Dynamic Defense

NORAD Deputy Director of Operations: Analytics, all-domain awareness are pillars of homeland strategy

Brig. Gen. Pete M. Fesler U.S. AIR FORCE

The Watch spoke with Brig. Gen. Pete M. Fesler, deputy director of operations for the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), to discuss a wide range of homeland defense issues. Gen. Fesler oversees the execution of aerospace warning, aerospace control and maritime warning for North America.

Gen. Fesler has served in a variety of operational, educational and staff assignments, including multiple tours in both the F-15C and F-22A fighter jets as a command pilot. He participated in multiple deployments, including more than 50 combat missions over Iraq. Before his current assignment, he was stationed at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, where he commanded the most historic wing of the U.S. Air Force, the 1st Fighter Wing.

THE WATCH: What do U.S. military commanders mean when they say homeland defense is “not just an away game” and that “the homeland is not a sanctuary?”

GEN. FESLER: Historically, the U.S. military has fought an away game to prevent conflict from reaching our shores. During the Cold War, our adversaries could reach us in the homeland, but only with nuclear weapons. We deterred a nuclear attack by maintaining a robust and survivable nuclear force. Today our adversaries are circumventing that deterrent capability by fielding systems and training to conduct conventional strikes against the homeland. They’ve told us in open source [publicly available materials] that they intend to horizontally escalate to strikes against the homeland in the event of conflicts elsewhere. The adversary is no longer going to allow us to fight an away game. They are taking away our traditional sanctuary here in the homeland.

THE WATCH: The National Defense Strategy says that great-power competition has reemerged as the central challenge to U.S. prosperity and security. Russia has even mentioned potential targets inside the United States. Can you detail some of these new challenges?

GEN. FESLER: Some of the new challenges we face in the homeland include the widely publicized and talked about stealthy Russian submarines capable of launching land attack cruise missiles, modernized long-range bombers and cruise missiles, which themselves are stealthy and have ranges that allow them to be launched from outside of sensor range against targets in the homeland. They’ve even recently discussed the fielding of an intercontinental-range nuclear-armed torpedo. These are things we did not face during the Cold War with the Russians. They are fielding all of these rapidly. Some of them already have been fielded, and some will be fielded in the next couple of years. China is following a similar path, and they are actually moving more quickly than Russia, investing in their own modernized, next generation of submarines. They are investing in bombers and the tanker capacity required to allow those bombers to reach North America, and in the weapons that those bombers will deliver. Even North Korea, as we’ve all seen, is continuing to modernize its intercontinental-range ballistic missile force. Recently, they detonated a thermonuclear device. So now, where we’ve had doubts about the yield of the weapons they might put on top of the ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles], it’s now clear that they’ve reached the ability to deliver a more than 100-kiloton weapon against any target in North America. These are new challenges that are emerging, and we have to be prepared to defend against them.  

An F-22 fighter jet from the North American Aerospace Defense Command intercepts a Russian Tu-142 maritime reconnaisance aircraft as it enters the Alaskan Air Defense Identification Zone on March 9, 2020. NORAD

THE WATCH: How should the U.S. prioritize its homeland defense investments to adjust the focus from mainly keying on violent extremist organizations to the threats posed by near-peer competitors, such as the People’s Republic of China and Russia?

GEN. FESLER: After 9/11, we invested heavily in the ability to counter a violent extremist threat. We are well-postured to defend against that threat today. But our adversaries, as I mentioned, are continuing to develop capabilities and technologies that are designed to challenge our current defenses. Investment in domain awareness, investment in the ability to control a joint force in all domains, and defeat mechanisms are required for us to maintain the advantage that we enjoy now in homeland defense. That investment is occurring right now. Here are a couple of examples: The first one is that we’ve already initiated the procurement of homeland defense-specific sensors designed to detect cruise missiles, bombers and a wide range of threats. We are rapidly prototyping and fielding a new command-and-control capability that takes advantage of data analytics. Instead of just taking sensor data and pushing that into command-and-control structures, we are now using data analytics to help us understand better what it is that we’re seeing. We’re modernizing on the service side, too. The Air Force, for example, is modernizing its fighter fleet. That fighter fleet is an important component of our ability to defend against cruise missiles. They’re retiring older platforms like the F-16 and the F-15, and they are replacing them with newer platforms like the F-35 and the F-15EX. And on the ballistic missile defense side, the Missile Defense Agency is developing the next-generation interceptor that will allow us to leapfrog ahead of any technology that a rogue nation is going to be able to field in the future to attack the homeland with an intercontinental-range ballistic missile. 

THE WATCH: When military leaders at U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and NORAD discuss domain awareness, what does that mean for homeland defense?

GEN. FESLER: The concept of domain awareness is pretty well understood. It simply means understanding what is occurring in any given domain — the air domain, the maritime domain, etc. At NORAD and USNORTHCOM, we use the term all-domain awareness. That means we need to have the ability to understand what’s happening in the approaches to North America, from the sea floor to on orbit. Traditionally, we’ve invested in sensors to counter a single threat. In the 1950s, the Soviet threat was a bomber carrying a gravity-dropped nuclear weapon. So we developed systems to counter that threat, such as the DEW Line [Distant Early Warning Line] —  a system of radars stretching from coast to coast and across Alaska and northern Canada. Today, the adversaries are fielding systems that are designed to exploit the seams between each one of our single-threat countering sensors. We have to invest to close those gaps. Investment is required in sensors able to detect, track, and identify and maintain custody of a whole range of threats. We simply can’t afford to buy a single sensor to counter a single threat. All-domain awareness is the commander of NORAD and USNORTHCOM’s number one priority for investment in homeland defense.    

THE WATCH: The U.S. and its partners have talked about the need to integrate air and missile defenses so adversaries do not exploit weaknesses caused by service-centric defense systems. How are we changing our homeland defense investment strategy to meet this challenge?

GEN. FESLER: We are doing this now. In a recent exercise we used ground-based Army and Marine Corps systems tied in with Air Force airborne sensors to detect, track, identify, and maintain custody of multiple cruise missiles at the same time. Those cruise missiles were then handed off to a Patriot missile battalion that successfully engaged and shot them down. In another range of exercises we’ve conducted over the last six months, we’ve integrated Navy, Air Force, and space assets to track cruise missiles. Those have all culminated in kills using a variety of new defeat mechanisms. These defeat mechanisms are designed to invert the cost curve and to make the systems that we’re firing to shoot down the cruise missiles significantly less costly than the cruise missiles themselves. This is a critical component to being able to defend the homeland against a missed missile attack.

THE WATCH: The U.S. Department of Defense is directing the military services to work together on common frameworks for networks under what it calls Joint All Domain Command and Control. Can you describe this initiative in more detail? 

GEN. FESLER: Historically, our command-and-control systems have been service-oriented. A command-and-control structure, for example, might be designed specifically for the Marine Corps or specifically for the Army. And even within those command-and-control systems, we’ve often designed them for a specific mission set. For example, there is a command-and-control system associated with the Army’s air defense systems. But in defending the homeland or more broadly, to successfully conduct modern warfare, we need a command-and-control structure that is able to view all of the forces from all of the services regardless of what theater they’re in and bring them to bear. It’s more than just the command-and-control systems. Traditionally, we take sensor information, turn it into a picture, make a decision, and then relay command instructions. We’re actually moving to using data analytics and artificial intelligence to not only pull in that data but to help decision-makers make a more informed decision using the information that the sensors are providing. That information then gets pushed down to the units that are executing the instructions. By using data analytics and by using a command-and-control structure that spans all of the services, we are now truly able to take information from any sensor and push it to the best shooter. 

THE WATCH: U.S. Air Force Gen. Terrence J. O’Shaughnessy, commander of NORAD and USNORTHCOM, has publicly stated that more investment is needed to defend against the threat of cruise missiles. What resources need to be allocated?

GEN. FESLER: What Gen. O’Shaughnessy is talking about is the weight of effort in the defense of the homeland. We’ve invested heavily in our ability to defeat a violent extremist attack. That investment occurred immediately after 9/11 and has continued in the years since. We spend as much as [U.S.] $12 billion a year on ballistic missile defense against the North Korean threat, but to defeat cruise missiles we rely on legacy capabilities that are shared between all of the geographic combatant commanders to defend the homeland. That provides a capable defense, but it’s inefficient and it’s costly. What Gen. O’Shaughnessy has asked us to do is rethink how we’re defending the homeland. What we’re finding is that upfront investment in purpose-built homeland defense capability ultimately will save resources and still allow us to increase capability. Forces that we free up by using the purpose-built homeland defense capability can then be pushed forward into the away game to bring more forces to bear against an adversary at range.