15 January 1999. Thanks to Dan Dupont.

Inside Missile Defense, December 23, 1998 


Michael C. Sirak and Daniel G. Dupont

An expert study group has warned top military officials that the government is ill-prepared to deal with the growing threat of cruise missile attacks on the United States, Inside Missile Defense has learned.

The panel has advanced a number of recommendations for how the threat can be better addressed, suggesting the appointment of a high-level official to coordinate existing assets and research efforts that together could form a substantial defense.

A key underpinning of the study, which authors say is the first in-depth look at the threat of cruise missile attacks on the United States since the end of the Cold War, is that cruise missiles are inexpensive, easy-to-build weapons that could be used to devastating effect by terrorists and other enemies who lack the money or the expertise to build and deploy ballistic missiles.

The compact size of cruise missiles allows them to be launched easily from commercial ships and aircraft, as well as from ground launchers. Perhaps more important, a cruise missile's aerodynamic stability makes it an inherently easier and cheaper platform from which to deliver and disperse chemical and biological agents, giving it a lethality factor of greater than 10 times that of a ballistic missile for a given amount of  biological agent, according to Dennis Gormley, vice president of defense policy at Pacific-Sierra Research, who addressed the cruise missile threat in the Spring 1998 issue of the international policy journal Survival.

The United States devotes significant resources to weapons designed to shoot down ballistic missiles, including a burgeoning National Missile Defense system, but the government has done little to ensure cruise missiles can be effectively combated when fired from just outside or even within U.S. territory, the panel concluded.

And while the military remains incapable of shooting down intercontinental ballistic missiles fired at U.S. territory, it has significant assets that could be used to intercept and destroy cruise missiles. The problem, however, is those assets are not effectively integrated or coordinated by a high-level office, leaving much of the country at great risk, according to the panel's findings.

"Nobody is worried about general surveillance of U.S. borders," said an official closely tied to the study group. "Nobody's in charge."

Whoever is put in charge would ideally be at a high enough level to integrate all applicable government assets, the study urges. "It's got to be tackled from a national perspective," the official close to the study said.

QDR Roots

Directed to study "national cruise missile defense" by the 1997 Quadrennial Defense Review, the group of government and industry experts has spent the last several weeks briefing the results of its work to top military officials, including Ballistic Missile Defense Organization Director Lt. Gen. Lester Lyles and Gen. Richard Myers, head of the U.S. Space Command.

A written summary of the group's findings has been prepared for other top Defense Department officials, including Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition and Technology Jacques Gansler, and those involved in the study are "waiting with baited breath" to see if it will have any effect.

"We all recognize that we have not really begun to address that aggressively at all," Lyles told Inside Missile Defense Dec. 3. "We think it is just a matter of time before there will be a threat to our homeland from cruise missiles."

"There is a huge problem here," Lyles added. "We have not gotten many resources put to that task."

Echoing a major theme of the study group, Lyles also noted a "lot of programs" exist today that "could help address that problem, but nobody has integrated them together yet, and that is probably the biggest step we need to take in the near term."

The national cruise missile defense study was overseen by BMDO's chief engineer, Rich Ritter, and the study group was steered by Col. Richard Strom of NORAD and Peter Pappas, a former chief scientist of the Army's Space and Missile Defense Command who now works for Science Applications International Corporation.

As of press time (Dec. 21) an interview planned with Ritter had not taken place.

The group's mandate was laid out in the Quadrennial Defense Review, completed in May 1997. "In light of intelligence estimates that a cruise missile threat to U.S. forces may emerge after 2000, DOD has a substantial theater cruise missile defense program," the QDR states. "This effort could provide significant assistance to a national cruise missile defense effort. Over the next several years, the department has decided to increase emphasis on national cruise missile defense."

According to documents obtained by Inside Missile Defense, the scope of the study involved four principal goals:

As part of that effort, the group examined both the existing concept of operations for cruise missile defense as well as the threat. The ability of existing and planned national and theater missile defense systems to target and intercept cruise missiles was also studied, as was the battle management and command, control and communications assets of NORAD, briefing charts show.

Further, the group evaluated the possibility of "mission sharing" between the Defense Department and other government components, including drug enforcement and intelligence agencies, as well as potential contributions from commercial entities. Three principal findings were laid out in the study group's final report, according to Maj. James Shaw, assistant chief for aerospace control operations at NORAD.

"One finding is that our current capability against cruise missile-type targets is somewhat limited," Shaw told Inside Missile Defense in a Nov. 25 interview. "That is primarily due to our current surveillance systems. We rely on the intelligence community for the initial indications and warning."

Assuming sufficient warning is provided, Shaw noted, the U.S. military is well-equipped to defeat cruise missiles. "[W]e have a good capability to counter any threats out there with a combination of Air Force and Navy aerial surveillance platforms like the E-3 and E-2 [and] NORAD or defense fighters, and we would also enlist our naval counterparts from both the United States and Canada" as well as the Coast Guard and U.S. law enforcement agencies.

Early Warning

The problem, according to an official close to the study group who asked not to be named, is that currently the United States is not set up to provide sufficient early warning. "Cruise missiles are not all that difficult to shoot down if you know where they are," the official said. "If you have good strategic warning, then you can do something about them."

"We can and should be able to do better with strategic warning," the official contended.

And, he added "we can do a better job of keeping track of [potential] platforms." While approximately 70 nations currently possess cruise missile technology, most cruise missiles currently available are ship-based weapons, which means ships, even small commercial vessels, are the likeliest CM platforms.

Using existing databases like those compiled for insurance purposes, and by unifying Coast Guard, Navy and intelligence agency surveillance capabilities, the United States could effectively monitor potential CM platforms, the official said. And, even if a cruise missile fired from the sea upon the United States cannot be shot down, "at least you'd have attribution and you'd know who hit you" after the fact, he said.

Gormley told Inside Missile Defense Nov. 23 he believes the Defense Department would be wise to "invest in better intelligence, especially the exploitation of new collaborative information technology [such as insurance and commercial shipping databases] which would allow government agencies to share large databases of relevant information."

"We need to start thinking about exploiting this technology to create virtual watch staffs that focus on threats to the continental [United States] around the clock, [and] not just after a crisis has occurred," Gormley added.

During Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the U.S. interagency counter-terrorism group, which was on heightened alert, intercepted nearly 40 terrorist attempts aimed against the United States, both here and overseas, Gormley stated.

"After the war, the process unfolded and the World Trade Center bombing occurred," he noted.

Virtual staffs, with greatly expanded collaborative information technology, would be a more sensible means of dealing with the threat until a much more affordable approach to airborne detection and interception of land-attack cruise missiles is found, he said.

Shaw said NORAD is "currently involved in an ongoing feasibility study for cruise missile defense joint test and evaluation," an effort led by the Air Force Development Test Center at Eglin AFB, FL. "We are looking at possibilities for how we can integrate all the joint, defined assets for cruise missile defense," Shaw stated.

NORAD is also supporting efforts to develop long-range and over-the-horizon surveillance capabilities, with particular interest in initiatives that involve space-based surveillance, Shaw said.

"We see that space-based surveillance capabilities would be a primary objective or milestone and the ultimate solution for national cruise missile defense," he stated. In addition to its contribution to national cruise missile defense, a space-based surveillance system could also be used to monitor transoceanic flights, scan maritime traffic and combat smuggling, he added.

The next step NORAD would like to take is to have a service or agency designated to work along with NORAD to address national cruise missile defense technology requirements and create a long-range technology development and acquisition plan, Shaw said.

"We would like to see one developed that could be attached incrementally so that we can take small bites rather than try and tackle the whole problem at once, because it is a huge problem," he stated.

Another study finding holds that while NORAD currently has a "pre-missile defense concept of operations," it is "not necessarily approved by all of the agencies that might be involved," Shaw said.

The study group concluded that "there is a lack of a bi-nationally approved doctrine and tactics, techniques and procedures for national cruise missile defense," he added.

Gen. Myers, the SPACECOM commander and head of NORAD, told Inside Missile Defense Dec. 3 that the study group's findings alarmed him because of the "realization that we need to update our requirements document," which he noted was "written during the Cold War, and the threat has changed somewhat."

Who's In Charge?

The third finding, considered "most critical," is that "there is currently no single service or agency designated to address the requirements, technology planning, acquisition and implementation for national cruise missile defense," Shaw said.

"Cruise missile defense for North America is a large-scale problem," he added, and the solutions involve the cooperation of all U.S. and Canadian military services and intelligence and law enforcement agencies.

NORAD will continue to maintain responsibility for the surveillance of the approaches to North America, the Navy and Coast Guard will continue to provide maritime surveillance, and the U.S. Atlantic Command, U.S. Pacific Command and U.S. Southern command will provide support with surveillance, he added.

The problem that needs to be ironed out is that many of the threat scenarios being examined involve attacks during times of peace, when the United States is not actively engaged in full-time, national surveillance, Shaw said.

"Unfortunately, rules of engagement, national laws and international law will probably limit military participation," until a cruise missile launch is considered imminent or has already occurred, at which time NORAD, either in support of or supported by the other commands, "would take whatever action would be required to counter that threat," he said.

"We do have cruise missile defense for North America," Shaw added. "The significance of the study was that it highlighted the differences and the disparity in the missions and the technologies that we would use for cruise missile defense from those that are being developed both for ballistic missile defense and theater air and missile defense missions."

Shaw said the study group "obviously" supports the need to develop ballistic missile defense systems "even though they are not necessarily transferable to what we consider the final solution set for the defense of North America against cruise missiles."

"The technology required to defend against ICBMs is very different from that required to interdict cruise missiles," Shaw noted. "Also, North America is a very large theater, so the number of theater defensive systems that would be required to do the mission [24 hours a day, seven days a week] would be huge."

"Even over a big city," the official close to the study said, "the cost of maintaining 24-hour surveillance is prohibitive."

Accordingly, study group officials have recommended better, integrated surveillance, a task that could tie together a wide variety of assets including drug interdiction aerostats currently used to monitor the southern U.S. border.

In fact, according to the official close to the study group, replacing an existing aerostat with a new balloon produced by the Army's Joint Land Attack Cruise Missile Defense Elevated Netted Sensor system would allow the military to get real-world experience with sophisticated border surveillance that would go a long way toward improving national cruise missile defense capabilities (see related story).

"We think it is just a matter of time before there will be a threat to our homeland from cruise missiles," Myers told Inside Missile Defense Dec. 3. "We have not gotten many resources put to that task."

"We are having problems getting attention," Myers told a conference crowd that same day. "There are several programs ongoing, but there is not a good system approach to it yet. [And] it is coming together. Every service has pieces that work."

What the military needs, he added, is a "good national estimate" of the threat, and one is currently in the works. That estimate, Myers believes, will be "one that people can point to and say 'yes, that is a realistic characterization of the threat,' so we will know what we are dealing with."

Worldwide there are about 75,000 cruise missiles available today, Gormley said. Only about 12 highly developed nations possess sophisticated land-attack cruise missiles like the Navy's Tomahawks that were recently used against targets in Iraq. However, about approximately 40 developing nations have acquired shorter-range anti-ship cruise missiles, he stated.

A small portion of these less sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles, such as the highly proliferated Chinese Silkworm, can be modified for land attack missions with an extended range of up to 300 kilometers and improved guidance and navigation systems that are based on commercially available technology, he said.

The commercial marketplace has displaced secret military laboratories as the driving force behind some military breakthroughs, making sophisticated components relatively inexpensive and easy to acquire. The process of curbing the flow of that technology is thus made more difficult for export control regimes, Gormley stated.

"For anybody that has the will, the technology is easy," the official close to the study group stated.