AMAC Exclusive – By Ben Solis
As a number of top American military leaders made clear in recent months, U.S. missile defense systems remain alarmingly behind the curve as countries like Russia and China continue to make strides in missile technology. These shortcomings reflect mistakes years in the making, tracing all the way back to ill-advised funding cuts during the Obama administration.
During a hearing before the House Armed Services Committee in early March, Air Force General Glen D. VanHerck, the Commander of U.S. Northern Command and North American Aerospace Defense Command, expressed concern about the military’s ability to shield against a nuclear attack, particularly one involving hypersonic missiles.
“Our missile defense today does not, from a policy perspective, defend against China or Russia,” VanHerck said, calling the threat from hypersonic missiles a “destabilizing” and “eroding” factor in U.S. military readiness.
VanHerck’s warning came just days before North Korea launched two short-range missiles and issued fresh threats to deploy nuclear weapons. The totalitarian nation successfully tested a hypersonic missile for the first time last year, and Pyongyang now claims it has hypersonic weapons that can reach the U.S.
General Anthony J. Cotton, the Commander of U.S. Strategic Command, has also warned about the threat from hypersonic missiles, particularly in light of Russia and China’s increasingly close relationship. “For the first time in the history of the United States, we have two pure nuclear adversaries,” Cotton said.
According to the Pentagon, last fall Russia added a new class of nuclear-capable cruise missiles which pose a new challenge to the defense of North America. In February, a Russian frigate armed with these hypersonic weapons conducted naval drills in the Indian Ocean and off the coast of South Africa.
Military brass has stressed that there is no sign of imminent direct conflict between Russia and China and the United States, but that tensions are only rising. According to Admiral John C. Aquilino, the Commander of U.S. Indo-Pacific Command, the possibility of “friction” in the region and the likelihood of an attack by China on its weaker neighbors is “trending in the wrong direction.”
General James Dickinson, the Commander of U.S. Space Command, has echoed those concerns, saying that one of the most important abilities the American military desperately needs to invest in is technology to track and defeat hypersonic weapons.
The war in Ukraine has only further highlighted the need for this technology. Russian and Chinese engineers have tested new hypersonic weapons to devastating effect in that conflict, even as Russian ground forces have stalled.
Much of the gap in U.S. missile defense technology can be traced back to massive reductions in the missile defense budget under the Obama administration, even as Russia and China were ramping up their development of hypersonic technology.
Also under pressure from the Obama White House, the Missile Defense Agency discontinued the Space Tracking and Surveillance System, which would have been capable of detecting hypersonic threats. The program was a forward-thinking initiative begun in 1987 with the express purpose of remaining ahead of U.S. adversaries in missile technology – part of Ronald Reagan’s famed Strategic Defense Initiative.
In tests in 2011 and 2013, the program successfully intercepted a medium-range ballistic missile target over the Pacific Ocean – at the time representative of cutting-edge missile technology. But in October 2013, Obama’s sequestration forced the Missile Defense Agency to cancel the program.
Obama’s defense spending cuts also led to the cancellation of Phase Four of the U.S. missile defense system, a sophisticated interceptor with the purpose of seeking and destroying missiles at the earliest stage of flight. Dozens of these interceptors were set to be deployed throughout eastern Europe, creating an effective containment zone around Russia.
Under pressure from Moscow, Obama refused to harness the system’s full capability, instead targeting only “rogue states,” and not China or Russia.
Russian and Chinese leaders quietly celebrated this drawdown in U.S. missile defense development as a major opportunity to overtake America in missile capabilities. One Russian defense policy specialist revealed to this author under the condition of anonymity that Obama’s spending cuts were viewed as “friendly fire” that left gaping holes in America’s defense network.
To address the resulting shortcomings of Obama policies, U.S. military leaders have now requested a number of urgent investments, including long-range, so-called “over-the-horizon” radar systems that can detect missile launches from hundreds or thousands of miles away. Australia, a top U.S. ally that also faces a severe threat from Chinese aggression in the Indo-Pacific, currently deploys its own network of over-the-horizon radars that can detect Chinese missile tests at ranges of up to 3,500 miles.
Lt. General Samuel Greaves, the former Commander of the Missile Defense Agency, has also emphasized that the U.S. needs space sensors for hypersonic weapons, as well as low-orbit satellite services to assist in detecting and defeating missile threats.
However, it remains unclear at the moment if Congress will be able to enact funding for such technology in the timetable requested by the Pentagon – particularly as President Biden and his chosen national security team remain ever more focused on far-left concepts like “equity” rather than preparedness. But unless they take action soon, the country risks falling further behind its foreign adversaries in the race for missile superiority.
Ben Solis is the pen name of an international affairs journalist, historian, and researcher.