By Andrew M. Gray
Estimated Read Time: 15 Minutes
Editor’s note: The following article is the first of a three-part series discussing necessary advancements which will best enable the Department of Defense to continue to lead during current and future periods of competition. Part I briefly reviews threats America has faced thru history and those which it currently faces across all domains. Part II outlines areas of defense and civilian research which must be pursued, and Part III delves into the path forward for cohesive, joint application of technology and research.
North America and those who inhabit the land have always been vulnerable to attack. From its inception, the United States, and its citizens, have been vulnerable to attack from various adversaries. As technology has advanced, so too have the threats against America’s Homeland. Shortly following the American Revolution, the infant nation once again battled its former overlords in the land and maritime domains during the War of 1812. After managing to deflect British assaults, a young America experienced a brief respite from external enemies thanks to the buffer of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. However, as WWII broke out, the American Homeland was once again under attack. Although the attack on Pearl Harbor in Hawaii is well known, the occupation of two Aleutian Islands by Japanese forces is largely forgotten. During this period, the Japanese utilized balloon bombs laden with explosives to attack America’s west coast, fortunately with minimal effectiveness. No European nations attacked US sovereign lands during WWII, but the threat from intercontinental ballistic missiles grew during the post-WWII era and continued to strengthen throughout the Cold War.
As Cold War tensions grew between the United States and the Soviet Union and long-range nuclear weapon capabilities increased, so too did Americas’ fear of an attack against the Homeland. Today the United States still faces the threat of ballistic missiles, as well as threats from violent extremist organizations. Peer nation states, such as Russia and China, have successfully developed conventional capabilities which threaten America’s pro-democratic way of life. Additionally, rogue nation states, such as North Korea and Iran, have developed their own ICBM and other ballistic missile capabilities that threaten US interests around the world. However, kinetic threats are not the only challenge in today’s modern security environment. In addition to kinetic threats against air, land, and maritime based targets, the US also faces threats across the space and electro-magnetic spectrum (EMS) domains. These two domains are vital to American daily societal interactions and, according to the US Electromagnetic Defense task force (EDTF), are necessary to “the day-to-day function and continuity of military, government, and commercial operations and commerce in democratic nations.”
These historical events highlight that threats and attacks against the Homeland existed during periods of relatively low technological advancement and have only increased as technology has improved. This three-part series will focus on the current security environment and discuss how the US continues to be vulnerable to attack from a variety of threats across the domains. As former Secretary of Defense James Mattis stated, “we are the most powerful military in the world and find ourselves in a competition among great powers” and “we have no God-given right to victory.” The United States must therefore continue to prepare for a potential fight against those great powers across all domains.
These multi-domain challenges have caused many to question the comprehensive strategy of the United States and its coalitions to defend North America and the role of the Department of Defense (DOD) in this comprehensive strategy. The National Security Strategy and National Defense Strategy highlight the way forward and direct the priorities each branch of government and service component should focus on. Despite the shift in overall strategic messaging to focus on “inter-state competition, not terrorism,” the DOD struggles to balance modernization with daily execution. The United States is entering into a period where recapitalization on major programs and capabilities requires emerging technology and integration across all spectrums and services. As each service continues its herculean efforts to cut waste and trim fat in budgetary planning, there are priorities that may adjust spending external to the DOD. The current border wall project that moved $3.8 billion from the DOD budget to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) is but one example of the challenges that each service is facing.
The comprehensive strategy of the United States and its allies must include efforts which increase advanced sensing and communication capabilities able to identify, neutralize, and survive threats from all domains. This three-part series examines such threats and suggests ways forward to improve homeland defense. Part I will continue to examine threats to the homeland across the domains. Later, Part II suggests how the DOD can better deter and fight with its current capabilities. Finally, Part III of this series will suggest how to develop and procure those technologies needed to maintain America’s tactical capabilities, operational edge, and strategic advantages.
PART I: THREATS
Current adversary threats operate throughout all domains, and there are a variety of agencies and commands strategically positioned to counter them. For those who may be unfamiliar with the organizational structure of the Department of Defense, unified combatant commands are directed to counter various threats worldwide, while the defense of North America primarily relies on the US Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD). Additionally, functional combatant commands, such as Cyber Command, Strategic Command, and Transportation Command, and geographic combatant commands all contribute to the defense of the Homeland. Other agencies within the US government which also support this effort include the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), US Coast Guard (USCG), Transportation Security Administration (TSA), and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which are all part of the DHS and coordinate with USNORTHCOM to achieve homeland defense objectives. “NORAD and USNORTHCOM have complementary missions… NORAD deters, detects, and defeats air threats to the United States and Canada and provides aerospace and maritime warning. USNORTHCOM “deters, detects, and defeats threats to the United States, conducts security cooperation activities with allies and partners, and supports civil authorities.” While USNORTHCOM owns the homeland defense mission, they are not the force provider and are supported by each service to counter threats in each domain below:
AIR DOMAIN Threats
- aircraft, cruise missiles, hypersonic weapons, nuclear weapon delivery
SPACE DOMAIN Threats
- degradation of precision navigation and timing (PNT), anti-satellite weapons (ASAT), on-orbit capabilities
CYBER DOMAIN (EMS) Threats
- hacking, network disruption, collection of sensitive information, information warfare, malware, spoofing, denial of service
LAND DOMAIN Threats
- border intrusion, extremist/terrorist attacks, drug and human trafficking, unmanned aerial systems, electromagnetic pulse events, infectious disease (COVID-19)
MARITIME DOMAIN Threats
- cruise and ballistic missiles/nuclear weapon delivery, terrorism, resource extraction, interference with freedom of navigation
Defending US airspace and protecting the nation’s air approaches.
The United States’ current capability in defense of the air domain focuses on surveillance networks and the command and control of alert forces throughout the defense sectors. NORAD focuses on aerospace defense, maintains awareness of airborne threats and is on watch 24 hours, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Russian fighters and bombers make up the majority of the monitored and intercepted aircraft tracked by NORAD. The alert forces used to intercept them span from Alaska to Massachusetts, Florida to Hawaii, and all around the periphery of the nation. Since 11 September 2001, alert fighters and controllers have kept the watch for asymmetric actions such as hijacked airliners and other threats to national interests. In 2018, an Alaska Airlines plane was stolen from Seattle’s SEATAC airport and was subsequently intercepted by F-15C Eagles from the Portland ANG. The actions of these pilots ensured the nation and its interests were safeguarded from a potential threat. This mission, called Operation Noble Eagle (ONE), focuses on defense from asymmetric threats and nation-state actors.
Adversary platforms such as the Tu-95 ‘Bear’ bomber are capable of carrying and launching conventional and nuclear payloads that can reach Alaska and the northern states while staying outside the Americas’ air defense identification zone (ADIZ). Additionally, they’re capable of striking the contiguous 48 states by penetrating and launching from within the ADIZ. “The Kh-101 / Kh-102 Raduga is a new line of conventional and nuclear capable air-launched cruise missiles developed and deployed by Russia. The Raduga, a stealth capable missile, is designed to defeat air defense systems by flying at low, terrain-hugging altitudes to avoid radar systems. The Kh-101 carries a conventional warhead, while the Kh-102 is believed to carry a 250 kilo-ton nuclear payload.” Finally, in 2019, Russia upgraded five TU-95 Bear H bombers to carry the Raduga which is known in the West by its NATO designation, AS-23A/B Kodiak.
Also in 2019, Russia conducted 48 air patrols aiming to “ensure their military presence in strategically important areas.” In March and April of 2020, multiple formations of TU-95s and TU-142s were intercepted in the arctic by US F-22s and Canadian F-18s. Russia has completed two long-range aviation patrols, visiting Venezuela in 2018 and South Africa in the fall of 2019. These two-ship deployments of TU-160 Blackjacks marked “firsts” for the supersonic, nuclear capable bomber. They also executed an unprecedented combined bomber patrol with Chinese PLAAF H-6 bombers over the Sea of Japan in July 2019. The only nations which currently maintain long-range bomber fleets are the US, Russia, and China. The collaboration between Russia and China remains a threat worth monitoring as United States’ “logistic nodes in the Pacific” could become potential targets. Air-launched and ground-launched missiles represent a significant reach for Russia into the homeland. As hypersonic weapons become operational, the current defense networks will be challenged to sense and kill them due to the time compression and intercept geometry caused by the weapon’s speed, maneuverability, and relatively low altitudes.
The unfettered access to, and freedom to operate in space are vital interests. “The area above the altitude where atmospheric effects on airborne objects become negligible; where electromagnetic radiation, charged particles, and electric and magnetic fields are the dominant physical influences, and that encompasses the Earth’s ionosphere and magnetosphere, interplanetary space, and the solar atmosphere.”
The addition of cruise missiles, ballistic missiles, and hypersonic threats highlight the need for a layered sensing grid that focuses on both the air and space domains to track advanced weapons. The creation of the US Space Force in 2019 signifies the US’s commitment and focus on spaced based activities. For decades the ingenuity required to maintain the high ground in space and operate unimpeded has slowly eroded. This once “benign environment allowed us to operate satellites for intelligence collection, missile warning, weather monitoring, communications, and precision positioning, navigation, and timing [PNT] without considering how to protect these systems.” The newly formed Space Force now faces a cluttered environment where freedom of action no longer exists. US space professionals have long since operated the GPS constellation, while ensuring combat capability and daily living continue unhindered. They also maintain space awareness through a myriad of sensors, radars, and satellites.
None of this awareness will stay intact without PNT continuing to remain steadfast with “space-based sensors [providing] around-the-clock global coverage for missile warning, nuclear detonations and other threats.” China is in a new space race with the United States for control of the high ground. They are developing technologies to counter space capabilities to include laser weaponry, anti-satellite weapons, directed energy weapons, jamming, cyber effects and on-orbit disruptive techniques. The National Air and Space Intelligence Center published the graphic below of on-orbit space threat capabilities operational or in development.
Each of these capabilities would significantly degrade the advantages in the space domain that enable effective navigation, targeting, communication, surveillance, and other daily life interactions within the economy. China will have the ability in 2020 to operate a terrestrial-based laser capable of targeting satellites in low earth orbit (LEO), as well as the capability to target satellites in geo-stationary orbit (GEO) by the mid – 2020’s. Even if China and Russia continue space asset development for non-military purposes and advancement, their current and near-future technology provides them diplomatic negotiation leverage. Conversely, these space-based capabilities “undermine [US] diplomats’ ability to negotiate from positions of strength” and the disadvantage will grow if investment does not continue.
US space forces also contribute to missile warning and defense capabilities. Currently the arsenal for ballistic missile defense (BMD) is maintained at Fort Greely, AK with a test site at Vandenberg AFB, CA. The missile warning function that observes launches and provides awareness comprises an overlapping network of radars from Clear AFS, AK to Cavalier AFS, ND all the way to sites in Greenland and the United Kingdom. In addition to missile warning, the discrimination capability required to provide a weapons quality track for kill vehicle intercept guidance is provided by other radar assets. This defensive kill chain is known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GBMD) system. It is capable of intercepting ICBMs during the midcourse phase as they transit through space prior to re-entry. However, it is not intended to provide defense from a massive wave of ICBMs launched from either Russia or China’s arsenals.
The nuclear triad, primarily managed by the DOD, provides deterrence through the concept of mutually assured destruction. Currently the 44 ground-based interceptor (GBI) missile inventory is maintained by the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and is primarily designed to counter any rogue ICBM threat from North Korea and potentially Iran, if they were to further augment their current inventory with longer range weapons. During the last two years North Korea has tested two ICBMs capable of delivering a thermonuclear weapon that can reach the contiguous United States. A GBMD inventory increase was delayed due to continuing resolutions in the budgetary appropriations process within congress. In December 2017 a continuing resolution anomaly was approved, despite the ongoing sequestration, for $200 million to create missile field 4 at Fort Greely, AK, adding 20 ground-based interceptor missiles. Meanwhile, Russia and China continue development of advanced ballistic missiles equipped with hypersonic glide vehicle re-entry payloads.
The Avangard is a nuclear-capable hypersonic glide vehicle that is launched upon an ICBM and became the first operational vehicle of its kind when it was put on alert duty in Russia at the end of 2019. Russia has also continued development of the Burevestnik (SS-X-9 Skyfall) nuclear powered and nuclear armed cruise missile which has nearly infinite range due to its nuclear power source. Sensing hypersonic threats and low radar cross section cruise missiles, regardless of speed, presents a challenge to missile warning and defense systems. A sensing grid capable of multi-domain sensing, tracking, and engaging these threats is required to ensure superior current and future defense of the homeland. This sensing grid requires protection as it operates in and through cyberspace.
“A global domain within the information environment consisting of the interdependent networks of information. technology infrastructures and resident data, including the Internet, telecommunications networks, computer systems, and. embedded processors and controllers.”
Even without the use of kinetic weapons, the United States’ way of life is challenged daily in cyberspace and the electromagnetic spectrum. US cyber forces confront near-peer adversary forces daily in cyberspace and “blocked more than 1.3 billion malicious connections in 2016 alone, an average of more than 40 malicious connections per second.” Critical infrastructure and civil society, which depend heavily on the EMS, will continue to be at risk of cyber-attack if our forces do not continue daily execution of defensive and offensive cyber operations. Additionally, the race for quantum computing and sensing is in full swing and may present a decisive advantage to our enemies in the future. If efforts are decreased or resolve is lost, the United States will be caught in a position of disadvantage in all domains due to the interconnected nature and technological dependence of all other domains on the EMS.
Cyber effects threaten the US military as adversaries continually attack military systems. One such example of cyber espionage took place in 2007, when an unknown foreign power hacked into the DOD, Department of State, Department of Commerce, Department of Energy, and NASA, as well as a variety of other high tech departments and agencies. The hackers successfully downloaded terabytes of information. Since that event, the Chinese military industrial complex has grown exponentially in technology and size. In addition to stealing military and civilian patents and secret technology, these foreign powers also attempt to use the EMS to affect operational systems and deny service to systems in all domains.
Secondly, cyber effects threaten the nation’s infrastructure, banking systems, and all other network based entities within the economy. The EDTF published a study in 2018 which outlines what could happen if adversaries were successful in exploiting the US’ reliance on the EMS. The takeaway from one of their scenarios is how vulnerable US network controlled and automated critical infrastructure are to cyber enabled attacks with or without a corresponding electromagnetic pulse (EMP) event. Significant damage to US power grids and backup generator systems caused via a cyber-attack with coordinated effects across multiple domains may cripple non-hardened systems for months or years. The ensuing discord amongst the US populace would create anarchy and a slew of domestic challenges.
Lastly, cyber threats leverage attacks across other domains through layered effects that, when combined, cause significant challenges. The effect of cyber intrusion and meddling was witnessed during the 2016 and 2018 United States’ elections via cyber enabled Information Warfare delivered through various social media and news platforms. Enemies continue to influence through shaping narratives with disinformation in order to cause chaos, disorder, and distrust with establishments and governmental agencies and processes. Western democratic principles and freedoms are being attacked through non-kinetic means.
The DOD provides support to civil authorities, when appropriate and as permitted by law.
The EDTF report discusses how an EMP weapon, delivered via air or space, can have significant effects on the infrastructure over a wide distance. Accuracy is not important for the EMP to be effective as discussed in the cyber domain example above. While the air and space domains have defenses to counter an EMP, the land domain does not. Instead, it will be forced to focus on the aftereffects of an attack. The DOD does not maintain the responsibility to harden US infrastructure to withstand EMP type events but remains ready to assist civil authorities and agencies in times of threat. The DOD has hardened much of its critical infrastructure and continues its efforts today.
Other threats in the land domain are physical rather than electronic. The United States’ northern and southern borders are porous. The surge of border crossing at the US-Mexican border has increased risk to the Homeland. Illegal immigration, drug traffic, and human trafficking continually plague the efforts of the CBP and DHS and brought potential threats across the borders. As violent extremism has increased over the last two decades the porous borders provide opportunities for terrorist organizations with advantageous routes of entry into the US. Despite differing opinions on the need for a border wall, construction is moving forward, and money is being transferred into the budget to ensure it continues. This physical barrier will seek to deter further illegal crossings but will most likely not stop them all. However, it provides the CBP with another tool to help shape the detection and apprehension of people committing illegal actions.
The human domain is encompassed in the land domain as biological diseases can spread (COVID-19), famines can occur, and other natural disasters such as drought, hurricane, tornado, or earthquake rock the nation. The DOD supports other governmental agencies that have the lead in all these areas. This series will not focus on these specific threats; however, it is important to understand that natural catastrophes or pandemics create opportunistic times for adversary nations or powers to attempt other multi-domain attacks.
In addition to the threat of people illegally crossing the borders or natural disasters affecting the nation, advanced weapons also affect the land domain. While cruise and ballistic missiles travel through air and space, they impact in the land domain. Redundant measures to work in unison with air and space domain capabilities are best to provide a layered defense. Cruise missile and ballistic missile threats from countries to the north and south are minimal due to coalition relationships with Canada and Mexico. However, in the arctic, across the Bering Strait, Russia poses a threat with cruise missile technology. In addition to their air launched cruise missiles, they deployed a Bastion Coastal Defense Cruise Missile unit across the Bering Sea from Alaska. With their surface to surface cruise missile capability they hold at bay target sets within Alaska to include the GBMD assets at Fort Greely, the missile warning and defense sites at Clear AFS and Eareckson AFS, and the military and civilian sites all around Alaska with minimal warning. They have the ability to hold at bay the transit of vessels through the Bering Strait into the arctic.
The maritime approaches to the United States, its territorial seas, and other navigable waters, including international waters.
Ease of maritime access to the west and east coastlines presents a major challenge to defense forces. Thanks to the great distances of the Atlantic and Pacific, any surface vessel that may present a threat to the Homeland are easily and continuously tracked and monitored by air and space platforms as they travel across these oceans. However, subsurface threats present unique challenges to threat awareness. Maritime surveillance in the arctic also presents a challenge with the smaller force structure and footprint in that region. Resource extraction in US exclusive economic zones has occurred illegally by Chinese fishing vessels and the USCG has enforced sovereignty. Future conflict may arise due to precious minerals and resources in the arctic. Ballistic missiles also pose a threat from sea-based platforms both surface and subsurface. “Putin announced in December  that Russia plans to double its number of cruise missile-capable vessels by 2023.” Cruise missiles and ballistic missiles from surface and sub-surface vessels pose a threat to the homeland, equal to threats from air and land. The graphic below highlights the capability of vessels in the mid-Atlantic to target assets along the eastern seaboard. The need to ensure maritime domain awareness is imperative to sense and track threat vessels and neutralize their weapon capability while hardening the infrastructure and defensive systems to ensure survival from attack.
The Next War Starts Tomorrow
The only way to ensure peace at home is to continue to fight the enemy and its threats on the road. These away games are not always across the ocean anymore. The battleground for superiority is not only in the air, on the land, or at sea, but today the threat is persistent in space and cyberspace; which permeates all around this nation. The next articles in this series will focus on how the US can fight its adversaries utilizing the capabilities it currently maintains and what future procurement should be done to maintain a multi-domain superiority. The US military is not in the business of deterrence, rather its focus is the business of warfighting. The executive branch and state department are in the business of deterrence and the DOD must maintain readiness to be warfighters when called upon. The next war starts tomorrow.
Andrew Gray is an F-22 evaluator/instructor pilot and Air Force Fellow at Air Combat Command. He has amassed over 1000 flight hours in the F-22 and 1800+ total flight hours between the F-22, F-15, and T-38. He provided air support during Operation Inherent Resolve during the offensives to recapture Mosul, Iraq and Raqqa, Syria from ISIL control. He has intercepted Russian aircraft over Syria and in the arctic. He also served as the Legislative Liaison to the Commander ALASKAN COMMAND, AK NORAD Region, and 11th Air Force.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Air Force or the US Government.