed.
Although the Navy and Air Force are in charge of “air-sea battle,” Army officials already have signaled that they plan to take the lead in providing air defenses for deployed forces in a future conflict.
“Air and missile defense, that’s what the Army does,” said Lt. Gen. Keith C. Walker, deputy commanding general, futures and director of the Army Capabilities Integration Center.
Speaking to reporters at an Army conference in October, Walker said the goal is to have an “integrated air and missile defense” shield that would protect ground, naval and air forces in any combat zone.
The Army is counting on congressional approval to spend $40 million on a missile defense exercise in an unspecified regional combatant command.
Any further progress in Army missile defense efforts may have to wait until the completion of a Defense Department inspector general audit of the nearly $7 billion “integrated air and missile defense” program. In a November report, the inspector general office listed IAMD as one of several big-ticket programs that will be audited during fiscal year 2013. Auditors will recommend whether IAMD should be restructured. As originally conceived, it was intended to manage a network of several missile defense systems such as Patriot, the Medium Extended Air Defense System (MEADS), the Navy’s DDG-1000 land-attack destroyer, the Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor (JLENS) aerostat and others. Some of the programs under the IAMD umbrella have been canceled or are in the process of being restructured.
The IG audit will unfold as combatant commanders and the joint staff continue to debate where and how to go about deploying regional missile defenses, including areas where U.S. troops might be in danger, as well as strategic oil transit chokepoints.
Although the Pentagon spends more than $9 billion a year on missile defense systems, little of that investment is especially focused on countering cruise missiles. Most defensive systems are aimed at ballistic missile threats. That might not be a wise use of defense dollars when cruise missiles in fact are far more accessible than ballistic missiles, Coyle said. And ballistic missiles are easier to defeat.
“If you know the launch point and the target they’re aiming for, you know exactly, like a baseball, where it’s going to fly,” he said. Cruise missiles are unpredictable because they swing from side to side, and they are even harder to find when they hug the ground, he said. “Radar can’t see that close to the ground.” The biggest challenge, he added, is to detect them early enough so they can be intercepted by whatever weapons are available in the area.
The Raytheon Co., which manufactures several key components of the current U.S. missile defense shield, such as the Navy’s Standard Missile, has been trying to make the case that the solution to the cruise-missile problem is airborne radar surveillance.
Company officials are trying to persuade the Army to kick into production a spy blimp known as JLENS that has been in development for nearly a decade. The Army originally had planned to buy 16 but suspended the program after spending $2 billion to build just two.
After a series of successful tests over the past two years, Raytheon officials are confident in championing the concept of an elevated sensor as the answer to spotting those sneaky cruise missiles that go undetected by ground radar.
The Air Force’s and Navy’s fleet of radar airplanes — the E-3 Sentry Airborne Warning and Control System and E-2 Hawkeye Airborne Early Warning — could serve in that role, but manned aircraft are expensive and crews get tired, proponents of JLENS contend. The helium-filled aerostats can stay in orbit for 30 days, and their sensor can see 340 miles out.
“JLENS can track low flying manned and unmanned aircraft,” said Mark Rose, the program director at Raytheon. It also could be used to defend ships at sea from small boat attacks, Rose said in an interview.
The JLENS system consists of two tethered aerostats, each 240 feet long, that can soar to 10,000 feet. A number of recent tests by the U.S. Missile Defense Agency gave JLENS high marks, Rose said. The ability to find a potential target minutes before it is too late to react gives commanders flexibility to decide how to hit back, he said. This is especially important when defending against cruise missiles that come from different directions. “We need sensors that are forward deployed that can detect threats at very long ranges before they get near troops or ships,” he said.
Raytheon is pitching the idea of having the JLENS sensor linked to a “kill chain” network of fire-control radar and interceptor weapons such as ground-based Patriot batteries, Air Force F-16 fighters or Navy Aegis ship defenses.
“JLENS has the attention of U.S. Pacific Command,” said retired Army Brig. Gen. Keith McNamara, a former Missile Defense Agency official and currently a vice president at Raytheon.
The company’s stakes in the cruise-missile defense debate are high not only because of the possibility of new JLENS business but also for what it might mean for the Patriot air-defense batteries that Raytheon manufactures. Patriot missiles was designed to intercept tactical ballistic missiles, cruise missiles and unmanned aircraft. But supporters of the MEADS system — which Congress terminated but the Obama administration wants to keep alive — have argued that it makes more sense to invest in a new system than to keep pouring money into decades-old Patriot technology.
The Army is currently funding MEADS as well as Patriot upgrades. “While MEADS makes sense as a smaller, more mobile, repackaged and modernized Patriot, it would be a bit more convincing if the Army would rationalize its air defense efforts,” said industry analyst Steven Zaloga of The Teal Group. “MEADS would be attractive if it could offer a significant improvement in cruise missile defense in conjunction with the JLENS effort,” Zaloga said.
The Army attempted to pull out of MEADS in early 2010, but the Pentagon continues to stand by the program, which is being co-developed with Italy and Germany.
MEADS manufacturer Lockheed Martin Corp. plans to continue testing the system with 2013 funding. “If the U.S. government funds its share of the contract to completion, it will also be able to harvest these proven technologies in support of the U.S. Army’s integrated air and missile defense strategy,” said Lockheed spokeswoman Cheryl Amerine.
Industry consultant Loren Thompson, chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute, said the Army’s decision to kill MEADS last year seemed “extraordinarily ill-timed” as the military is seeking to prepare to fight more technologically advanced enemies. “Insurgents don’t have air forces and countries do, so air defense is likely to be more important in the future — especially given the proliferation of various unmanned aircraft and other overhead threats,” Thompson said.
Coyle, the former weapons tester, said there is little hope for a cohesive missile defense system. “There is no viable missile defense architecture yet,” he said. “Each of the pieces of the system is a mess.” The Missile Defense Agency and its contractors brag about their successful tests, he said. “But these tests are scripted in order to be successful. They don’t use test conditions where they would fail,” said Coyle. “Those are not going to be the conditions we see in battle.”
The idea of using an aerostat such as JLENS makes some sense, he said. “Elevated radar helps,” said Coyle. “But the enemy is going to know where that thing is. If we’re talking about no-kidding warfare, a big balloon can be shot down.”
Another consideration in any missile defense strategy is cost. Case in point is the highly acclaimed Iron Dome. During the recent conflict between Israel and Hamas forces on the West Bank, the Iron Dome demonstrated it could shoot down Hamas’ guided rockets. But this is an example of a system that is on the wrong end of the cost equation, said Krepinevich. While guided rockets might cost Hamas from $5,000 to $10,000 apiece, an Iron Dome battery costs $50 million, and each interceptor runs between $30,000 to $80,000. “Iron Dome is a good buy if it’s a short conflict,” he said.
Krepinevich suggested the Pentagon should pursue directed energy weapons as a lower cost alternative to expensive kinetic systems. A laser or high-power microwave will not intercept a ballistic missile but it could defeat rockets, mortars or even small cruise missiles, he said. Each shot would cost hundreds of dollars, not thousands, said Krepinevich. “If we can make small enough directed-energy systems to put in a small aircraft, that would be very encouraging.”
The Air Force’s NASIC warns that there might not be much time to waste, because potential adversaries are not standing still. “The cruise missile threat to U.S. forces will increase over the next decade,” said the NASIC report. “At least nine foreign countries will be involved in land-attack cruise missile production during the next decade, and several of the producers will make their missiles available for export.”
The success of the U.S. Navy’s Tomahawk cruise missiles has heightened interest in cruise missile acquisition in many countries, the study said. “Many countries view ballistic and cruise missile systems as cost-effective weapons and symbols of national power. In addition, they present an asymmetric threat to U.S. airpower.”Photo Credit: Army