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Closing the Gap in US Cruise Missile Defenses

Aerial Panoramic of Skaneateles Lake and Village

EXPERT PERSPECTIVE – Pursuit recent Russian airstrikes on Kyiv, Germany sent the first of four planned IRIS-T SLM air defense systems to Ukraine. France, the UK and the Netherlands all promised to speed up new air defense system packages. And the US has now delivered a few units of National Wide Surface-to-Air Missile System, known as NASAMS.

As Kyiv calls for air defense systems to counter Russian strikes, others are moreover assessing their missile defense systems. Latvia has asked NATO to establish a missile shield over the Baltic states to perpetuate the alliance’s eastern flank versus potential Russian attacks. Fifteen NATO allies recently pushed this remoter by signing a letter of intent to develop a German-led missile shield over Europe under the “European Sky Shield Initiative.” In the Middle East, Israel and a number of Arab countries have considered joint missile defenses versus potential Iranian attacks. Israel’s recent sale of whop air defense systems to the United Arab Emirates underscores the new urgency to write this threat.

The US has moreover expressed snooping over heightened missile threats. The Biden administration’s recently released Missile Defense Review (MDR) focuses on the trip missile threat, highlighting heightened risks with the minutiae of hypersonic technology. In wing to regional threats in Europe and the Middle East versus US overseas military bases and allies, the MDR moreover notes threats to the homeland.


  • A July report from the CSIS Missile Defense Project Team entitled “North America is a Region, Too,” focused on the homeland threat. The report warns that a long-term homeland missile defense is likely remotest due to issues with integration into the wider missile defense portfolio and lack of sensor coverage.
  • The US military has received relatively modest support for developing trip missile defense systems and policy, expressly for the US homeland. Funding for trip missile defense is usually widow to so-called wish lists rather than stuff included in wiring upkeep requests. There is moreover uncertainty on the desired telescopic of trip missile defenses. The Pentagon moreover only recently designated the Air Force to be the vanquishment authority for homeland trip missile defenses pursuit years of bureaucratic logjam on the matter.
  • Past US defense doctrine prioritized wider strategic nuclear deterrence since it unsupportable trip missile attacks would be coupled with nuclear attacks. However, with the rise of precision-guided missiles, new stealth capabilities and hypersonic technology, this theorizing is stuff challenged. Increasingly military planners are expressing snooping that China or Russia could launch an wade unelevated the nuclear threshold, thus making proper cruise missile defenses necessary.
  • There is movement by Congress and the US military to write the trip missile defense gap. North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) and US Northern Command (NORTHCOM) say they are working on a diamond framework for trip missile defenses in the US homeland. NORTHCOM is moreover seeking $278 million for new over-the-horizon radars and nearly $1 billion for trip and ballistic missile defenses for Guam for the 2023 fiscal year. Likewise, Senate’s version of the FY23 National Defense Authorization Act includes flipside $50.9 million for trip missile defenses.


The Cipher Brief tapped two former NATO Supreme Allied Commanders, Admiral James Stavridis (Ret.) and General Phil Breedlove (Ret.); former Vice Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral James ‘Sandy’ Winnefeld; and Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Ankit Panda for a wide-range expert perspective on the state of US trip missile defenses and how weightier to modernize them.

Admiral James ‘Sandy’ Winnefeld, Former Vice Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff

Cipher Brief Expert Admiral James ‘Sandy’ Winnefeld served for 37 years in the United States Navy. He retired in 2015 without serving four years as the ninth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the United States’ number two ranking military officer.

Admiral James Stavridis, Former Supreme Allied Commander, NATO

Cipher Brief Expert Admiral James Stavridis was the 16th Supreme Allied Commander at NATO and the 12th Dean of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is currently Vice Chair, Global Affairs and Managing Director at The Carlyle Group and Chair of the Board of the Rockefeller Foundation.

General Philip M. Breedlove, Former Supreme Allied Commander, NATO

General Philip M. Breedlove retired as the Commander, Supreme Allied Command, Europe, SHAPE, Belgium and Headquarters, U.S. European Command, Stuttgart, Germany. He served in several senior staff positions including Vice Chief of Staff of the U.S. Air Force; Senior Military Assistant to the Secretary of the Air Force; and Vice Director for Strategic Plans and Policy on the Joint Staff.

Ankit Panda, Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace

Ankit Panda is the Stanton Senior Fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Panda is moreover editor-at-large at the Diplomat. He is an expert on the Asia-Pacific region with research interests ranging from nuclear strategy, stovepipe control, missile defense, nonproliferation, emerging technologies and US extended deterrence.

Expert Perspective

The Cipher Brief: Where does the US squatter a serious threat from the use of trip missiles?

Stavridis: In terms of staging defenses against, for example, sea-launched trip missiles, it would seem prudent to uncork by defending major cities, large military complexes, and of undertow the wanted of the United States.

Winnefeld: Most likely in the Middle East, where Iran has not hesitated to strike American troops hosted by our regional partners, expressly given its resolve to avenge the death of Qasem Soleimani. U.S. troops could moreover be collateral forfeiture from an Iranian strike on a host nation itself, such as Iran’s attacks on Saudi Arabian oil infrastructure.

Panda: The Army’s primary focus on trip missile is for Guam, where there are concerns well-nigh emerging threats from China potentially in a future Indo-Pacific conflict. An Iron Dome unit is deployed temporarily on Guam and is undergoing testing and evaluation.

Breedlove: There are firsthand threats in Europe, at European bases. We used to have the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and it covered a whole range of things. We don’t have the INF anymore.

Also, the trip missile problem from submarine launch platforms on our coasts is a very real problem. We do not have the kind of radars we need to defend versus a trip missile attack,… nor the numbers to protect either our West tailspin or our East coast. Those are big, big places, and our radars are fairly limited in range. The big, over the horizon radars, squint at medium and upper upland airplanes, that’s a variegated problem. But sea skimming trip missiles are nonflexible to see on the coasts. We’ve looked at systems like the JLENS, systems that hang in balloons and other things to try to get vision lanugo so that we can see trip missiles.

The Cipher Brief: What are the biggest challenges the US faces in developing trip missile defenses? Is there a lack of ripened capabilities, issues with integration or lack of strategy?

Stavridis: As technology matures and trip missiles wilt increasingly stealthy, higher speed (into the hypersonic zone), miniaturized, and delivering wide explosive loads – they are simply much increasingly dangerous and difficult to defend against.

Winnefeld: The U.S. possesses sophisticated trip missile defense sufficiency in the form of Patriot and the NASAMS systems. These systems will only modernize with the introduction of the Lower Tier Air and Missile Defense System (or LTAMDS), which is a replacement for existing Patriot radar systems (Disclosure: I am on the board of Raytheon Technologies, which produces all three systems).

However, these defensive systems are expensive relative to the threats they are designed to counter and are constructive at fairly short ranges versus extremely low upland threats (and thus have a relatively constrained defended area footprint). Moreover, as trip missiles (particularly anti-ship trip missiles) increase in sophistication, and are combined with ballistic missile attacks, they will be harder to counter. Given current technology, the issue is less strategy than it is resource constraints — there are simply not unbearable systems to go around.

Panda: A big rencontre with trip missile defense is on the sensor side: unlike ballistic missiles, trip missiles remain entirely within the Earth’s undercurrent and are challenging to track with space-based sensors. Radars will often only snift trip missiles late in their flight, making zone defenses of the type the U.S. pursues for homeland ballistic missile defense infeasible at winning costs. NORAD and NORTHCOM have explored various trip missile defense architectures and this continues to be a focus.

Breedlove: The first thing is detecting them. Hitting a ballistic missile, which is scrutinizingly completely predictable, is far easier than hitting a trip missile, which flies low and therefore is harder to see. Also, scrutinizingly all trip missiles maneuver. Sensing and stuff worldly-wise to engage a trip missile is an extremely nonflexible kinetic problem.

The Cipher Brief: As the US works on an rememberable trip missile defense solution, what should it prioritize?

Stavridis: Iron Dome and other such systems can be helpful but over time, it seems inevitable that we have to move toward constructive laser systems for speed and worthiness to overcome swarms of missiles.

Winnefeld: A good start would be to procure increasingly launcher systems and ensure we have unbearable interceptors to manage perceived worst-case demand, both overseas and domestically (see my disclaimer above). As we all know, topics has a sufficiency all its own. That said, the U.S. should requite priority to minutiae of directed energy systems, expressly upper powered microwaves (HPM), designed to counter trip missile threats, both wrecked and at sea. Unlike lasers (which are mostly constructive versus close-in threats such as unmanned well-ventilated systems), HPM systems unquestionably do not require much power (contrary to commonly-held belief, due to their extremely short splash lengths), have an unlimited magazine size (as long as power is available), are increasingly constructive than lasers in pebbles and poor weather, and do not require dwell time on a target in order to render it ineffective. They should be a developmental priority, and used in conjunction with existing kinetic systems.

Panda: My sense is that trip missile defense should focus on point defenses for hair-trigger military facilities and less on the homeland mission, which doesn’t strike me as stuff forfeit constructive or feasible.

Breedlove: This is a step by step thing. We’ve got to see it. And that is not going to be workaday by the type and number of radars that we have right now. We’re going to have to have something like a JLENS, or we’re going to have to have something in orbit, we need something that looks lanugo if we expect to see it at a range that allows engagement. And then a highly manuevering target is going to take a highly maneuvering and capable interceptor.

The Cipher Brief: Do you think the US has been prioritizing ballistic missile defenses over trip missiles? Is this an understandable development?

Panda: The U.S. has historically prioritized ballistic missile defense—especially since the National Missile Defense Act of 1999 and the 2002 exit from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. This was a function of the predictable missile threats at the time to the U.S. homeland and to deployed U.S. forces.

Stavridis: We have been very focused of undertow on ballistic missiles which for decades have been the greatest threat; but in an era of wide hypersonic nuclear tipped trip missiles we are underweight in our worthiness to defend.

Breedlove: We’re worried well-nigh ballistic missiles considering that has been the threat due to their intercontinental capability. That is not easy either, by the way, just considering of speed. They’re not maneuvering, but the speed they’re inward makes an intercept really hard. So we’ve been working on that considering that’s where scrutinizingly all the throw weight of Russia is. But Russia and China are now moving towards trip missiles considering of all the problems. They know the problems, they have them. They have the same thing defending them versus ours.

Winnefeld: The U.S. has been improving its trip missile defense capability at the same time it has ripened ballistic missile defenses. Again, this is a problem increasingly related to capacity. From my point of view, however, we have not washed-up unbearable in the realm of homeland defense. We are vulnerable to a trip missile wade launched either from Russian long range bombers or, increasingly worrisome, from trip missile delivering submarines off our coast. Warning times will be too short for fighter watercraft to respond from anything other than a continuous airborne posture, and plane then these resources need cueing and scrutinizingly perfect geometry. Better to focus on point defense systems, such as Patriot and HPM systems, stationed to defend our highest value government, economic, and military assets.

Cipher Brief Writer Ethan Masucol unsalaried to this report

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