Defense

Pentagon intensifies focus on missile defense reliability after North Korea’s long-range advances

North Korea’s ballistic missile test is shining an intense spotlight on the Pentagon’s missile defenses, systems installed to protect South Korea and now the U.S. mainland. Recent results have been promising, but U.S. officials acknowledge that Pyongyang’s stunning advances this month are providing a real-world test much sooner than they had expected. The Pentagon has been touting the viability of the country’s ballistic missile systems following the apparent successful test by the regime of Kim Jong-un of a long-range missile on July 4, saying the constellation of missile interceptors and weapons now in place are fully capable of blocking any threat to American shores from Pyongyang or elsewhere. The need for reliability of the missile defense systems, including the new Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense battery installed in South Korea, soared amid calculations that the North has tested what could be its first intercontinental ballistic missile. In what Pentagon officials insisted was a previously planned exercise, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency revealed Tuesday that a THAAD system based in Alaska successfully tracked and shot down a simulated intermediate-range ballistic missile that closely resembles the ones Pyongyang is developing. The test was the first of its kind for the system against an incoming intermediate-range missile, which analysts say is harder to hit than shorter-range missiles. “This test further demonstrates the capabilities of the THAAD weapon system and its ability to intercept and destroy ballistic missile threats,” Lt. Gen. Samuel A. Greaves, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said in a statement. Sen. Dan Sullivan, an Alaska Republican whose state suddenly finds itself potentially in range of Pyongyang’s deadliest weapons, praised the test. He said it “provided further confirmation that we have the capability to defend our bases, our troops and our allies in places like Japan, South Korea and Guam against rogue nations like North Korea.” But any test falls far short of real-world conditions, when the enemy doesn’t reveal in advance where and when the missile will be launched or its intended target. “Missile defense, even if it worked perfectly, is not a get-out-of-jail-free card,” Laura Grego, a senior scientist for the Global Security Program at the Union of Concerned Scientists, told the Bloomberg news service. Missile defense systems, critics note, can’t afford to have a single failure against powerful payloads likely to be loaded onto an ICBM. “The homeland missile defense system doesn’t work perfectly and hasn’t demonstrated a real-world capability,” Ms. Grego said. Even before the July 4 test, the Pentagon was poised to invest billions of dollars to boost its anti-missile technology as part of President Trump’s first defense budget. Aside from additional funding, Defense Department officials are spearheading an overhaul of missile defense strategies and tactics. In one of his first acts as Pentagon chief, Defense Secretary James Mattis initiated a departmentwide review of missile defense operations in May. The review, led by Deputy Secretary of Defense Robert O. Work and Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Paul J. Selva, will “identify ways to strengthen missile defense capabilities, rebalance homeland and theater defense priorities, and provide the necessary policy and strategy framework for the nation’s missile defense systems,” Pentagon press secretary Dana White said. The administration’s newfound focus on the network of land- and sea-based interceptor weapons and associated sensors comes on the heels of the first successful test of the Pentagon’s premier missile interceptor system in May. The game-changer in the debate was the successful July 4 test of the Hwasong-14 intercontinental ballistic missile, which flew higher and farther than any previous North Korean long-range missile shots, theoretically placing the entire state of Alaska within range of Pyongyang’s new class of ballistic missiles.

House Defense Panel Would Create Space Force

A House Armed Services panel intends to create a new fighting force called Space Corps within the Air Force to improve the U.S. military’s ability to address threats in space, according to a summary of the Strategic Forces panel’s forthcoming fiscal 2018 mark. “There is bipartisan acknowledgement that the strategic advantages we derive from our national security space systems are eroding,” said a joint statement from Mike D. Rogers of Alabama and Jim Cooper of Tennessee, the panel’s chairman and ranking Democrat, respectively. “We are convinced that the Department of Defense is unable to take the measures necessary to address these challenges effectively and decisively, or even recognize the nature and scale of its problems. Thus, Congress has to step in.” The Space Corps, they added, would be “a separate military service responsible for national security space programs for which the Air Force is today responsible.” The panel intends to mark up its portion of the sweeping defense policy measure on Thursday. Its mark also would establish U.S. Space Command as a four-star position under U.S. Strategic Command. The measure would bar the Pentagon from buying satellite services if there is a threat that they could be compromised by cyber vulnerabilities or because they are launched by or contained parts from adversary nations. The subcommittee also would authorize $705 million for missile defense systems in Israel that U.S. companies would develop or produce in conjunction with the Israelis. The panel would institute oversight mechanisms to ensure a capable nuclear command and control infrastructure. It would support several Missile Defense Agency priorities that were not formally part of the budget request but that were included on the agency’s first-ever unfunded priorities list, submitted to Congress earlier this month. These include requirement that the agency begin developing a new system of missile-tracking satellites and procure 24 additional interceptors for Theater High Altitude Area Defense batteries.

While it’s encouraging that the House is wanting to make Space a priority for our Dept of Defense (DoD), the devil is in the details..    They need to ensure that they get quality input from both the U.S. Air Force’s Space Command as well as the U.S. Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command (SMDC).  As someone who spent a couple years in SMDC, I’m intimately aware of how important it is that we get such input and cooperation from BOTH agencies and military branches.  Definitely something to keep an eye on…

Musk’s SpaceX Joins the Military

Not long ago, SpaceX founder Elon Musk cracked what he once labeled a monopoly for Defense Department space launches, successfully breaking into a business that was dominated by United Launch Alliance LLC. The DOD’s appetite for space access is voracious, given the myriad reconnaissance, defense, and communications roles there, coupled with a future where conflicts are almost certain to involve space assets. Musk’s 2014 lawsuit against the government was settled out of court, and the Pentagon certified SpaceX, also known as Space Exploration Technologies Corp., as a suitable supplier of military space launches. SpaceX’s first gig for the military was in May when it launched a satellite for the National Reconnaissance Office. But in a quite public sense, Musk and the government this summer will test the theory that cheaper space launches are suitable for sensitive military missions. In August, SpaceX will carry one of the Pentagon’s premiere yet highly classified platforms into orbit. The X-37B spy craft, an unmanned miniature version of the Space Shuttle, logs missions that are well over a year in length. The most recent X-37B sojourn ended in May after more than 700 days circling the Earth. Boeing has built two of the craft, with the first launched in 2010. The August blastoff will be the program’s fifth flight. One major reason for SpaceX’s appeal to Pentagon brass: sticker price. With its launches starting around $61 million, Musk’s company has been able to undercut its more established rival. United Launch Alliance, a Centennial, Colo.-based joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp., boasts an unblemished record of more than 100 launches, but it’s still working to bring its cost below $100 million. It plans to do so by 2019.

Russian jet intercepts US bomber over Baltic Sea

A U.S. Air Force B-52 bomber flying a “routine mission” in international airspace over the Baltic Sea was intercepted by a Russian jet on Tuesday, a Pentagon spokesman said. The U.S. bomber was still up in the air Tuesday afternoon and the crew had not been debriefed about the incident, meaning it was not yet known exactly how close the Russian Su-27 fighter jet came to the U.S. plane, Capt. Jeff Davis said. The bomber was deployed to the U.K. from Barksdale Air Force Base in Louisiana earlier this month, U.S. European Command told Fox News. The “vast majority” of Russian intercepts with U.S. forces are safe and professional, Davis said. But Tuesday’s intercept is just the latest example of aggressive Russian actions aimed at the U.S. military and homeland. In May, a pair of Russian Bear Bombers entered Alaska’s “air defense zone” escorted by two Russian jets. That instance followed several consecutive nights in April when Russian spy planes and bombers buzzed Alaskan airspace. In February, The Russian spy ship Viktor Leonov traversed the U.S. East Coast and approached a Navy submarine base in Connecticut. There have also been several instances of Russian jets buzzing Navy ships at sea. The U.S. bomber intercepted Tuesday arrived days ago in the region to take part in the annual Baltic training operation called “Baltops.” There are 14 allied countries participating in the annual military exercise which includes 6,000 personal, 50 aircraft, 56 ships and submarines. The exercise also includes live fire training. Some ships will be sailing from Poland to Germany.

Russia tests Zircon hypersonic missile system, which it says makes U.S. defenses obsolete

Russia declared today its first test of a hypersonic missile, a year ahead of schedule. Defense analysts proclaimed the test made U.S. missile defense systems obsolete. American missile defense has been a thorn in the side of the Kremlin since the days of Ronald Reagan’s SDI, or Strategic Defense Initiative. One could argue that SDI broke the back of the Soviet Union financially and technologically and forced Gorbachev to realize the U.S.S.R. could not beat America in a missile defense arms race. The Russian international news site Sputnik suggested the missile, named Zircon, could be installed on Pyotr Veliky, the country’s nuclear-powered missile strike ship. Analysts stated the missile concept can fly at 4,600 miles per hour — that’s 6 times the speed of sound — and would be practically impervious to missile defense systems, reported The Independent. Military analyst Vladimir Tuchkov told Sputnik: “It (the Zircon missile system) is expected to be added into Russia’s arsenal between 2018 and 2020.” China and Russia have searched for asymmetric weapons that can defeat American carriers that project power and missile systems that protect the homeland against foreign nuclear attack. Hypersonic missiles are part of this effort and are here to stay as a quantum leap in destructive military firepower.

U.S. Airstrikes Hit Syrian Military Vehicles for Violating ‘De-Confliction Zone’

American airstrikes targeted a group of Syrian militia vehicles after they ignored U.S. warnings and violated a “de-confliction zone” on Thursday. CNN reports that the strike occurred near a base American forces use to train allied Syrian opposition fighters. A convoy of twenty vehicles approached the town of An Tanf on Wednesday night, evidently searching for opposition fighters and raising concerns among the U.S. coalition. A total of thirteen vehicles penetrated the de-confliction zone, but the U.S. did not take action until five of them came with 29 kilometers of the base. When five Syrian military vehicles persisted in approaching the base, the U.S. conducted a “show of force” with two warplanes to persuade them to halt. When the Syrians insisted on proceeding into the area, the U.S. planes were cleared to fire. Although one of CNN’s sources said it remained unknown whether the American planes only fired warning shots, a second U.S. defense official said an airstrike “did hit the convoy after the vehicles continued toward the base.” According to ABC News, U.S. officials said several of the Syrian vehicles were destroyed in the strike. Voice of America News reports the decision to launch the airstrike was made by a commander on the ground, and does not reflect a broader change in U.S. policy. According to these sources, militia forces loyal to the regime of Bashar Assad crewed the vehicles, not regular Syrian army troops. Military Times quotes officials describing the targeted militia as “pro-regime” but “not directly associated with the Syrian government.” The Associated Press quotes officials who said the targeted vehicles included “a tank and a bulldozer,” which pro-regime militia were apparently using to set up fighting positions inside the protected area. Ominously, the Syrian regime has its own base fairly close to the one American forces are using to train opposition fighters, and the Syrian base is said to be ready to support “about a battalion’s worth of troops.”

U.S. Military Warns ‘Space Is Now a Warfighting Domain’

The U.S. Air Force considers “maintaining space superiority” one of its “core missions,” high-ranking American military officials told lawmakers Wednesday, warning that “space is now a warfighting domain.” In jointly written testimony submitted to the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces Wednesday, top officials in charge of America’s military space program told lawmakers: “For decades the United States has enjoyed unimpeded freedom of action in space. This benign environment allowed us to operate satellites for intelligence collection, missile warning, weather monitoring, communications, and precision positioning, navigation, and timing in support of all military operations for all of the services, without thinking about how to protect these systems. That environment no longer exists. Space will be contested in any conflict… Clearly, freedom to operate in space is not guaranteed. In fact, space is now a warfighting domain, similar to the more familiar air, land, and maritime domains our men and women are fighting in today. We must ensure the reliability of our current systems and we must modernize. Our modernization will focus on our ability to deter potential adversaries, and to fight in a contested, degraded, and operationally limited environment should deterrence fail.” The warnings came from Heather Wilson, secretary of the U.S. Air Force; Gen. David Goldfein, chief of staff of the Air Force; Gen. John Raymond, commander of U.S. Air Force Space Command; and Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, commander of the U.S. Air Force Command’s Space and Missile System Center. “Our potential adversaries understand the advantage we derive from space and view our reliance on space as a vulnerability they can exploit,” they noted. “Near-peer competitors will offset any U.S. military advantage derived from our space systems and continue to pursue capabilities to degrade or destroy them.” In its latest World Threat Assessment, issued last week, Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats identified Russia and China as America’s primary rivals in space. “We assess that Russia and China perceive a need to offset any US military advantage derived from military, civil, or commercial space systems and are increasingly considering attacks against satellite systems as part of their future warfare doctrine,” pointed out the assessment. “Both will continue to pursue a full range of anti- satellite (ASAT) weapons as a means to reduce US military effectiveness.”