January 28, 2020
Just before dawn on Sept. 14, more than two dozen small drones and cruise missiles descended on Saudi Arabia’s state-owned Saudi Aramco oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and Khurais, evading American-made missile defenses and wiping out half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production in just hours.
The attack, which U.S. and Saudi officials have attributed to Iran, shook the region and highlighted an acute vulnerability as these new types of weapons proliferate. U.S.-made missile defenses are designed primarily to counter ballistic missiles—launched in a high arc with predictable trajectories—but have more difficulty stopping cruise missiles, which fly low to the ground where radars struggle to spot them.
As Russia and China invest in long-range cruise missiles for potential future conflicts, the U.S. Defense Department has made improving the military’s ability to detect and defeat these types of weapons a top priority. But the problem has taken on new urgency amid increased tension with Iran, which has been quietly been building up its own cruise missile capabilities for over a decade.
A key piece to solving this problem, commanders say, is beefing up the Pentagon’s network of spy satellites to better detect and track cruise missiles, drones, and the emerging threat of hypersonic weapons—missiles that fly at more than five times the speed of sound. “You can’t defend against something that you can’t see,” said Gen. John Hyten, now-vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in 2019.
To this end, the newly established Space Development Agency—which will eventually become part of the new Space Force—aims to launch several dozen small, low-cost satellites into orbit through 2022, and dozens more every two years after that. A “tracking” layer of satellites will track the threat, while a “transport” layer will broadcast that tracking data to traditional missile defense communications networks, said Derek Tournear, the director of the agency, this week at the Pentagon.
The goal is to have “full global coverage” by fiscal year 2026, Tournear said.
Since the Cold War era, the U.S. military has built up a vast network of operators, weapons, and sensors dedicated to missile defense. The first part of defeating an incoming missile threat is detecting and tracking it. This is best done from space, where satellites can cover much wider areas than lower-flying reconnaissance assets such as drones and surveillance planes. The final piece is destroying the threat, traditionally achieved by an interceptor fired from a missile defense system.
But countering cruise missiles and small unmanned aerial vehicles is trickier than defeating ballistic missiles. These weapons fly low to the ground at high speeds, and they have unpredictable flight patterns that challenge modern missile defenses. For example, analysis of weapons debris recovered from the Sept. 14 attacks showed that some of the craft, which originated from the north, took a roundabout path to the facility, flying over Iraq and Kuwait.
Just as critical as new sensors is a faster way to pass information between operators and the various lethal platforms that will defeat the threat. Many legacy platforms can’t communicate directly with each other, and any decision requires multiple phone calls or internet chat messages that take up precious minutes. In a world where hypersonic missiles are fast becoming a reality, this timeframe is too slow, commanders say.
The Pentagon is in the nascent stages of building a network that operators and platforms across all domains of warfare—from a satellite to a Navy destroyer—can plug into to autonomously receive and transmit battlefield data in real time. The Army and the Air Force have developed separate concepts to do so, with each service vying to be the primary locus of what the Pentagon is calling “multi-domain operations.”
The Air Force seems to be the furthest ahead, leading a live exercise in Florida in December 2019 demonstrating some initial capability. Will Roper, the Air Force’s top acquisition official, described the service’s solution—officially called the Advanced Battle Management System—as “the internet of things inside the military.” He said the network will use machine learning to crunch data and push it autonomously to operators across the world.