WASHINGTON ― The U.S. commander responsible for North America said he’s open to new ways to counter cruise missile attacks on the homeland, including electronic warfare and other non-kinetic means.
Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck, who leads U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, has asked Congress to fund a homeland cruise missile defense demonstration. Asked Monday whether he envisions the Aegis ballistic missile defense system ― which targets missiles with sea-based interceptor missiles ― as the method for the test, VanHerck said not necessarily.
“What I want to let the industry, the Missile Defense Agency and the services do is let their minds run wild on capabilities to accomplish this mission,” VanHerck said at a Defense Writers Group event.
“There are multiple ways beyond the kinetic endgame defeat of this that we could potentially be successful in cruise missile defense. And that could be through the use of the electromagnetic spectrum and other non-kinetic means to be able to do something beyond point defense in more of a wide-area defense or a limited-area defense,” he added.
VanHerck was not specific, but the Missile Defense Agency has explored using space-based lasers to intercept ballistic missiles, and the Navy is exploring a non-kinetic, electronic attack capability against incoming missiles and any other threats.
The comments come as VanHerck and other Pentagon officials warned that cruise missiles follow unpredictable flight paths and are now capable of supersonic and hypersonic speeds, presenting a more complex and deadly threat. VanHerck said Russia and China are developing advanced cruise missiles that can launch from the air, land or sea.
“All of these things concern me dramatically,” he said. “My focus is not on endgame kinetic defeat of all those potential threats. It’s really about deterring in the first place and campaigning to ensure that anybody that would have nefarious activity on their mind would never believe that they can be successful with a strike on our homeland with a cruise missile or any other missile or threat.”
In response to NORTHCOM’s requirements for cruise missile defense of the homeland, the Missile Defense Agency is developing a glide-phase intercept capability for future demonstration, leveraging existing missile defense systems. Its fiscal 2023 request includes $11 million toward a homeland cruise missile defense demonstration using the joint tactical integrated fire control capability.
NORTHCOM asked Congress for nearly $51 million for that same “cruise missile defense homeland kill chain demonstration,” which the administration excluded from its FY23 budget request. That would buy an unspecified “elevated sensor” and integrate it into a joint fire control network for a Navy long-range surface-to-air interceptor. There would be three one-week exercises, with a live-fire test, for data collection and data evaluation.
On Monday, VanHerck said the test could involve a Navy cruiser or destroyer, but he stressed he was not asking for those specifically.
VanHerck tied the missing test funds to the Pentagon’s lack of a single acquisition authority responsible for defense of the homeland from cruise missile threats.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testified on Capitol Hill that the administration would designate an official in order to comply with a direction from 2017 defense policy law.
VanHerck said he was “pushing hard” to accomplish it and discussed the matter recently with Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Adm. Christopher Grady, who leads the the Joint Requirements Oversight Council.
Missile defense analyst Tom Karako, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the threat from cruise missiles gets less recognition than it should.
“It’s long past time to recognize that missile threats to the homeland include more than just ICBMs. The full spectrum of air and missile threats facing regions elsewhere will soon be coming to a theater near you. North America is a region, too,” he said.
Joe Gould is the senior Pentagon reporter for Defense News, covering the intersection of national security policy, politics and the defense industry. He served previously as Congress reporter.