American Military Technology Tries to Counter New Military Threats
On November 7th, Defense Secretary Ash Carter spoke at the Reagan National Defense Forum and accused Russia of endangering world order.
Carter’s speech was a surprisingly bipartisan speech that praised President Reagan, while stating that the Obama Administration was committed to a strong defense. Carter started his speech by talking about President Reagan’s “bold, innovative moves” to strengthen America’s position against the Soviets and mentioned Reagan’s investments in missile defense and his decision to roll back Soviet advances, while at the same time he remained willing to negotiate with the Soviets when it would help.
The opening about Reagan allowed him to segue into the new Russian threat. He specifically mentioned its incursions in Ukraine and increased talk about nuclear weapons. However, he warned that the U.S. defense establishment is searching for creative ways to deter Russian aggression and protect U.S. allies.
Carter also expressed concern about China’s expanding influence and growing military might, but he reserved his stronger words for Russia in his remarks to the group of national security experts and defense officials attending the gathering at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library.
In his speech, he painted a picture of increasing instability worldwide. “Some actors appear intent on eroding these principles and undercutting the international order that helps enforce them,” he said. “Terror elements like ISIL, of course, stand entirely opposed to our values. But other challenges are more complicated, and given their size and capabilities, potentially more damaging.”
“Of course, neither Russia nor China can overturn that order,” he said. “But both present different challenges for it.”
Left unsaid was the ever-growing threat of non-state threats like ISIS, which has warned that it is targeting the US.
The answer according to Carter is improved American military technology. “We’re investing in the technologies that are most relevant to Russia’s provocations, such as new unmanned systems, a new long-range bomber, and innovation in technologies like the electromagnetic railgun, lasers and new systems for electronic warfare, space and cyberspace, including a few surprising ones I really can’t describe here,” he said.
Interestingly, an idea of the evolution to new defense technologies came just hours later as an American ballistic missile submarine launched an unarmed Trident SLBM right off the coast of Los Angeles at about 6 at night. The very visible missile launch in the nighttime attracted the attention of hundreds of thousands of residents and even led to phone calls to emergency services.
A day later, the Navy launched a second missile in the afternoon, when it was less visible. On Monday, the Navy released a statement saying it had conducted a second Trident II (D5) missile test flight at sea. Both missiles, the statement noted, were launched from the Pacific Test Range off the Southern California coast and landed “in the Eastern Missile Range near Kwajalein.”
Questions were raised about the very public launch. The Trident II D5 missile is a 44-foot-long weapon deployed from an Ohio-class submarine. It has range of 4,000 nautical miles and since 1989, the weapon has been successfully flight-tested 157 times, according to Lockheed Martin.
But, this was the first time it has been launched in such a public venue. According to John Daniels, a public affairs officer for the Navy’s strategic systems programs, the launch was scheduled at the ideal time for peak viewing by residents – exceptionally clear evening, with the sun disappearing on the horizon at just the right time. The Navy has performed similar launches many times, Daniels said, but never with effects so visible that they caught people’s attention from San Francisco to Arizona. The launch was at about 6 p.m., but if it had occurred several hours earlier or later it would have been a much smaller audience.
The question remains why the unique timing?
Loren Thompson, a military analyst who used to teach nuclear strategy at Georgetown University thinks it may be a very visible warning to Russia and China that the US still has a strong deterrent.
“It’s hard to overstate how important the Trident II D-5 missile that was tested is to national security,” he writes. “To put it bluntly, the D-5 may be the main reason why World War Three never happened. Effective defenses against a large-scale nuclear attack are extremely difficult to build, so the U.S. relies instead on the threat of retaliation to deter other countries from launching such an attack.”
This idea was reinforced when Russian President Vladimir Putin indicated on November 10 that Russia was developing nuclear-capable strike systems that could penetrate NATO’s planned missile defense shield in Europe.
However, many remain unconvinced that this was the sole reason.
Testing Defenses Against Rogue Missile Launches
There is another reason, which falls in line with Ashton Carter’s statement that he couldn’t talk about some developments. After talks to some national security experts, the Monitor thinks that this missile launch was also a test of a system that will eventually detect and counter a missile launch by a rogue nation or sophisticated terrorist group.
According to some American experts, more spending on defense is needed to counter the threat of a commercial ship, lying close to the American shore and launching a nuclear tipped “SCUD” type missile. Although the missile could be targeted to hit a target like New York City or Washington DC, many experts think the biggest damage would be if the nuclear device was detonated high in the atmosphere in order to create an Electromagnetic Pulse (EMP). One nuclear weapon detonated high over Nebraska or Kansas would cripple nearly all of America’s electric power grid and literally fry most electronics in the US. The result would be widespread civil unrest that a rogue nation could easily exploit.
Not only have Military hawks claimed that either Iran or North Korea may find such an attack advantageous, some are worried that ISIS might also be thinking of such a strategy. ISIS is trying to acquire and has boasted of capturing Syrian SCUD missiles. Although the missiles are thought to be non-functioning and the chances of ISIS actually acquiring a nuclear device are considered very slim, it is a threat the US takes seriously.
One problem with such a missile launch is that it would avoid the radar nets that have been specifically built to detect incoming ICBMs from Russia, China, or North Korea. That means that the US must develop a “close in” detection system to specifically look for rogue missile launched close to the US shoreline.
Although the Trident missile launch would be a very public statement to the leadership in Moscow and Peking, the way the test took place indicates it was designed more to allow shore based or airborne assets to quickly detect such a close in rogue launch so measures could be taken.
The first missile launch took place in early evening, when a cool sky provided an ideal background for the infrared signature of the Trident missile exhaust. This would have been the ideal scenario for infrared sensing instruments within the US to quickly detect, track, and determine the course of a rogue missile.
The second launch, during the afternoon, was against a warm sky that would have been harder to detect, but just as critical for an early warning system.
One of the systems that may have been used to detect the missile launch was Boeing’s Phantom Eye. Phantom Eye is a liquid hydrogen-fueled, high-altitude and long-endurance unmanned aircraft system for intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance missions. It is capable of maintaining its altitude for up to four days while carrying a 450-pound payload. Typical payloads can include an infrared sensor package for tracking missile launches. The drone is based and tested at Edward’s Air Force base in California, which is close to the missile launch.
In the first stage, the system is designed to give America a warning. Although the time may only be a couple of minutes, it could allow the Pentagon to alert its strategic deterrent forces. At a future time, it could allow the Pentagon to delink parts of the US electric power grid to minimize damage to transformers.
However, the long term vision is for a close-in laser defense system that can detect and destroy such rogue missiles in the boost phase of their launch.
As the Monitor has noted in previous pieces, the US, along with Israel, has been heavily involved in developing lasers powerful enough to destroy missiles. Although the highly publicized programs have been cancelled, development has progressed and the US has built laser systems capable of being towed by a typical car or loaded into a drone.
These systems have been specially designed to destroy SCUD variants – the most popular type of ballistic missile variant used by countries like Iran and North Korea. In fact, the US secretly acquired SCUD missiles scheduled for destruction from Eastern European countries and brought them back to the US to use in the laser testing.
The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) told attendees at a conference in Huntsville, AL this summer that an airborne laser is being “rebooted” and is already undergoing testing. MDA director Vice Admiral Syring said, “It is a very different approach than we did in the past of just leaping to something and investing everything we had.”
Unlike previous airborne lasers that required crew served aircraft, MDA is looking at using drone that can fly for days on end, using their sensors to detect the infrared signature of a rogue missile launch and then using a laser to destroy it in its vulnerable boost phase.
MDA has already used existing drones to experiment with the systems required to aim the laser. “The work that we’re doing with the General Atomics Reaper and the work that we did with the Boeing Phantom Eye starts to show it can be done, in terms of these long-range sensing and tracking capabilities that we need,” Syring said.
The Missile Defense Agency intends to be more aggressive than other military laser efforts. The Army, Air Force, and Navy have done “great work” on laser weapons for other missions, Syring said, but shooting down missiles in the boost phase requires much greater power, range, and beam quality. In fact, it may require higher performance than even the massive Airborne Laser managed.
In 2010 the Airborne Laser did destroy a missile. However, the system had a critical weakness – it was on a manned aircraft. However, by combining the new developments in drone technology, the airborne laser concept can become practical. And, since the current pace of development could mean a one megawatt laser within five years that could fit into a drone, the idea of a close in missile defense system become very practical.
“If it had been easy we would done it by now,” Syring said. But given the rapid progress in laser technology, he went on, “it’s not a huge reach.”
Unlike a manned aircraft whose crew must land and rest, a drone can stay aloft for 24 hours or more. A mid-air refueling both keeps the drone flying and “reloads” its ability to generate power for the laser. The combination of unmanned endurance and multiple shots means a single drone could stay on station for days, instead of needing multiple manned aircraft to come and go in rotation.
Interestingly enough, the fully developed Phantom Eye drone is designed to stay aloft for up to ten days and carry a payload of 2,000 pounds – a payload large enough to carry some military grade lasers that have already undergone successful field testing.
Boeing has already made it clear that Phantom Eye’s future is in laser missile defense. “What I could hypothesize is the potential for a stratospheric UAV to carry a solid-state laser, doing sensing missions and maybe someday evolving to have the power output to be able to do some missile defense,” Boeing Phantom Works president Darryl Davis said at a press briefing in St Louis, Missouri, May 18, 2015. “Those things are being studied by our team all the time.
Boeing already has the airborne laser experience. Boeing built the YAL-1 Airborne Laser Testbed that shot down a ballistic missile in 2010. It was a chemical oxygen iodine laser, or COIL, laser weapon system mounted on a 747 airliner. And, they are continuing their laser research.
Obviously, such a drone has applications far beyond American shores. A drone with an anti-missile capability could also be used to intercept missile launches from countries like Iran or North Korea (obviously, Russia and China have air defense systems that preclude drones from remaining on station over missile sites for long periods of time).
However, an anti-missile laser drone isn’t the answer to terminal missile defenses. The laser is ideal against the slow moving ICBM in its early stages, but would have a harder time targeting and destroying a warhead in its final seconds.
However, it is clear that when Secretary of Defense Carter told attendees last week that there were, “a few surprising” technologies that “I really can’t describe here,” he clearly wasn’t bluffing.
The Reckless Proposal to Impose a No-Fly Zone in Syria
By Ted Galen Carpenter
November 11, 2015
Bad foreign policy ideas have a nasty habit of recirculating. One of the worst is the proposal to impose a no-fly zone in Syria to protect rebel forces attempting to overthrow Bashar al-Assad’s regime. President Obama has wisely resisted that scheme, but the likely Democratic presidential nominee, Hillary Clinton, has endorsed it. And in the most recent GOP debate, several candidates, especially Senator Marco Rubio and Carly Fiorina, enthusiastically signed-on to the strategy. Only Senator Rand Paul unequivocally opposed it. Even under normal circumstances, imposing a no-fly zone in Syria would be a spectacularly bad idea. Such measures were a prelude of America’s disastrous, full-scale military intervention in Iraq, and a similar danger of escalation exists in this case. Moreover, the move would strengthen the position of the ideologically murky amalgam that opposes Assad. The reality is that even the non-ISIS rebel groups exhibit a disturbing level of radical Islamic influence. Indeed, the largest and strongest anti-Assad faction appears to be al Nusra, al Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria. It is mystifying why American hawks would want to empower such forces.
Israel and the Palestinians: The Issues that the Obama-Netanyahu Meeting Failed to Address
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International Studies
November 10, 2015
There is no better way to pick a fight in Washington than to address the most sensitive issues affecting Israeli and Arab relations. Few other subjects begin to be as polarizing, or lead to the same degree of almost instant misinterpretation. The fact is, however, that the meeting between President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu may have helped bring Israel and the United States back together, and lay the groundwork for better cooperation in military security, but it did not address what could be far more serious set of issues in terms of Israel’s security, the actions of our Arab allies, and U.S. strategic interests. There seems to be a consensus that any real progress in a peace settlement is dead for at least the near term, that the “two state” solution must be left in the equivalent of a coma, and that Israel’s growing tensions with the Palestinians can be left to fester because America’s Arab allies are so involved in dealing with Islamic extremism, Iran, and other security challenges that there will be no serious Arab protests – but rather a kind of de facto “alliance” where Israel and Arab governments focus on common enemies.
Creeping Incrementalism: U.S. Strategy in Iraq and Syria from 2011 to 2015
By Anthony H. Cordesman
Center for Strategic and International studies
November 9, 2015
President Obama’s decision to allow up to 50 Special Forces to deploy in northern Syria has triggered an almost inevitable debate over crossing the threshold from train and assist into deploying combat personnel. So far that debate has taken three forms. One has focused on the president’s past statements about not sending “boots on the ground.” The second has focused on the risk this could be the start of a major combat presence and lead to serious U.S. casualties. The third has focused on whether this step—and the other small increments in the U.S. effort announced after General Joseph Dunford, the Chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of staff, visited the region in October 2015—will still fall short of the levels necessary to have meaningful results. The first form of this debate is political and irrelevant in military terms. It does not judge the merits of the decision and implies that a president should not react to changing conditions – the kind of “gotcha” issue that suits the politics of what have become election years. It is totally dysfunctional in national security terms because it assumes that the president can predict the future and make pledges regardless of how things change and the need to act in ways that serve the national interest.
Assad’s Officer Ghetto: Why the Syrian Army Remains Loyal
By Kheder Khaddour
November 4, 2015
The Syrian army’s officer corps has remained intact despite the immense pressure of nearly four years of civil and military conflict, a fact that has prevented the fall of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. The military housing system is a crucial aspect of this cohesion: it reveals the world Syrian officers inhabit, their relations with the regime and wider Syrian society, and the reasons why so few have defected so far. While there have been defections in the infantry, no major fighting unit has broken away en masse, as defection on this scale would have required the participation of middle- to high-ranking officers. Indeed, the core of the officer corps continues to stand by the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. The fact that a majority of officers are drawn from Syria’s Alawite community has often been noted as the primary, even singular, factor in the army’s cohesion since 2011. But this explanation overstates the role of sectarian affiliation.
Early Spring in Jordan: The Revolt of the Military Veterans
By Tariq Tell
November 4, 2015
The Jordanian Hirak grassroots movement of 2011–2013 is increasingly being recognized as a social and political protest movement born out of discontent in East Bank hinterlands long thought to be home to unflagging supporters of Jordan’s autocratic regime. The movement’s foundations were laid in the spring of 2010 by a revolt of Jordanian military veterans that combined an East Bank nationalism critical of the government’s approach to the Palestine question with an opposition to neoliberal economic reforms that had come to dominate policymaking under King Abdullah II. Taken together, the two strands reflected a rising tide of political contention in Hashemite Jordan that had built up steadily over the preceding two decades. Starting with riots triggered by subsidy cuts imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) in 1989, tribal Transjordanians—rather than the largely urban Jordanians of Palestinian origin who had been the mainstay of opposition in the 1950s and 1960s—protested against economic liberalization, the monarchy’s U.S.-aligned foreign policy, and Jordan’s attempt to normalize relations with Israel.