U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville recently earned headlines for admitting the service’s 2022 budget challenges will cap personnel at roughly 485,000. His assessment heralds hard modernization decisions servicewide, but the metastasizing threats to U.S. air and missile bases — and the resulting readiness hurdles — mean Pentagon leaders need new answers on base defense, and fast.
They should aggressively embrace emergent technologies, especially high-energy lasers, high-power microwave systems and networked sensors. These capabilities provide a sustainable, lethal edge that can protect America’s bases while balancing the burden among her warriors — if Congress maintains funding and allows these systems to reach soldiers in the field. Failure in this regard invites dire consequences for American service members and assets on bases worldwide. Both are already in our adversaries’ crosshairs.
As special assistant to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis while he developed the 2018 National Defense Strategy, I saw how rapidly senior leaders could reorient the Defense Department to new geopolitical realities. From my later experience in the office of personnel and readiness, I know that same adaptability is desperately needed now to confront the evolving threat to U.S. air and missile bases.
At the theatre level, the mentality held since 1945 was that America’s bases were safe; defenses were primarily needed to defeat discrete ballistic missile threats. But our bases aren’t safe anymore, and a recent report from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments shows just how far the threats have developed.
One particularly chilling case from the report: China’s targeting of highly sophisticated new weapons against near-perfect replicas of Burke-class destroyers at dock and F-22 aircraft on runways. Aside from Beijing’s ballistic missile program — the most active and diverse in the world — China’s thousands of cruise missiles and military UAVs can overwhelm U.S. and allied bases throughout the Pacific.
Russia can do the same in Europe, where it has developed large arsenals of long-range conventional ballistic missiles, ground and air-launched cruise missiles, armed UAVs, and smaller UAVs used for locating and cuing attacks on NATO forces.
America’s current defensive architecture is designed to defeat limited ballistic weapons launched by rogue actors like North Korea or Iran. Against large salvos of the aforementioned Chinese or Russian capabilities, including hypersonic glide vehicles and swarming drones, they are inadequate.
The U.S. Army bears most of the burden for base defense from missile threats, but the current approach places excessive burden on legacy kinetic systems and the soldiers who operate them. While performing the duties of the deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness, my team and I reviewed and signed off on deployment orders for these units.
There are simply not enough to meet current demand.
Even with significant expenditures in modernization and highly unlikely end-strength increases, these legacy systems are incapable of defeating salvo attacks, which means buying more of them isn’t effective. We need a new mix of kinetic and non-kinetic defenses — fully networked and layered — to protect our forces, alleviate readiness challenges, and counter new threats at an affordable, sustainable cost.
Fortunately, these solutions are in development. Industry aims to develop a 300-kilowatt, high-energy laser by 2022 — one powerful enough to degrade cruise missiles, UAVs and eventually manned aircraft. The Army expects to field test a high-power microwave weapon, the Tactical High Power Operational Responder, or THOR, by 2024 — a system capable of disabling and disrupting multiple airborne threats, including drone swarms. High-Velocity Projectiles, or HVP, which are supersonic artillery rounds, have been tested and are capable of killing incoming missiles. Air-launched defensive interceptors may be capable of the same.
With these tools, we can build a layered defense architecture that can engage with the speed and scale we need.
To its credit, the Army has delivered a strong performance in spite of headwinds from evolving threats and downward budgetary pressures. Notably, last August, the Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System successfully intercepted two cruise missiles simultaneously with two Patriot Advanced Capability-3 missiles. But the budgetary reality remains: A PAC-3 costs nearly $5 million per missile. By contrast, HVPs cost $86,000 per round, and the cost of high-energy lasers could even fall as low as $10 per shot. Critically, these capabilities would also have much lighter logistical footprints than legacy Patriot and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense batteries.
For real progress against the threats in a tightened budget environment, the Army needs Congress to sustain investment in these technologies so they can be rapidly integrated and employed to meet the growing threat.
Further, current capabilities and solitary service efforts are stovepiped, unable to react adequately to counter the speed and scale of new threats. The current threat environment clearly targets our sea and air basing, so investments in emergent base defense technologies should be shared by all services. Congress should ensure the distribution and coordination of this cost among the services to reduce the overall time and price tag of advancing needed capabilities.
I worked these problem sets in various roles in the Pentagon, but my most powerful encounters with them remain the time I spent as an infantry officer in Afghanistan. I witnessed firsthand how America’s technological edge unlocked greater unit performance on the battlefield and greater safety at base.
For units today, that technological edge comes from high-energy lasers, high-power microwave systems and networked sensors. So long as there is coordinated, predictable and equitable investment in these capabilities, America’s war fighters can meet the threat and address the readiness challenge. They can do more with less.
The tools exist and the problem is solvable, but steady commitment from Congress is required.
Will Bushman performed the duties of the deputy undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness from 2019 to 2021. Prior to that, he served as special assistant to Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, and from 1999 to 2006, he served as a U.S. Army Infantry officer. He currently works at Leidos as an operations analysis lead focused on C4ISR. The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Leidos.