Hicks breaks bureaucratic logjam, taps Air Force to lead homeland cruise missile defense

By Jason Sherman  / August 1, 2022

(Editor's note: This story was updated on Aug. 2 to note Hicks assigned the Air Force acquisition responsibility for a homeland cruise missile defense.)

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks has assigned the Air Force responsibility for acquiring a capability to defend the homeland against cruise missiles, setting the stage for a potential multibillion-dollar project and breaking a long-running bureaucratic logjam that in recent years had the Missile Defense Agency lobbying for the role.

Last week, Hicks signed a memo codifying the decision, clearing the way for the Defense Department to begin a holistic approach to adapting existing technology and developing new capabilities to protect high-priority domestic assets against advanced Russian and advancing Chinese cruise missiles. This development has not previously been reported.

“Deputy Secretary Hicks designated the Department of the Air Force as the acquisition authority with respect to capabilities to defend the homeland against cruise missile threats on July 28,” Eric Pahon, the deputy secretary’s spokesman, told Inside Defense. “The emphasis on domain awareness, early warning, and interagency air-space integration made the Air Force the logical lead.”

Top brass at U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace and Defense Command have for the last three years sounded the alarm about potential Russian and Chinese capability to attack the United States below the nuclear threshold, including against targets that could disrupt military deployments.

Russia and China, according to NORAD officials, are exploiting seams in U.S. and Canadian domestic defenses, including sensor networks that detect approaching threats and the ability to coordinate command and control across many systems that were not originally designed to communicate collectively.

NORAD has been lobbying for many years for DOD to think about existing technology originally designed to fight wars overseas and repurpose such capabilities to protect North American airspace. MDA, along with the military services, are seeking a combined $24.7 billion in fiscal year 2023 for missile defense and defeat programs.

“All the services are building capabilities that could be used in this space,” Brig. Gen. Paul Murray, NORAD deputy director of operations, said last month at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “What we need is one lead organization to bring those together, to build the architecture, and to drive the program forward.”

In appointing the Air Force, Hicks aims to address exactly this desire by NORAD. Since 2017, Congress has been asking DOD to designate a lead organization for homeland cruise missile defense.

In August 2019, the Missile Defense Executive Board recommended to the defense secretary that MDA be the lead acquisition organization within DOD for Cruise Missile Defense-Homeland. Mark Esper, then the defense secretary, did not approve the recommendation.

While a decision on an organizational lead languished, MDA nevertheless in 2020 set up a new office to begin working on how to integrate a new layer to the Missile Defense System -- originally designed to counter ballistic threats -- to defend North America from enemy cruise missiles.

“MDA’s performed an initial sensor and weapon coverage analysis for cruise missile defense of the homeland in a limited defense role . . . for NORTHCOM’s preferred proposed defended assets,” Stan Stafira, MDA’s chief architect, said last month. “We’ve worked with them to say, 'Where are places that you think that we should be looking at defending,' so that we could look at how you would put a defended capability in those areas."

The Air Force will now be responsible for settling what, until now, has been an academic debate: the cost of a dedicated homeland cruise missile defense capability. A February 2021 analysis by the Congressional Budget Office that considered a number of options for protecting the nation against cruise missile threats determined such a capability would be “feasible but expensive” with a price tag of between $75 billion and $466 billion. Last month, a study by the Center for Strategic and International Studies proposed a $32.7 billion acquisition for over-the-horizon radars, towered sensors, an aerostat, three types of interceptors, command and control operation centers and a mobile airborne asset -- beginning in FY-24.

“I need it yesterday, candidly,” NORAD commander Gen. Glen VanHerck said in April of a domestic cruise missile defense system. “The threat exists today, primarily from Russia. Cruise missile capability from air platforms that can launch from over Russian territory threaten the United States, from sub-surface capabilities that can park off our coast and the potential for cruise missile capabilities on civilian container ships in the future. Five to 10 years, we’ll be in the same place with China. So, the urgency is there.”

In June, the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee advanced a recommendation for the fiscal year 2023 policy bill that would curtail funding for the deputy defense secretary to travel “until the Secretary of Defense makes the designation of an acquisition authority with respect to the capability to defend the homeland from cruise missiles.”

President Biden’s FY-23 budget request would fund a number of measures to enhance warning capabilities, including $278 million for new over-the-horizon radars to improve detection and decrease risk from cruise missile strikes against critical U.S. assets.

Hicks’ spokesman stressed the need for a department-wide effort to support the project to defend domestic assets against a cruise missile strike.

“[N]o single military department can execute this mission alone, and department leadership will ensure strong governance to ensure compliance with joint acquisition, development and fielding plans across supporting military departments,” Pahon told Inside Defense.

The under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment will support the Air Force as principal staff assistant for all acquisition oversight matters regarding this capability, according to a defense official.

Tom Karako, a missile defense expert at CSIS and author of the recent study, said the advent of the non-nuclear strategic threat makes clear a need for broad, multimission homeland defense. “Cruise missile defense is a critical piece of that, but it also includes unmanned aircraft systems, fixed wing, and other advanced threats. Recognizing the broad suite of threats and pursing a flexible architecture that is not stovepiped to one set of threats is important to contend with reality as it presents itself today,” he said.

While the Army and Navy currently own a majority of the U.S. military air- and missile-defense portfolio, assigning the Air Force makes sense, Karako added.

“This is not a thing that one particular service can do to the exclusion of others,” he said. “Air defense and missile defense have become the concern of the entire joint force.”