Pentagon Steps Up Cruise Missile Defenses as Iranian Threat Grows

U.S. to expand network of spy satellites to better detect and track cruise missiles, drones, and hypersonic weapons.

Brian Hook, the U.S. special representative on Iran
Brian Hook (second from right), the U.S. special representative on Iran, checks what Saudi officials said were Iranian remnants of a cruise missile in Kharj, south of the Saudi capital Riyadh, on June 21, 2019. FAYEZ NURELDINE/AFP via Getty Images

Just before dawn on Sept. 14, more than two dozen small drones and cruise missiles descended on Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, evading American-made missile defenses and wiping out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production in just hours. 

The attack, which U.S. and Saudi officials have attributed to Iran, shook the region and highlighted an acute vulnerability as these new types of weapons proliferate. U.S.-made missile defenses are designed primarily to counter ballistic missiles—launched in a high arc with predictable trajectories—but have more difficulty stopping cruise missiles, which fly low to the ground where radars struggle to spot them.  

As Russia and China invest in long-range cruise missiles for potential future conflicts, the U.S. Defense Department has made improving the military’s ability to detect and defeat these types of weapons a top priority. But the problem has taken on new urgency amid increased tension with Iran, which has been quietly been building up its own cruise missile capabilities for over a decade.

A key piece to solving this problem, commanders say, is beefing up the Pentagon’s network of spy satellites to better detect and track cruise missiles, drones, and the emerging threat of hypersonic weapons—missiles that fly at more than five times the speed of sound. “You can’t defend against something that you can’t see,” said Gen. John Hyten, now-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 2019.

To this end, the newly established Space Development Agency—which will eventually become part of the new Space Force—aims to launch several dozen small, low-cost satellites into orbit through 2022, and dozens more every two years after that. A “tracking” layer of satellites will track the threat, while a “transport” layer will broadcast that tracking data to traditional missile defense communications networks, said Derek Tournear, the director of the agency, this week at the Pentagon.

The goal is to have “full global coverage” by fiscal year 2026, Tournear said.

Since the Cold War era, the U.S. military has built up a vast network of operators, weapons, and sensors dedicated to missile defense. The first part of defeating an incoming missile threat is detecting and tracking it. This is best done from space, where satellites can cover much wider areas than lower-flying reconnaissance assets such as drones and surveillance planes. The final piece is destroying the threat, traditionally achieved by an interceptor fired from a missile defense system.

But countering cruise missiles and small unmanned aerial vehicles is trickier than defeating ballistic missiles. These weapons fly low to the ground at high speeds, and they have unpredictable flight patterns that challenge modern missile defenses. For example, analysis of weapons debris recovered from the Sept. 14 attacks showed that some of the craft, which originated from the north, took a roundabout path to the facility, flying over Iraq and Kuwait. 

Just as critical as new sensors is a faster way to pass information between operators and the various lethal platforms that will defeat the threat. Many legacy platforms can’t communicate directly with each other, and any decision requires multiple phone calls or internet chat messages that take up precious minutes. In a world where hypersonic missiles are fast becoming a reality, this timeframe is too slow, commanders say. 

The Pentagon is in the nascent stages of building a network that operators and platforms across all domains of warfare—from a satellite to a Navy destroyer—can plug into to autonomously receive and transmit battlefield data in real time. The Army and the Air Force have developed separate concepts to do so, with each service vying to be the primary locus of what the Pentagon is calling “multi-domain operations.” 

The Air Force seems to be the furthest ahead, leading a live exercise in Florida in December 2019 demonstrating some initial capability. Will Roper, the Air Force’s top acquisition official, described the service’s solution—officially called the Advanced Battle Management System—as “the internet of things inside the military.” He said the network will use machine learning to crunch data and push it autonomously to operators across the world.

Roper compared it to the driving navigation app Waze.

“It is helping you be a better driver,” Roper said. “It understands your likes and dislikes, and it’s pulling information from the world around you … things that you may way to know to help you do your mission better, and the more you interact with the app the better the analytics get.” 

Cruise missiles are only one threat the network will help the military counter, Roper said, but it is one of the most urgent. Ideally, sensors will be able to detect the threat quickly and autonomously push targeting information to an operator with the means to take it out.

“The idea with the ABMS is that the people are no longer the glue, the information flows everywhere all at once, and the people are the assessors, the analyzers, the feedback providers that help the analytics that are doing the pushing get better and better,” Roper said.

Army Lt. Gen. Eric Wesley, the deputy commanding general of U.S. Army Futures Command, said that the Air Force model should be scaled to enable Army weapons systems as well. In parallel, the Army is working its own network concept, the Joint All-Domain Command and Control project. 

But both services have a similar concept in mind for the end product.

“We can integrate all domains now, but it’s largely very episodic or industrial. We want to be able to adjust rapidly and continuously,” Wesley said. “We want to have the ability to very quickly take down a peer adversary.”   

Realistically, though, such a network is years if not decades away. Wesley said he wants to field the Army’s version by 2028, but the Pentagon is hampered by bureaucratic red tape and moves at a notoriously slow pace compared to the commercial sector. 

Until then, commanders in the Middle East must remain vigilant around the clock for potentially devastating attacks.

“This is just going to be a long-term problem for us, to get our minds around: How do we defend against something like that?” said Maj. Gen. Alex Grynkewich, deputy commander of the U.S.-led coalition to defeat the Islamic State at U.S. Central Command.

Lara Seligman is a staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @laraseligman

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