DOD launches domestic cruise missile defense program to protect U.S. cities, 'critical' sites

By Jason Sherman / September 5, 2023

The United States -- which since the advent of flight more than a century ago has relied on two vast oceans as a buffer against adversaries attacking U.S. citizens and soil with low-flying aircraft and missiles -- this summer began designing a next-generation domestic air defense system to protect cities and critical infrastructure from Russian and Chinese cruise missiles.

This not previously reported development was launched in July when the Air Force began an Air and Cruise Missile Defense of the Homeland Analysis of Alternatives, slated to produce recommendations next spring for investments -- with implications for Army, Navy and Missile Defense Agency spending plans -- in the fiscal year 2026 budget proposal.

“The AOA is starting in earnest and [is] going to churn out some program and investment analyses that will then lead into the budgets over the next couple of years,” a senior defense official told Inside Defense in an Aug. 2 interview.

Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks has directed the Air Force, which is spearheading the project, to think about one batch of initial investments that can be achieved in the 2026 five-year spending plan, the proverbial low-hanging fruit. And then identify a second basket of more advanced capabilities to reach for in the 2030 five-year spending plan.

The expectation is that the AOA will recommend an amalgamation of existing systems and new capabilities.

The potential price tag for a domestic cruise missile capability has generated a wide range of estimates. A Congressional Budget Office analysis in 2021 tallied as much as $466 billion on the high end while last year a Center for Strategic and International Studies look generated a $32 billion solution.

“Probably the third rail for homeland cruise missile defense has been the cost,” said the official. “Every time you start figuring out what you're going to have to deploy to do this the way we traditionally do air defense, it is an extremely costly proposition. So, our challenge is going to be: How do we do this smartly, right-size this thing where we provide the requirements that NORAD/NORTHCOM needs while not necessarily looking like you are redeploying Nike batteries.”

In the 1950s, the Defense Department deployed the Nike Air Missile Defense System around major cities and strategic military locations.

Top brass at North American Aerospace and Defense Command and U.S. Northern Command have for the last four 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.

The Chinese spy balloon that transited the United States in February highlighted these domain awareness challenges. And Russian air attacks against Ukraine since Moscow’s early 2022 invasion have featured barrages of ballistic, cruise and “hypersonic” missiles that U.S. defense officials say has normalized the use of such weapons.

Russia has fielded a new family of advanced air-, sea- and ground-based cruise missiles to threaten critical civilian and military infrastructure. These weapons could be used to attack American airfields, ports, utilities or even locations with economic significance in an effort to thwart deployment of U.S. forces to an overseas fight.

Of particular concern is Russia’s Kh-101 air-launched cruise missile which features an extended range -- nearly 2,500 miles -- that enables bombers flying well outside NORAD radar coverage to threaten North America, in some cases even from within Russian airspace.

NORAD has been lobbying for DOD -- which is seeking $29.8 billion in fiscal year 2024 for missile defense -- to think about existing technology originally designed to fight wars overseas and repurpose such capabilities to protect North American airspace.

Still, NORAD leaders have been vocal about the need to move past the focus on the kinetic endgame -- looking beyond radar, command and control capabilities paired with guided missile interceptors packaged to shoot down a cruise missile -- and think more broadly about long-range detection, resilience, redundancy, hardening and strategic messaging.

“Simply put: we cannot defend everything,” Lt. Gen. A. C. Roper, NORTHCOM deputy commander and NORAD vice commander, told a think tank audience last summer. “Placing a Patriot or THAAD battery on every street corner is both infeasible and unaffordable,” he added, referring to the Army’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system.

A New Requirement

Since 2017, Congress has expressed concern about the domestic cruise missile defense threat and repeatedly prodded the Pentagon to designate a lead organization for homeland cruise missile defense.

In 2019, the Missile Defense Executive Board proposed the Missile Defense Agency be put in charge. But that proposal fell flat with the Pentagon’s top leadership and was never adopted.

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

That work, however, was not supported by a validated requirement.

Meanwhile, top brass from NORAD/NORTHCOM began working with the Joint Requirements Oversight Council (JROC) -- a high-level Defense Department panel empowered to commence new multibillion-dollar weapon-system projects -- in the Pentagon to lay the foundational requirement for a domestic homeland cruise missile defense capability.

Then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. John Hyten, who at the time chaired the JROC, oversaw deliberations about the need for this new requirement. On Aug. 6, 2021, the Joint Staff validated a new requirement: the Initial Capabilities Document for Air and Cruise Missile Defense of the Homeland.

This requirement -- not previously reported -- outlines six key performance paraments, said an official who described them in broad terms. Half of these capability areas describe needs in the areas of domain awareness, early warning, to give the U.S. military the ability to maintain custody of threats -- not just cruise missiles but the potential launch platforms, such as surface cargo ships, submarines, and bombers.

“A big chunk of that threat document was focused on those areas,” said the official.

The requirement calls for a comprehensive capability that takes into account not just intercepting a cruise missile in flight but identifying interconnected activities by the adversary way before launch.

While the JROC-approved requirement is classified, it appears to echo recommendations of an influential Pentagon advisory panel tasked to study domestic air defense, which assessed it "is essential and feasible to quickly and affordably" field new domestic air defense capabilities to protect critical homeland targets.

A November 2022 unclassified summary of that Defense Science Board study recommended “an adaptable, scalable and affordable framework for homeland air defense that incorporates emerging technological innovations to ensure all-domain awareness, assured tracking, secure command and control and affordable engagement.”

This architecture would be supported by “artificial intelligence/machine learning, multi-statics, directed energy, proliferated LEO [low-earth orbit] constellations, and multimodal seekers, as supported by advances in big data analytics and digital engineering,” the two-page summary states. “When incorporated together (i.e., a [joint all-domain command and control]-style framework linking sensors and shooters), these capabilities enable detection, tracking and interception of a broad range of threats at an advantageous exchange ratio.”

Picking the Air Force, not MDA, to lead

With a new understanding of the threat endorsed by the JROC, DOD leaders began a review to address Congress’ directive that a single entity be put in charge of developing a new capability.

“When we determined who needed to be the lead, we had to take into account the whole of the kill chain -- not just the defensive part,” said a second senior defense official. “And that's what really led us to the Air Force as the lead because they do a lot of work and those other domains, which include that early warning and that long range surveillance, which is critical to the problem. It can't just be the defense at the end,” said a second senior defense official. “We really have to tackle this problem holistically.”

In July 2022, Hicks formally tapped the Air Force to find a holistic solution to the challenge.

The Air Force last fall then prepared a blueprint for Air and Cruise Missile Defense of the Homeland -- drafting an AV-1, a roughly 100-page document that framed an overarching architecture that includes assumptions, constraints and limitations as well as participants.

New architecture and an integrated portfolio review

While the Air Force was assigned to be the lead service for developing the domestic air cruise missile defense capability, Hicks also directed Bill LaPlante, the under secretary of defense for acquisition and sustainment, to be the overarching acquisition lead for the project.

After the Air Force completed the AV-1 architecture for an Air and Cruise Missile Defense of the Homeland, LaPlante directed his office to conduct an integrated acquisition portfolio review (IAPR) to survey both current and planned investments across the U.S. military to determine potentially relevant programs that could be leveraged.

“Air and Cruise Missile Defense of the Homeland is very clearly not just a few things -- it is a lot of things across a lot of different domains,” said the first senior defense official.

“The IAPR was to align all the various programs that could be applicable -- all the systems, capabilities, technologies -- in the [Air and Cruise Missile Defense of the Homeland] space, look at them holistically across the kill chain: from early warning, domain awareness, fusion, decision space, all the way down to the bubble of limited-area air defense, defense of critical infrastructure,” that official said. “And then start aligning what we have to those parts of the kill chain.”

The portfolio review also drew on two important projects.

The first is an MDA analysis of the homeland cruise missile defense program, which focused on the limited-area defense piece of the challenge. Much of that work is culminating in an ongoing project called Cruise Missile Defense of the Homeland NCR-IADS where the agency is developing software modifications necessary to conduct a simulated engagement within the National Capital Region (NCR) Integrated Air Defense System (IADS). A main objective is to understand how applicable the sensor fusion efforts are to other locations.

A second bundle of research the IAPR is utilizing is the 2020 Northern Approaches Surveillance Analysis of Alternatives, a bi-national study with Canada's Department of National Defence that identified ways to improve NORAD's ability to counter airborne threats across vast geographic areas. That explored options for modernizing the North Warning System. Following that 2020 AOA, the two nations agreed to build new Over The Horizon Radar projects to fill crucial gaps in detected threats at ranges that far exceed current sensors and enable situation awareness and tactical decision making for defense of the continent. The Air Force is seeking $516 million in FY-24 to begin prototyping a pair of homeland defense OTHR in Alaska for improved long-range sensor coverage of aircraft, cruise missiles, maneuvering hypersonic missiles and maritime surface vehicle threats.

In addition, the IAPR looks at both weapon system programs of record as well as underlying components and subsystems -- as well as delivery timelines and where they are in the acquisition cycle. The output provides DOD leaders the ability to “piece together the whole picture and actually understand when in time you could have a full capability,” said the second defense official. The review also gives leaders an understanding of where to target an investment in the five-year spending plan to accelerate a particular project in order to mature that capability for fielding when needed.

“One thing we found in the IAPR is that there are a lot of capabilities that could be applied to this problem set, they're just not aligned to" Air and Cruise Missile Defense of the Homeland, said the first defense official.

For instance, the Army’s Indirect Fire Protection Capability Increment 2 program -- which is preparing to adopt a new interceptor to deal with advanced cruise-missile threats -- could be very relevant to the homeland defense mission, the review found. Similarly, the new Airbase Air Defense System, a fledgling Air Force program that aims to provide the ability to detect, track, identify and defeat airborne threats, could also have utility, according to the official.

The AOA will be looking at these sorts of existing programs to find ways to adapt them to protecting U.S. locations.

“In some cases, there may be programs of record where you just say: Buy a few more of these and adapt them,” the first senior defense official said. “There may not necessarily be new starts. That's kind of the wild card right now.”

Long pole in the tent, C2

The IAPR identified one major seam across the portfolio: command and control (C2). That is, what capability could tie together information across all relevant domains and facilitate, if needed, an intercept.

“The long pole is ‘what does the C2 thing look like?’" said the first official.

NORAD and NORTHCOM have outgrown the current tactical air battle management command and control system -- called Battle Control System-Fixed -- which is the chief capability used for air battle management for air sovereignty and air defense missions for the United States and Canada.

In May 2022, the Air Force identified the Cloud-based Command and Control (CBC2) project, a part of the Advanced Battle Management System program, as a replacement for NORAD and NORTHCOM’s operational C2 backbone.

"Fielding CBC2 will help transform how we share data across the joint force," Gen. Glen VanHerck, NORAD and USNORTHCOM commander, said in January. "This capability will help unlock available data to accelerate information flow from sensor to decision-maker and improve our senior leaders' ability to assess any situation and act before a competitor's or potential adversary's next move."

If CBC2, which is slated to begin operational use during the current fiscal quarter, lives up to its promise, DOD officials believe it will be a strong candidate to be the C2 node for an Air and Cruise Missile Defense of the Homeland capability.

What to defend?

While the Air Force conducts the Air and Cruise Missile Defense of the Homeland Analysis of Alternatives, NORAD and NORTHCOM -- after extensive deliberations with National Security Council and Pentagon policymakers -- are refining lists of locations to protect.

“After two years, I got policy on what to defend,” VanHerck told the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 23. “The task that came back to me was to develop a plan on that defense critical infrastructure. It's inside the Department of Defense critical infrastructure.”

He noted DOD relies extensively on critical infrastructure the military does not own.

“Much of the critical infrastructure that I depend on to ensure we power project from the homeland is not solely held inside the department or even federal entities,” said VanHerck. “It relies on commercial entities, states, municipalities. And we need to ensure that's part of the discussion.”

The new Air and Cruise Missile Defense of the Homeland requirement underscores how threats to U.S. territory -- notably the advent of maneuvering hypersonic weapons and long-range precision cruise missiles -- have changed dramatically and suddenly, according to defense experts.

VanHerck, who is slated to retire when his nominated replacement is confirmed by the Senate, offered a strikingly new vision for homeland defense during one of his final appearances before Congress earlier this year that could point to where the Defense Department is going as it defines a new Air and Cruise Missile Defense for the Homeland system.

“I think the future of homeland defense is vastly different than what we see today,” VanHerck said. “It's likely including autonomous platforms, airborne maritime platforms, unmanned platforms with domain awareness sensors, and effectors that are kinetic and non-kinetic. We also need to take those over-the-horizon radar capabilities . . . and take that data and information, infuse it into an integrated picture, a globally integrated picture, that allows us to see globally threats before they become threats here in the homeland and tie that to an integrated air and missile defense system and also into effectors which are non-kinetic and also kinetic.”

“I see the future likely being much less kinetic,” VanHerck added. “There will be some areas that we should defend kinetically that could bring us to our knees, but also non-kinetic such as deception, denial and the use of the electromagnetic spectrum. Finally, that policy needs to expand beyond" the Defense Department.