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Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen H. Hicks speaks at the Pentagon. Photo by Air Force Staff Sgt. Brittany A. Chase, DOD.

Bureaucratic logjams have regrettably become a common feature of the landscape in Washington, even when they undermine efforts to protect the United States from threats in today’s increasingly dangerous national security environment. After this week, there is one fewer logjam thanks to the leadership shown by Deputy Security of Defense Kathleen Hicks, who “set the cruise control” to start progress on cruise missile defense after years of inaction.

Her decision to give the U.S. Air Force the mission to defend the United States from cruise missile attacks should now put to bed disputes and foot-dragging and allow the service to make steady progress toward putting in place an effective set of defenses for this critical mission. 

Russia’s heavy use of cruise missiles in its invasion of Ukraine has been one of the most potent tools in its arsenal. Russia’s prodigious use of these weapons from a variety of launch platforms such as aircraft, ships, submarines, and land platforms highlights the danger now facing the United States and our allies from such weapons. 

In addition to Russia, cruise missiles are being used by other potential adversaries in greater numbers and sophistication. Such weapons are inherently difficult to track from land-based radars, given their ability to fly low, mask their approach using terrain, and maneuver along difficult-to-predict axes of attack to avoid fixed defenses. China has developed and equipped bombers, ships, and submarines with long-range cruise missiles designed to threaten the United States and our forces. Iran has also used highly-accurate cruise missiles in attacks against targets in Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and other areas and would seek the opportunity to range the US with these weapons if they could.

In recent years, the U.S. Northern Command has highlighted the need for the U.S. to implement an effective cruise missile defense architecture to protect our homeland and people. Disputes over roles and missions between the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and Missile Defense Agency (MDA) have regrettably prevented movement to deal with this threat.

Such disputes over roles and missions have dogged the U.S. military since World War II. In MDAA’s study U.S. Missile Defense: An Overview of Past, Current, and Future Roles and Responsibilities, released earlier this year, we discussed the history of such all-too-familiar disputes between the U.S. Army, U.S. Air Force, and other organizations that have hampered the effectiveness of dealing with air and missile threats. The U.S. Army has prioritized other missions and air and missile defense capabilities have failed to keep pace with our adversaries’ growing use of missiles. In this study, MDAA recommended: 

“[T]he Secretary of Defense should direct realignment of internal Army resources to [missile defenses] MD and initiate a study to assess transition of Army MD forces to the Air Force in order to ensure optimum MD capability and capacity for the Joint Force.

At the founding of the U.S. Air Force in 1947, the President and Secretary of Defense had made the Air Force responsible for air and missile defense, but through a series of compromises and Service rivalry, the Army played a greater and greater role and eventually took responsibility for the ground-based air and missile defense mission.

Most countries have given lead responsibility for air defense to their Air Forces given the synergies that are available for utilizing a combination of airborne, elevated, and ground-based radars and interception system to combine for effective defense against air, cruise, and ballistic missile threats.”

The decision by Deputy Secretary of Defense Hicks to give the Air Force the mission for cruise missile defense of the United States and the leadership shown by Air Force Secretary Frank Kendall to step up to take on this critical mission is the kind of decisive leadership that is all too short in supply. Let us not forget that this decisive leadership must also extend to adequately resourcing the USAF to lead this critical mission and to support Services to provide capabilities required for the USAF to succeed. As has often been said, a vision without the resources to get there is merely a mirage.

One challenge this leaves unaddressed is the cruise missile defense of forward deployed and forward stationed forces in Asia, Europe and the Middle East.  The airfields, logistic hubs and forward operating bases do not have a cost-effective portable cruise missile defense system.  This is traditionally a U.S. Army mission that the Army development and acquisition effort has not effectively resourced. The recent efforts to plan for the Defense of Guam have certainly revealed these challenges, and Secretary Hicks should consider taking action on this issue next.

Deputy Secretary Hicks’ decisions on Cruise Missile Defense of the Homeland will enable the Air Force to leverage the inherent advantages of operating in the air domain and its deep expertise to defend against the growing cruise missile threat we face. For these reasons, during the Truman administration, the newly-founded U.S. Air Force was given the lead in defending the U.S. homeland against air and missile attack. MDAA salutes the decisions this week that take us back to the future and “set the cruise control” to make real progress in addressing the real and growing cruise missile threat to our homeland.

Mission Statement

MDAA’s mission is to make the world safer by advocating for the development and deployment of missile defense systems to defend the United States, its armed forces and its allies against missile threats.

MDAA is the only organization in existence whose primary mission is to educate the American public about missile defense issues and to recruit, organize, and mobilize proponents to advocate for the critical need of missile defense. We are a non-partisan membership-based and membership-funded organization that does not advocate on behalf of any specific system, technology, architecture or entity.