The Pentagon is quietly working to set up an elaborate network of defenses to protect American cities from a barrage of Russian cruise missiles.
The plan calls for buying radars that would enable National Guard F-16 fighter jets to spot and shoot down fast and low-flying missiles. Top generals want to network those radars with sensor-laden aerostat balloons hovering over U.S. cities and with coastal warships equipped with sensors and interceptor missiles of their own.
One of those generals is Adm. William Gortney, who leads U.S. Northern Command, or NORTHCOM, and North American Aerospace Defense Command, or NORAD. Earlier this year, Gortney submitted an “urgent need” request to put AESA radars on the F-16s that patrol the airspace around Washington. Such a request allows a project to circumvent the normal procurement process.
While no one will talk openly about the Pentagon’s overall cruise missile defense plans, much of which remain classified, senior military officials have provided clues in speeches, congressional hearings and other public forums over the past year. The statements reveal the Pentagon’s concern about advanced cruise missiles being developed by Russia.
“We’re devoting a good deal of attention to ensuring we’re properly configured against such an attack in the homeland, and we need to continue to do so,” Adm. Sandy Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said during a May 19 speech at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington.
In recent years, the Pentagon has invested heavily, with mixed results, in ballistic missile defense: preparations to shoot down long-range rockets that touch the edge of space and then fall toward targets on Earth. Experts say North Korea and Iran are the countries most likely to strike the U.S. or its allies with such missiles, although neither arsenal has missiles of sufficient range so far.
But the effort to defend the U.S. mainland against smaller, shorter-range cruise missiles has gone largely unnoticed.
“While ballistic missile defense has now become established as a key military capability, the corresponding counters to cruise missiles have been prioritized far more slowly,” said Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, in Washington. “In some ways, this is understandable, in terms of the complexity of the threat, but sophisticated cruise missile technologies now out there are just not going away and we are going to have to find a way to deal with this — for the homeland, for allies and partners abroad, and for regional combatant commanders.”
Intercepting cruise missiles is far different from shooting down a missile of the ballistic variety. Launched by ships, submarines, or even trailer-mounted launchers, cruise missiles are powered throughout their entire flight. This allows them to fly close to the ground and maneuver throughout flight, making them difficult for radar to spot…