U.S. Missile Defense Is Cruising for a Bruising

A new report argues the Pentagon needs to wake up to low-flying threats.

By , Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter.
A Ground-based Interceptor missile, an element of the nation’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, was launched from North Vandenberg on September 12, 2021.
A Ground-based Interceptor missile, an element of the nation’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, was launched from North Vandenberg on September 12, 2021.
A Ground-based Interceptor missile, an element of the nation’s Ground-based Midcourse Defense system, was launched from North Vandenberg on September 12, 2021. U.S. Space Force photo by Airman Kadielle Shaw

It was like a scene from a horror movie: After weeks of calm, Russian cruise missiles, which Ukrainian officials said were fired from the Black Sea, interrupted a peaceful Sunday morning in Kyiv in late June, slamming into two residential buildings, leaving one person dead and six wounded.  

The fear at the Pentagon is that those kinds of attacks are not some far-off threat. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly five months ago, Russia’s cruise missiles, which can be launched from the air or by sea, have become the Kremlin’s garden-variety weapon. And they’ve scrambled the minds of American defense planners, who spent decades planning to defend against a nuclear attack by a rogue state, like North Korea, and now have to contend with non-nuclear weapons that can outfox traditional missile defenses.  

The United States does not have the defenses to keep up with Russian and Chinese advances in cruise missile technology, according to a new report set for release Thursday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank. While the U.S. defensive structure remains focused on ballistic missiles, which are easier to defend against because they leave and reenter the atmosphere in a predictable trajectory, the report authors are calling on the Pentagon to beef up a constellation of radars. They call for more U.S.-based over-the-horizon radars, which peer far from the homeland, and prioritized area radars, which focus on U.S. territory, to more quickly respond to Russia and China if they fire a weapon at the United States from the Arctic or Atlantic oceans. 

It was like a scene from a horror movie: After weeks of calm, Russian cruise missiles, which Ukrainian officials said were fired from the Black Sea, interrupted a peaceful Sunday morning in Kyiv in late June, slamming into two residential buildings, leaving one person dead and six wounded.  

The fear at the Pentagon is that those kinds of attacks are not some far-off threat. Since Russian President Vladimir Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine nearly five months ago, Russia’s cruise missiles, which can be launched from the air or by sea, have become the Kremlin’s garden-variety weapon. And they’ve scrambled the minds of American defense planners, who spent decades planning to defend against a nuclear attack by a rogue state, like North Korea, and now have to contend with non-nuclear weapons that can outfox traditional missile defenses.  

The United States does not have the defenses to keep up with Russian and Chinese advances in cruise missile technology, according to a new report set for release Thursday by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a Washington think tank. While the U.S. defensive structure remains focused on ballistic missiles, which are easier to defend against because they leave and reenter the atmosphere in a predictable trajectory, the report authors are calling on the Pentagon to beef up a constellation of radars. They call for more U.S.-based over-the-horizon radars, which peer far from the homeland, and prioritized area radars, which focus on U.S. territory, to more quickly respond to Russia and China if they fire a weapon at the United States from the Arctic or Atlantic oceans. 

“The current system of command and control, though staffed by highly dedicated U.S. and Canadian military personnel, employs 1990s-era technology and uses 1960s-era decision processes,” the CSIS authors wrote in their report. “Besides a near complete lack of mission integration, there are almost no purpose-built defenses against low-altitude cruise missile threats.” The two-decade-long modernization program for sensors, shooters, and radars would cost U.S. taxpayers about $33 billion.

Under the plan, the United States would first add four over-the-horizon radars that range more than 600 miles offshore and one area defense radar, before completing 360-degree coverage in three phases. Those defenses would be backstopped by fighter jets; CSIS also leaves open the possibility for adding space-sensing capabilities and drone and hypersonic defenses in the future. 

The plan comes as the U.S. Defense Department is busy putting together its nuclear and missile defense reviews. Washington is also sketching out a response to more capable Russian and Chinese missiles, including hypersonic weapons, some of which can circumnavigate the globe at five times the speed of sound and move to dodge projectiles in flight. 

New variants of Russian and Chinese cruise missiles cover “a whole lot of the United States with standoff capability,” said Tom Karako, a senior fellow at CSIS and the lead author of the report. “It’s pretty astonishing.” That means that China and Russia could have nuclear-level effects without resorting to the bomb. For instance, China has developed the DF-26 missile, known in Pentagon parlance as the “Guam Killer,” because it can reach—and perhaps destroy—much of the U.S. island in the Pacific without necessarily resorting to a nuclear salvo. 

And it’s no longer a risk that the United States can accept, some believe, considering the possibility of Russia or China firing cruise missiles from the Atlantic Ocean or from the Arctic circle, where both nations have tried to carve out more turf, with U.S. neighbors moving faster in some instances than the Pentagon. After a visit to North American Aerospace Defense Command in June, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau pledged that his country would invest nearly $4 billion in the next six years to add two over-the-horizon sensors and a network of classified sensors to reinforce possible northern missile approaches, upgrading a chain of radar stations in the far north that have been in place since the 1980s. 

A senior defense official told Foreign Policy earlier this month that the command is still figuring out how to deal with the threat of Russian and Chinese hypersonic glide vehicles, after China’s around-the-world launch test last year, compared to ballistic missiles, which the United States is able to defend against.

“Peer-level competitors don’t envision coming into direct strategic conflict with the United States,” the official said, speaking anonymously according to ground rules set by the Pentagon. “But their concern is that they could end up in a conflict that escalates in their near abroad, and they want to be able to inflict damage in order to compel de-escalation on the part of the U.S.” 

The threat has grown as Russia has unveiled new families and classes of cruise missiles. During the 1980s, Russia had prepared rudimentary land attack cruise missiles that could hit targets about 1,600 miles away, in an effort to saturate NATO’s front lines with explosions. But new generations of cruise missiles have raised eyebrows even further at the Pentagon, such as the air-launched AS-23A that first began development in the 1990s, guided by the Russian alternative to GPS, that may have a range of around 3,000 miles, enough to reach targets in North America from well outside the early warning zone. 

Even subsonic cruise missiles could be fired from off the coast of North America by Russia with little to no warning. The senior U.S. defense official said that both Russia and China have been working on missile programs that can strike critical infrastructure inside the United States, including cruise missiles with intercontinental range. 

The nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office proposed putting in place airborne and ground-based radars to form a perimeter along the coastal United States and rely heavily on fighter interceptors to down fast-traveling missiles. CSIS offers up a cluster of 10 over-the-horizon radars, seeing far into the reaches of northern Canada, giving the United States eyes that can see almost everywhere, backstopped by the sensor towers—think cellphone towers laden with sensors to detect incoming missiles.

“You get three different layers of sensors and three different types of interceptors,” Karako said. “If anything, we went too big.” 

But there’s a sign that there could start to be buy-in within Washington for plans to better cover the country with sensors and shooters. Pentagon budget documents indicate the new U.S. National Defense Strategy, still on hold in the department, will highlight long-range cruise missile threats from Russia. The Missile Defense Agency has allotted nearly $14 million for cruise missile defense experiments. What’s key is progress on controversial U.S. missile defenses in Guam, known as Aegis Ashore, as China has tried to rapidly ramp up its missiles designed to attack the island. The Pentagon is investing nearly $200 million into the effort next year. 

“What we learn on Guam is also something that can be applied here,” Vice Adm. Jon Hill, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said at an event in May. “Because you’ve got to remember, Guam is really about the size of Chicago, right? We’re defending the size of a very large city. So, I think it’s very applicable to what we’ll do in the United States.”

Jack Detsch is Foreign Policy’s Pentagon and national security reporter. Twitter: @JackDetsch

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