A new challenge faces the joint force: the prospect of conflict with a near-peer adversary who has spent two decades going to school on the U.S. way of war. U.S. forces now have more limited forward presence and their numbers far fewer. Potential adversaries have integrated air defenses and precision-strike weapons that can hold forward-based U.S. forces at risk, complicate maneuver and impair freedom of action.

The services are developing new concepts to penetrate and defeat these challenges, including the Navy’s distributed lethality and the Army’s and Marine Corps’ Multi-Domain Battle concepts. These forces face a cluttered, missile-rich operating environment including a nearly continuous spectrum of threats characterized by various altitudes, speed, propulsion type and range.

Unfortunately, the Army’s modern air and missile defense, or AMD, force is neither resilient enough or adequately prepared for high-end air and missile threats, nor will it be for the foreseeable future.

The brittle character of today’s AMD force was illustrated in June 2017 when North Korea used a drone to surveil the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or THAAD, site in South Korea. If instead of surveillance that drone had delivered an explosive device to the sole TPY-2 radar on which THAAD depends, it would have virtually incapacitated the THAAD battery on the Korean peninsula.

Consider what adversaries of greater sophistication could do. In short, U.S. AMD is far too susceptible to suppression.

One problem has been programmatic stovepiping. Legacy forces are largely integrated only from the top down, and they do not speak well to one another. Even Patriot and THAAD do not share a network or common-air picture and cannot adequately share information and coordinate fires to avoid interceptor wastage. Insufficient communication also contributed to fratricide incidents during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Today’s AMD force is also too heavily dependent upon single points of failure, especially sensors and command-and-control nodes. An adversary need only neutralize or circumvent a handful of command posts or radars to seriously degrade the effectiveness of today’s AMD force.

Another shortfall is the lack of integrated capability against the full spectrum of threats. Since the Gulf War, the United States has understandably spent significant time and resources on countering ballistic missiles, but paid insufficient attention to the larger spectrum of aerial threats, such as cruise missiles. This ballistic-heavy focus has come with costs. Interceptors capable of countering ballistic missiles are often more expensive than those only used to counter aerial threats. This sometimes forces the use of exquisitely designed missiles for missions that could be accomplished with cheaper interceptors.

Sectored, ground-based radar coverage may likewise be fine for theater ballistic missiles, but is ill-suited to the cruise missile and UAV threat. Although the Army identified the need for 360-degree AMD radar coverage nearly a quarter century ago, Patriot remains reliant upon radars with 120-degree coverage, with gaps and seams that maneuvering or air-breathing threats could exploit. The JLENS aerostat program had been intended to provide a persistent-overhead, sensor-to-support cruise missile and air defense, but that program was terminated without a replacement.

The authors of the multi-domain battle concept have called for “innovative” thinking to adapt to the near-peer threat. Nowhere is that needed more than with Army AMD, which has been deprioritized far too long. Usually conversations about evolving the AMD force focus on the capability and capacity of interceptors, but this would be insufficient even in a better budget environment. Transforming the force will require much more.

Given the current operational environment and the aspirations of multi-domain battle, the Army is pursuing some much-needed solutions, which it might consider expanding with new operational and material concepts, here collectively described as “distributed defense.” These include:

  • Network centrism. The foundation of all improvement lies with the continued and expanded implementation of more network-centric integration, which is largely already underway. Networked integration would improve the efficiency of interceptor usage, reduce wastage, increase the defended area and reduce the risk of fratricide. The current Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, or IBCS, program promises much of this by 2022, but other work can also be done, including in the nearer term.
  • Element dispersal. Increased networking will permit increased dispersal of the many sensor, shooter and C2 elements that support AMD — in effect redefining today’s firing unit. Some prospects for increased dispersal of command and control suites could be implemented even prior to IBCS, as suggested by previous the previous commander of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, Lt. Gen. David Mann.
  • Mixed loads. Another way to boost flexibility is to mix and match interceptors within a single firing unit and even within a single launcher. While Patriot launchers have some flexibility, more could be done across the AMD force. Like the Navy’s vertical launching system, or VLS, tubes and the Army’s Multi-Mission Launcher, further mixing and matching might be possible between THAAD, Patriot and standard missiles, creating a kind of layered defense in a box.
  • Offense-defense launchers. The direct integration of AMD with offensive fires might be a further way to defeat threats, rather than simply defend against them. One way would be to emplace counter-battery fire like the Army Tactical Missile System, or ATACMS, alongside interceptors, similar to the Aegis VLS with interceptors and strike missiles side by side in tubes. Further flexibility might be pursued by packing multi-domain and multimission capability into a single missile, as has recently been done with the Evolved Seasparrow Missile, ATACMS and Standard Missile-6.
  • Containerized launchers. Another way to boost AMD survivability is with the time-honored principles of passive defense — camouflage, concealment and deception. Instead of being located on truck-pulled trailers, some launchers might be put into nondescript cargo containers to support a giant shell game. Some containers would be full, but most would be empty, complicating an adversary’s planning. This and other passive defense measures might be particularly useful for defending certain fixed sites such as airfields, freeing up mobile units for other missions.

These and other operational concepts are just the beginning. By implementing and building upon better networking, and by adapting principles of dispersal like distributed lethality, a more distributed approach to AMD would reinvigorate old concepts, spark a few new ones, improve resilience and move closer to the ever-elusive vision of integrated air and missile defense.

Thomas Karako is a senior fellow and director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

More In Space and Missile Defense
Reorganizing the missile defense enterprise
Make no mistake: The first time someone isn’t looking, Army budgeteers will probably try to use the additional funding to buy trucks rather than THAADs, and Navy budgeteers will try to buy hulls and Tomahawks rather than SM-3s.