USNORTHCOM commander outlines cruise-missile threat


As the commander tasked with protecting North America, U.S. Air Force Gen. Glen D. VanHerck says one threat from potential adversaries particularly worries him: advanced cruise missiles.

VanHerck, who heads U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM) and the North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), counted the ways in an April 25, 2022, conversation with the Defense Writers Group.

“Conventional cruise missiles or hypersonic cruise missiles, low-radar cross-section cruise missiles, cruise missiles from Russia, cruise missiles from China, potentially other countries. Cruise missiles that can be launched from undersea, from 100 miles-plus off the coast. Cruise missiles from on the sea. … Cruise missiles from the air. Cruise missiles from commercial vehicles launched out of a container that can be masked as part of the commercial ship.

“All of these things concern me dramatically.”

So much so that VanHerck asked Congress to fund a cruise missile-defense demonstration.

VanHerck was asked in the wide-ranging chat with defense writers — part of the Project for Media and National Security at The George Washington University — about the nature of the threat and which U.S. weapons system is best-suited for such a demonstration.

VanHerck said he is open to ideas, and he wants the defense industry and military to be similarly receptive.

“What I want in industry, the Missile Defense Agency [MDA] and the services … is let their minds run wild on capabilities to accomplish this mission,” he said.

“There are multiple ways beyond the kinetic endgame defeat of this that we could potentially be successful in cruise missile defense,” VanHerck said, mentioning promising non-kinetic U.S. technologies such as electromagnetic weapons.

The MDA is considering the use of space-based lasers to intercept ballistic missiles, and the U.S. Navy is exploring an electronic-attack capability, according to an April 25 story in Defense News.

In response to USNORTHCOM’s requirement for homeland cruise-missile defense, the MDA is developing a glide-phase intercept capability for a future demonstration, using existing systems. Its fiscal year 2023 request includes U.S. $11 million toward such a demonstration, according to Defense News. USNORTHCOM asked Congress for nearly U.S. $51 million for that same “cruise missile defense homeland kill-chain demonstration,” which the administration excluded from its FY23 budget request. That funding would cover an unspecified “elevated sensor” and integrate it into a joint fire-control network for a Navy surface-to-air interceptor, Defense News reported.

VanHerck said the difficulty in getting funding for the test stems from the Pentagon’s lack of a single acquisition authority responsible for homeland defense from cruise-missile threats. Still, he is “confident we’re going to get there.”

Tom Karako, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Defense News that the threat from cruise missiles — which are now capable of hypersonic speeds — doesn’t get enough recognition.

“It’s long past time to recognize that missile threats to the homeland include more than just [intercontinental ballistic missiles],”  Karako said. “The full spectrum of air and missile threats facing regions elsewhere will soon be coming to a theater near you.”

Or as VanHerck told the defense writers on his ideal time frame for a cruise-missile defense: “Yesterday.”