• A Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched from the Reagan Test Site in Kwajalein Atoll. THAAD is one component of a layered missile defense system being configured to stop incoming missile attacks. (Credit: Missile Defense Agency)
     A Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor is launched from the Reagan Test Site in Kwajalein Atoll. THAAD is one component of a layered missile defense system being configured to stop incoming missile attacks. (Credit: Missile Defense Agency)

Hypersonic Cruise Missiles Pose Greatest Area Defense Threat

June 25, 2020
By Robert K. Ackerman
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Combining service assets is holding the line against incoming attacks.


Cruise missiles are a serious threat challenging defensive systems, and advances in hypersonic design and performance promise to make them even more deadly, say U.S. missile defense flag officers. Peer adversaries are testing systems that would threaten U.S. assets both tactically and strategically, and the military services are working with the Missile Defense Agency on layered defenses that would serve both purposes.

These points were elaborated by a panel of missile defense leaders in a roundtable offered by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance. Representing services and combatant commanders, the flag officers agreed on two key points: layered defenses offer the best way to combat attacks by different kinds of missiles; and combining assets is the best way to build an effective counter to missile attack.

Vice Adm. Jon A. Hill, USN, director, Missile Defense Agency, stated that strategic cruise missiles are a very real threat. Combined with hypersonic technologies under development by peer rivals, they could become even more menacing with the ability to maneuver and fly at extreme speed. The nation needs to take a hard look at the threat, he said, with an eye toward “investment streams” to counter these missiles.

That threat is an everyday concern to Rear Adm. Steve Koehler, USN, director for operations, U.S. Indo-Pacific Command. The admiral could not offer a timeline for when an effective defense against advanced cruise missiles would be available, but the command is working to use existing capabilities to address the existing threat. Guam is the top priority for missile defense, and INDOPACOM is integrating the best antimissile technologies that each service has to offer. These include the Navy’s Aegis shipboard missile defense system and the Army’s Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. INDOPACOM must be able to defend against advanced missiles from peer rivals as well as attacks from rogue nations, and it supports the U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) in those endeavors, he pointed out.

Combining these different systems into a layered defense offers the best chance of success against missile threats both at home and abroad, stated Adm. Hill. Maj. Gen. Kevin Huyck, USAF, director for operations, NORTHCOM, agreed that layered defense gives the United States an opportunity as it moves into the future. He cited the need for new ways and technologies to layer the defense, noting that space systems—especially sensors—are vital. The goal is a global network of sensors, he added.

In that vein, Gen. Huyck emphasized the importance of enhanced domain awareness. Missile defense is all about the command and control infrastructure, which “really makes a difference,” he offered. This will be essential for the Strategic Home and Integrated Ecosystem for Layered Defense, or SHIELD, that NORTHCOM is building to defend the homeland against missile attack.

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