While refining the systems that protect the homeland against long-range ballistic missile attacks, the United States is advancing technologies to counter the growing threat of short- and medium-range missiles launched by rogue states or terrorists, a top U.S. Northern Command officer told American Forces Press Service.
North Korea’s successful long-range missile launch last month in violation of U.N. resolutions, and Iran’s reported testing of a new, mid-range surface-to-air missile last week represent two ends of the spectrum that U.S. missile defenses must be prepared to address, said Air Force Brig. Gen. Kenneth E. Todorov, Northcom’s deputy operations director.
Toward that end, Todorov said he envisions an integrated system capable of detecting and intercepting the full range of ballistic missile threats, conceivably within the decade. And ideally, he said it will dovetail with NATO’s European Phased Adaptive Approach Missile Defense System being phased in to counter short-, medium- and long-range missiles, primarily from the Middle East.
Almost since its inception more than a half-century ago, North American Aerospace Defense Command has focused primarily on long-range ballistic missile threats. However, in light of proliferation, and the willingness of bad actors to deliver sophisticated missile technology to countries or organizations hostile to the United States, it also recognizes the threat posed by shorter-range missiles, Todorov said.
NORAD commander Army Gen. Charles H. Jacoby Jr. and his staff monitor the half-dozen space launches that take place around the globe every day and assess if any pose a threat to the U.S. or Canada. But because NORAD’s mission is missile warning – not missile defense – Jacoby would act in his capacity as Northcom commander to authorize an engagement, Todorov explained.
“General Jacoby refers to this mission as part of the sacred trust he has with the American people,” Todorov said. “He, and we as a command, are responsible for defending the U.S. homeland against ballistic missile threats.”
That capability is delivered through the Ballistic Missile Defense System. Todorov described it as a “system of systems architecture” of networked space-based and terrestrial sensors able to detect and track missile threats to North America.
Currently arrayed toward both the Atlantic and Pacific, the deployed sensors are postured to identify inbound threats from either theater, he said. Based on well-rehearsed protocols, the system is designed to destroy threat missiles in space before they reach their intended targets.
Members of the Alaska National Guard’s 49th Missile Defense Battalion stand on 24/7 alert at Fort Greeley, Alaska, ready to launch the 26 ground-based interceptors there at a moment’s notice. Other members of the Colorado National Guard’s 100th Missile Defense Brigade maintain and man four additional interceptors at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif.
“These are 300 National Guardsmen defending 300 million citizens of the United States, Todorov said. “They are the no-kidding, 24/7 watch, watching for threats and waiting for them to come. And if they come, they are going to shoot them down.”
Jacoby said he’s confident in Northcom’s ability to leverage existing capabilities to defend the United States against limited long-range ballistic missile threats. But as these threats evolve, he said ballistic missile defenses must evolve, too.
That, Tordov said, requires building on existing ballistic missile defenses to keep a step ahead of potential adversaries.
Much of the United States’ missile defense focus has been on the NATO system that will offer broad protection to Europe once it is fully deployed in 2020 – and by extension, to the United States and Canada.
Meanwhile, Northcom is collaborating closely with the Missile Defense Agency to improve the capability of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense System, which is designed to defeat long-range ballistic missiles.
“We have focused very hard on improving GMD system capabilities since it became operational in 2006,” Todorov said. “But as we go forward as a command, one thing that we will change will be our emphasis and focus on short- and medium-range missile defense of the homeland.”
Instead of developing new independent systems to address these threats, Todorov said the better approach is to build on existing defense capabilities.
“Rather than looking at these systems independently – the GMD system to fight the long-range threat and another system that might fight the medium-range one and another that might fight the short range – let’s try to build them into an interconnecting group of systems that we can refer to as an integrated air and missile defense,” he said.
“The same sensors won’t be able to do it all,” he acknowledged. “But hopefully there will be some connects and shared data, with shared information and shared situational awareness between the sensors. Each of those will help us tie the picture together.”
With work on this integrated system already under way, Todorov anticipates “cylinders of capability” that will be fielded as they are developed, probably within the next few years.
“Then as it develops and matures, I think we will start to knit the capabilities together to strengthen the numbers, if you will, and overlapping sensors from the short-range to the medium-range to the long-range,” he said.
Within the next 10 years, Todorov said he hopes to have an interconnected and overlapping system of systems that provides stronger, more reliable defenses than any individual systems could. “With the synergy among all of it, one plus one will equal three,” he said.
The success of that endeavor will be vital to the United States’ long-term security, he said.
“We can’t take anything for granted,” Todorov said. “There are adversaries out there and groups of people and nation states that would like to do us harm.”
The 9/11 Memorial outside the NORAD and Northcom headquarters, built of rubble from the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon and soil from the Shanksville, Penn., crash site, offers a daily reminder to workers here of the gravity of their homeland defense mission.
“I think it is our job, every day, to walk past that 9/11 Memorial as we come in here and think, ‘We are not going to let anybody do harm to us like they did on that day,'” Todorov said.