The House Armed Services Committee’s (HASC) fiscal 2022 defense authorization bill directs the U.S. Air Force and Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to inform the committee of radars’ ability to detect low-flying hypersonic cruise missiles and any needed upgrades.
“The committee is concerned about the inability of current radar systems to detect, track, engage, and defeat emerging threats from hypersonic weapons,” per an amendment by Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), adopted by the committee on Sept. 1 as part of an ‘en bloc’ package. “The committee encourages the Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency to assess current hypersonic missile defense efforts and to evaluate whether the agencies are sufficiently taking into account innovative and cost-effective solutions available commercially.”
“The committee directs the Secretary of the United States Air Force and the Director of the Missile Defense Agency, in consultation with the Commander of United States Northern Command, to brief the House Armed Services Committee, not later than November 30, 2021, on the status of Department-wide efforts to rapidly develop the ability to detect low-flying hypersonic weapons via radar,” Turner’s amendment said.
Turner is the ranking member of the HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
Air Force General Glen VanHerck, the commander of U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), said last month that the modernization of the U.S.-Canadian North Warning System (NWS) should include the ability to detect bombers, low-flying cruise missiles and small drones (Defense Daily, Aug. 17).
A successor to the 1950s Distant Early Warning (DEW) line, NWS, first fielded in the late 1980s, consists of 25 Lockheed Martin [LMT] AN/FPS-117 long-range radars and 36 short-range AN/FPS-124 radars. NWS provides early warning of possible incursions into U.S. airspace and covers nearly 3,000 miles across North America from the Aleutian Islands in southwestern Alaska to Baffin Island in northeastern Canada.
NWS was designed to detect “bombers flying at 36,000 feet that had to fly over the homeland to drop a gravity weapon,” VanHerck said last month.
“Ideally, we would like to go to an advanced system–over-the-horizon radar,” VanHerck said of NWS modernization. “The North Warning System is limited in its distance…which doesn’t allow us to see far enough out away from the homeland. There’s proven technology today that would give us domain awareness. I think it’s crucial, as we create new systems, that we don’t make them singularly focused. Any new systems that we create must be able to not only detect bombers, but cruise missiles and even small UAS, to be affordable and usable.
NORAD modernization has been a topic of conversation among President Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
James Fergusson, the deputy director of the Centre for Defense and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba, suggested in a paper in January last year that the cost to modernize NWS could be $8 billion to $11 billion–split 60-40 between the U.S. and Canada.
On Sept. 1, HASC also adopted two ‘en bloc’ amendments by Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.). One would require the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (CJCS) to certify the readiness of the U.S. arsenal of 400 Boeing [BA] Minuteman IIIs by March 1 of each year until the Northrop Grumman [NOC] Ground-Based Strategic Deterrent achieves initial operational capability. That CJCS certification will involve the question of “whether the state of the readiness of Minuteman III intercontinental ballistic missiles requires placing heavy bombers equipped with nuclear gravity bombs or air-launched nuclear cruise missiles, and associated refueling tanker aircraft, on alert status,” per Cheney’s amendment.
Cheney’s other adopted amendment would require the Air Force to provide a cost estimate for re-alerting long-range B-52 bombers in the absence of a land-based leg of the nuclear triad. The amendment referenced testimony by Navy Adm. Charles Richard, the commander of U.S. Strategic Command, on Apr. 21, before the Senate Armed Services Committee that, without ICBMs, “you are completely dependent on the submarine leg, and I’ve already told the Secretary of Defense that under those conditions I would request to re-alert the bombers.”
The Biden administration’s nuclear posture review is considering possible changes to the nuclear triad.
Cheney is a member of the HASC Strategic Forces Subcommittee and the Intelligence and Special Operations Subcommittee.
While DoD officials often speak of the Russian nuclear threat and advances in Chinese nuclear capabilities as reasons to continue the nuclear triad, a 2012 DoD and intelligence community study obtained under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by Hans Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), suggests that U.S. Ohio-class ballistic missile submarines underpin strategic stability.