HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — The head of U.S. Strategic Command, Adm. Charles Richard, has said his No. 1 need is a robust missile warning capability.
Missile warning is critical “so I know what to do and how to posture and dispose my forces, and it is due to these rapidly expanding and evolving threats: hypersonic weapons, cruise missiles potentially with intercontinental range, unmanned aerial systems, proliferation of shorter-range ballistic missiles and several novel weapon systems,” he said Aug. 11 at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium.
The Chinese test last year of a fractional orbital bombardment hypersonic capability was something the world had never seen before, Richard noted. “I’m not convinced at all we’ve fully thought through the implications of what that weapon system means. [It’s a prime example] of this emerging capability,” he added.
With such weapons at an adversary’s disposal, the U.S. faces decreased warning timelines, difficulties in assigning attribution, and an “increased threat to our traditional space and missile defense forces,” he explained. Yet, “ordinary” weapons like a “garden-variety cruise missile on a quiet submarine” are an underappreciated threat and also pose serious implications for strategic deterrence, he added.
Dealing with the challenge posed by exquisite and more common threats as part of the U.S. strategic deterrence strategy begins with “the need to reevaluate and readjust our missile defense posture,” Richard said. Improved missile warning is a part of that.
This means taking a more critical look at “dispersal, hardening, redundancy, mobility, complicat[ing] opponent attack plans, reduc[ing] the confidence of attack success, rais[ing] the threshold for potential conflict and giv[ing] our senior leaders more decision space by limiting damage from attacks,” he said.
New capabilities to defeat missile threats before they even launch is critical, Richard said. While it is not a new concept, “we really need to get after it,” he added.
“We must be able to detect and track cruise missiles and hypersonic attacks on the homeland, launch onward, attribute, defend and respond appropriately,” Richard said. “Early warning is essential — or conclude we’re not going to get early warning and re-posture to account for that.”
Early warning capabilities need to be responsive, persistent, resilient and cost effective with integrated command and control, Richard described, “and we have to come up with active and passive defenses against regional hypersonics.”
The focus should also be on defeating missiles rather than solely active missile defense that synchronizes American, allied and partner contributions and capabilities, explained Richard, which include getting beyond platform-centric defenses to a more “comprehensive approach where we can bring to bear all our capabilities — passive defense, offensive, kinetic, non-kinetic — and mold it together into a joint combined force.”
Richard also reiterated that the recent Minuteman III missile test delay would be short. While another test of the intercontinental ballistic missile was canceled, “the other one has been delayed and should be delayed only for a short period of time,” he said.
Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin ordered the Pentagon to postpone a planned test launch of the weapon. The White House cited increased tension with China over Taiwan as the reason for the delay.
The Pentagon’s decision to delay the test came as China conducted “precision missile strikes” earlier this month in waters off Taiwan’s coasts as part of military exercises that have raised tension in the region following a visit by U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
It was the second delay of the Minuteman III test after Austin ordered one in March called off in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. The land-based missile is one of the legs of the United States’ nuclear triad that also includes submarine-launched ballistic missiles and strategic aerial bombers.
The unarmed missile was due to be fired from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, and splash down at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands.
“The Minuteman III tests are just like other tests of our strategic systems,” Richard said. “Those tests are really important. We do them all the time. We do three to five per year. We do it across all legs of the [nuclear] triad.”
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.