By Andrew M. Gray
Estimated Read Time: 11 Minutes
Editor’s note: The following article is the second 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 focused on the history of the current threats, 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.
PART II: FIGHTING WITH CURRENT CAPABILITIES
DoD services focus on their respective domains in stove-piped programs and methods with joint or inter-service cooperation typically via communication for integration and not always including system interaction and fusion. “While [the] land, sea, air, space, and cyber forces have become more joint and coordinated, they are not sufficiently integrated for the future fight.” Funding for these programs has previously lived within each service component. Increased fusion efforts are ongoing amongst the domains. Three areas vital to the defense of the homeland continue to be domain awareness through sensing and communicating threat data, neutralizing or killing advanced threats, and surviving threat capabilities.
AWARENESS – SENSING AND COMMUNICATING
The current sensing grid in the air domain is comprised of a network of radar systems including the Long Range Radar Sites (LRRS) enshrouding Alaska and Canada. These sites are the descendants of the original Cold-War era Distant Early Warning system known to some as the DEW Line. “Twisting across arctic wastes, about 2,000 miles north of the US–Canadian border, [the DEW line] offered from three to six extra hours advance notice of attack — valuable time that could be well spent in one of four ways:
- dispersing SAC bombers to survive the initial onslaught;
- positioning fighter aircraft where they could best intercept enemy bombers:
- diverting civil air traffic from critical areas: and
- implementing civil defense measures.”
The Cold War nuclear bomber threat required near overflight of the target area and even with advances in technology during previous decades, the geographic boundaries of the sea provided a buffer from the threat of attack. However, today’s threat technology doesn’t require Russian bombers to fly into the US Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) to achieve desired weapons effects (DWE). The US surveillance system must be able to sense and categorize aircraft threats as well as weapons.
The LRRS integrates with the Joint Surveillance System, which is a collaboration between the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the USAF, and shares the cost and maintenance of radars to aid in threat detection and airspace deconfliction. Like the DEW line radars that were upgraded long ago, the JSS radars, mostly Air Route Surveillance Radars (ARSR), are transitioning to the FAA’s NEXT Gen Surveillance system that uses the Automatic Dependent Surveillance – Broadcast (ADS-B) system for deconfliction, communication, navigation, and reporting. The DoD, FAA, and DHS are in a combined effort to redefine their long-range, short-range, terminal, and weather radars into a single radar requirement under the Spectrum Efficient National Surveillance Radar (SENSR) program. The transition towards a GPS Position, Navigation, and Timing (PNT) based signal for FAA execution in the national airspace will provide a greater awareness and reliability but also presents a vulnerability. When PNT is affected by an adversary, safety of flight can be negatively affected, including congestion and chaos within civil and military travel systems. In addition, the defensive interoperability with FAA sensors, connected into the defensive networks, will diminish capability and require more investment by DoD services. The eastern and western air defense sectors (EADS and WADS) monitor this air picture to communicate with NORAD (North American Aerospace Defense Command) for air defense missions. Enemy threats and weapons will not be tracked via ADS-B and require other sensors to monitor and track. The current LRRS in Alaska are designed for aircraft operating in medium altitudes with overlapping coverage and have reduced detection against smaller radar cross section platforms or threats flying at lower altitudes.
Within the maritime domain, the US Coast Guard (USCG) along with DHS manages the Maritime Awareness Global Network (MAGNET). This network shares data worldwide from various systems and is available in multiple classifications with information concerning ports, facilities, vessels, suspicious activity, and arrival and departure information. The US Navy also uses various maritime radars and acoustic technologies, including active and passive sonar, to monitor surface and subsurface activity to enhance maritime awareness. Satellite based electro-optical and synthetic aperture radar imagery enable higher fidelity tracking and verification. The United States is benefiting from NATO efforts by the Centre for Maritime Research and Experimentation (CMRE) which is “expanding on its existing distributed multi-hypothesis tracker (DMHT), a high-performance, computationally-efficient set of complex algorithms (or data fusion engine) that have been used to interpret data from underwater and surface surveillance.” Complementary to the USCG’s MAGNET system and the data fusion work with DMHT the US Navy incorporates air platforms including the P-8 Poseidon and the MQ-4C Triton. The P-8 focuses on anti-surface warfare and anti-submarine warfare and carries a variety of conventional weapons and sonobuoys to enable this mission. In January 2020, the US Navy deployed the MQ-4C Triton for the first time. The deployment to Guam highlights an important mission in a volatile region. The Triton operates its electro-optical sensor and radar from high altitudes (60k+ ft) and provides information that combines with data from the automated identification system (AIS) passed from naval ships. This technology is evolving, and similar capabilities are used closer to US shores to integrate AIS data with MAGNET information and space-based information.
Monitoring via multi-satellite constellations in the space domain is aided by the ground-based sensors discussed previously. To expand on the missile warning capability of the Upgraded Early Warning Radars (UEWR) at Air Force stations in the northern hemisphere, the discussion of missile defense sensor capability is equally important. The space warning mission is unable to distinguish or discriminate between multiple payloads, the debris from boost phase rockets and material, and possible decoys or expendables. To satisfy the need for accurate cueing on threat warheads and projectiles, an advanced sensor that provides long-range discrimination has been coupled with missile warning systems that can detect the presence of launch.
Billy Mitchell spoke before the House Military Affairs Committee in 1935 and stated, “I believe that in the future, he who holds Alaska will hold the world, and I think it is the most important strategic place in the world.” His comments ring true today for missile defense as ballistic missiles travel polar or near polar routes due to shorter distances than around the equatorial latitudes. The position of sensors and interceptors in the northern hemisphere, primarily in Alaska, provide missile warning and defense for the entire contiguous US, Alaska, and Hawaii. While Mitchell’s comments were focused on air travel, the same considerations exist for threats traveling through our atmosphere into space and back down. Our investment in Alaska improves our sensing grid, but due to proximity to Russia it also presents a target. Ballistic missiles travel through three phases: boost, midcourse, and terminal. The Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) uses a sensor grid with components in the space, sea, and land domains while command and control are accomplished by NORTHCOM (Northern Command) and NORAD elements.
NEUTRALIZING OR KILLING ADVANCED THREATS
During the boost phase, the SPY-1 radar on Aegis vessels can detect and track a ballistic missile when properly positioned. The UEWRs are the next line of defense to detect the threat as it continues along the short boost phase lasting approximately only five minutes. This limited window is challenging for intercept and is not currently the focus of ballistic missile defense. As the threat enters space and begins its midcourse flight for approximately 20 minutes the greatest chance for intercept occurs. Between the Cobra Dane radar site on the tip of the Aleutian island chain, the Long Rang Discrimination Radar (LRDR) in development at Clear AFS with some capability from the UEWRs, and coupled with a Space Tracking Surveillance System, cueing is confirmed and provided for missile intercept. The primary weapons for intercept are the ground-based interceptors (GBI) at Fort Greely, AK or the Aegis SM-3 missile when positioned appropriately. If intercept is unsuccessful during this timeframe the threat will re-enter the atmosphere and enter the terminal phase which presents a narrow window for defense. In the terminal phase, AN/TPY-2 radars tied to the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system focus on the upper altitude tier while Patriot systems with the PAC-3 missile focus on the lower altitude tier. In some locations, including Romania and Poland, the Aegis Ashore capability exists where the same radar, coupled with SM-2 missiles, can engage ballistic missiles in the terminal phase. Aegis destroyers can also successfully engage with SM-2 missiles in the terminal phase. The challenge with ballistic missile defense exists in the discrimination and shot doctrine required to neutralize threats. With the inclusion of debris fields and countermeasures to inbound ballistic missiles, the probability of intercept decreases on the threat payload. Increases in discrimination technology will continue to allow more precise employment and increased effectiveness of anti-ballistic missile systems. Finally, in space, the space-based kill assessment (SKA) feature couples sensors on multiple satellites that confirm the effectiveness of the intercepts. The SKA will be a network of small sensors hosted on commercial satellites that house three infrared detectors used to collect the energy signature of the impact between a threat ballistic missile and an interceptor.
While ballistic missile launches against the US homeland represent serious escalation in conflict, the more likely occurrence may be the result of miscalculation by an adversary nation or miscommunication within their own forces. An example of miscalculation during tense situations was exemplified by the Iranian surface to air operators following the Iranian missile strike into Iraq in January 2020. Shortly after the missile strikes by Iran, an Iranian operator fired upon a Ukrainian airliner shortly after takeoff. This mistake was the action of operators trying to react appropriately during a tense time and the human errors were disastrous. Combinations of cruise missiles launched to prepare the way for ballistic missile launches could saturate defenses against critical nodes within the ballistic missile defense system resulting in latent detection, poor tracking, and failed intercepts. Strikes with cruise missiles against Fort Greely may prevent GBIs from properly engaging ballistic missile threats.
General Terrence O’Shaughnessy stated, “[The United States] simply cannot afford to rely on antiquated technology and outdated approaches.” The threats outlined previously highlight the need to quickly and efficiently innovate new approaches to defeating advanced weaponry. While the focus of the DoD over the last 20 years has been fighting violent extremism in permissive environments with the ability to maintain air superiority, peer competitors have analyzed US strategies and weaknesses. In current conflict, US success in all domains hinges upon the ability to effectively use intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR) capabilities to provide near real-time information to command and control elements. In turn, United States’ leadership uses this information superiority to manage engagements worldwide in the its favor. ISR capabilities, which are enabled by space-based assets for data transfer, communication relays, precision timing, or sensor awareness, will be held at risk when confronting a near-peer adversary. US space superiority will be one of the first layers that will require protection when engaging near-peer adversaries.
In order to succeed against an adversarial ballistic missile attack, the DoD needs to ensure air and missile defense alert forces are appropriately positioned, trained, and ready with adequate operational sensors. Redundant systems and layered missile defense are also important, as volleys may allow threats to get past various layers of defense. As the defended areas are vast, the United States must continue to maintain a defended asset list (DAL) that focuses layered defenses on critical infrastructure and resources. Operational deception of the location and function of critical assets that could be targeted by foreign threats is essential to complicating adversary targeting solutions. This also includes continuing to secure the “Protected Critical Infrastructure Information (PCII) Program, part of the Department of Homeland Security’s (DHS) National Protection and Programs Directorate” that “[enhances] information sharing between the private sector and government.” Defending the homeland includes protecting cyber related networks and infrastructure and not just the physical buildings. Critical civilian networks associated with the banking and technology industries must also be secured and preserved from foreign attacks. The United States must continue to develop breakthrough technologies in order to maintain its superiority across all domains.
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 of ALASKAN COMMAND / Alaska-NORAD Region / 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.