In a report out this morning, CSBA scholars Bryan Clark and Mark Gunzinger argue that we don’t just need new technology and new tactics to confront the growing missile threats from China and Russia, though lasers, railguns, and hypervelocity projectiles are all useful. We need a different missile defense mindset than what we have today, one that trusts computers to shoot down incoming weapons at literally the last minute.
“Shifting to a scheme in which a preponderance of threats is engaged in a 10-40 nm (12-58 statute mile) range band by autonomous systems will remove the redundancy of today’s approach and turn over decision making to machines,” said a draft of the report that the Center for Strategic & Budgetary Assessments provided to us in advance. Those are distances a supersonic missile can cross in under a minute, whereas current missile defense invests in long-range interceptors with time to take multiple shots. But that won’t work against a massive missile barrage, Clark and Gunzinger write: “Assumptions that layered air defense schemes are more robust than a single layer and that humans will be more effective than machines at battle management are both false.”
No human can optimally match a multitude of different weapons against a salvo of incoming targets when there’s only a minute to impact. While existing missile defense systems like the Navy’s Aegis do have an automatic mode, Clark and Gunzinger say, it isn’t sophisticated enough to handle large incoming salvos or new “non-kinetic” defenses like lasers. The new “battle management” systems they envision sound a lot like systems driven by the artificial intelligences envisioned by Bob Work, the former vice-president of CSBA who’s now deputy Defense secretary. Work is chief architect of the Pentagon’s high-tech Third Offset Strategy, whose central idea is a synergy of human judgment with machine speed sometimes likened to the mythical centaur.
Clark and Gunzinger emphasize the best missile defense is a good offense. The first step of their strategy is a “blinding campaign” that strikes hostile headquarters, satellites and radars with cyber attacks, jamming, and long-range bombing before the enemy can launch. They also call for Combat Air Patrols (CAPs) of fighters well forward, kept aloft by aerial refueling, to shoot down enemy bombers en route. They even suggest kitting out drones and C-130 transports with lasers to shoot down cruise missiles in flight. But they don’t pretend we can stop every missile in a Russian- or Chinese-sized salvo.
The current approach is driven by the natural desire to shoot down incoming weapons as far away as possible. That’s driven us to invest in a small number of high-cost, long-range rockets like the Navy SM-3 or the Missile Defense Agency’s Ground-Based Interceptor. Those systems are fine against a small scale launch, which is what they were designed to defeat. Against a large-scale salvo, however, we’d run out of these exquisite interceptors fast.
Clark and Gunzinger propose saving the long-range interceptors for shooting down enemy bombers before they launch their weapons. This approach is called “shooting the archer instead of the arrow,” using one shot of ours to stop multiple enemy shots from ever being fired. But the SM-3s and GBIs are too expensive to expend shooting down individual enemy missiles, they say.
Instead, once enemy missiles are in the air, we should save our shots for when the incoming weapons are less than 50 miles away, they say. A supersonic cruise missile can cross that distance in under a minute. But only at such relatively short ranges can we unleash a diverse arsenal of defensive weapons that — unlike the SM-3s and GBIs — can fire many shots at an affordable price. That includes electronic jammers, solid-state lasers, electromagnetic railguns, hypervelocity projectiles from conventional cannon, Phalanx gatling guns, and short-range, low-cost interceptor rockets like the Navy Evolved Sea Sparrow Missile (ESSM) or the Army Indirect Fire Protection Capability (IFPC), which fires a modified Air Force AIM-9X.