Rapid advances in Chinese hypersonic missiles and Russian cruise missiles pose major threats to critical infrastructure in the United States and the Pentagon needs to prepare better defenses for the homeland, according to a new report by the Pentagon’s Defense Science Board.
“The air and missile threat to the homeland is real and growing,” said Eric Evans, chairman of the Pentagon board, in a memorandum to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin contained in an unclassified portion of the secret report.
“More capable defenses will deter aggression by reducing adversary confidence in attacks against the U.S. homeland and will increase resilience should deterrence fail — ensuring that attacks against critical targets will not disrupt the flow of forces and materiel abroad in defense of our allies and national security interests.”
The executive summary made public Oct. 12 does not provide details on growing missile threats to the homeland. However, the summary states that the 2022 National Defense Strategy makes defending the homeland the top priority for the Pentagon.
“Strategic competitors and adversaries are acquiring the capabilities to hold targets at risk, posing a threat to American lives, economic interests, and critical infrastructure,” the report said.
The strategy required a reassessment of U.S. air defense capabilities to be able to deter and defeat air and missile threats “below the nuclear threshold,” including small, covertly launched drones, cruise missiles fired from submarines or aircraft and hypersonic missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles.
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The sophistication of the threats and large numbers of potential targets has been made worse by “the lack of clear and consistent [homeland air defense] priorities from relevant agencies within the U.S. government,” the report said. Domestic military capabilities to detect, track and target enemy airborne threats have been underfunded for decades and are in need of modernization.
The board recommends using existing air defenses in better and networked ways as a low-cost, short-term fix to boost defenses at high speeds to protect key sites that could be hit by missiles.
Publication of the report comes as Russia has launched a war of attrition against Ukraine involving missile strikes on critical infrastructure designed to force Kiev to surrender.
Russia’s military since late October has pounded critical infrastructure targets in Ukraine with cruise missiles. The strikes have damaged electrical power stations, water supplies and other infrastructure.
A U.S. defense official said Russia’s most potent threat is the KH-101 long-range cruise missile. The conventionally armed missile can be fired from Russian heavy bombers, like the Tu-95, as well as submarines and surface ships. The danger is that the reach of the KH-101 allows the system to be fired outside the range of U.S. defense sensors such as radar.
The low-flying missiles are difficult to counter because they can be fired from different directions to overwhelm missile defenses.
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Another major danger to the U.S. homeland emerged last year, this time from China.
According to the Pentagon’s latest annual report on the Chinese military, in July 2021, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) conducted a flight test of a hypersonic missile that was fired into space and traveled 24,800 miles before striking a surface target. The missile was part of what is called a “fractional orbital bombardment system,” or FOBS and used a ballistic missile to launch a hypersonic glide vehicle.
The system would allow China to strike targets in the United States from space more easily with either a conventional or nuclear warhead.
Current U.S. missile defenses are unable to counter-strike weapons from space.
U.S. long-range missile defenses, designed to counter limited strikes from North Korea, also face being overmatched by Pyongyang’s buildup of several types of intercontinental range missiles that could defeat the limited anti-missile interceptors now based in Alaska and Southern California.
Missiles in containers
Another growing threat to the homeland involves cruise missiles disguised in launchers that look like shipping containers.
Russia has deployed the Klub-K container-launched cruise missile and China built a similar container-launched missile called the YJ-18C. The Chinese land-attack cruise missile is a variant of its anti-ship missiles.
The resemblance to a shipping container allows both China and Russia to secretly deploy the missiles on commercial ships that are not tracked by the U.S. military.
To bolster homeland air defense, the board recommended adapting a Cold War air defense system to meet the current threat level, a concept it calls the “Strategic Aerospace Guard Environment,” or SAGE II.
The concept is based on the 1950s Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, or SAGE, that used real-time computing and digital radar data transmission to integrate radar coverage over 12,000 miles of the U.S. coastline.
The SAGE system was the backbone for the North American Aerospace Defense Command’s defense against Soviet nuclear bombers and operated from the late 1950s into the 1980s. The large computers of the system and big displays were used in the film “Dr. Strangelove,” about a nuclear war between the United States and Soviet Union.
“SAGE II offers an adaptable, scalable and affordable framework for homeland air defense that incorporates emerging technological innovations to ensure all-domain awareness, assured tracking, secure command and control, and affordable engagements,” the report said.
The new system would use artificial intelligence and machine learning, low-Earth orbit satellites and high-technology sensors, backed by data analytics and digital engineering that would identify missile targets and guide interceptors to destroy them. “These capabilities enable detection, tracking and interception of a broad range of threats at an advantageous exchange ratio,” the report said.
SAGE II also will use what the military calls “left-of-launch” defenses — those capable of knocking out missiles before launch through cyber, electronic, and other warfare tools.
“This proposed framework takes advantage of technologies that are already being developed throughout the DoD, the intelligence community, and other organs of the U.S. government, reducing R&D costs to affordable levels when compared to exquisite, tailor-made missile defense systems,” the report said.
The report concludes with a warning that current security threats require flexible and adaptable defenses.
“Updating current defenses in the interim period will minimize the window of opportunity that could potentially be exploited by adversaries with modern capabilities,” the report said.
A Pentagon spokesman did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the science board report.
The board of experts was tasked with studying the need for better defenses in November 2019 by then-Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin, who warned that the ability of adversaries to attack the U.S. was increasing and defending against missiles, drones and aircraft was becoming ever more difficult because of the large number of undefended targets.
“Proliferation of enemy weapon systems with global reach dictate that the United States can no longer presume domestic sanctuary,” Mr. Griffin stated.
The board was directed to find the most effective ways of defending the country from advancing threats from surface ships, submarines, aircraft, space weapons and cyber-attacks.
The study looks at defenses now, in 2025 and 2035 and how advanced technology can be applied to new air defenses.
The advanced weapons can include current missile defenses such as Patriot and Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defenses. They can be augmented by railguns, directed energy weapons, cruise missiles, hypersonic missiles and autonomous vehicle swarms, Mr. Griffin stated.