C2/Comms

America should integrate a strike capability with its missile defense systems

This summer, U.S. Army air defense artillery units in the New Mexico desert have been detecting, tracking and shooting down ballistic and cruise missile targets. These efforts are testing, with considerable success, their Integrated Air and Missile Defense Battle Command System, or IBCS, and its ability to tie together diverse sensors and interceptors.

The keyword here is “integration.” Something of a Pentagon buzzword, neither the meaning of integration nor its future potential for countering air and missile threats is adequately understood.

Populated by more numerous, diverse, maneuverable, accurate and sophisticated missile threats, the modern battlefield is becoming faster and more lethal. And adversaries such as China, Russia, North Korea and Iran are developing more innovative ways to employ them. As a result, the United States can no longer take for granted the ability to deploy superior military forces whenever and wherever needed. As defense budget constraints begin to bite, the challenge is to find innovative approaches that will effectively defeat these threats without breaking the bank.

Military leaders have long recognized that integrated air and missile defense is part of the solution. Such integration allows the military to use its defensive forces faster, more efficiently and more effectively. The Army’s current testing confirms that things are going in the right direction. But integrating various elements of active air and missile defenses is only part of the solution.

The more comprehensive goal must be to bring together offensive and defensive fires. Over the past several years, Pentagon leaders have begun to advocate better integration of air and missile defenses with offensive forces to defeat both enemy missiles in the air and launchers on the ground.

This vision was reaffirmed in the 2019 Missile Defense Review. Defenses cannot protect forever. Offenses can be highly effective, but they depend on exquisite targeting and may not protect U.S. forces from the early waves of an attack. If the military can kill the launcher and its payload in the same engagement, forces on the modern battlefield will have a better chance of surviving and winning.

Unfortunately, this is not how the American military operates today. All militaries coordinate offensive and defensive operations at a high level, but offensive and defensive forces are typically segregated into separate units, operations and chains of command. The systems they use often do not even communicate with each other.

Despite much generic endorsement of further offense-defense integration, thinking on how to affect it lags the vision, as does a definition for what the idea really means. Is it strategic, operational or tactical? As air and missile threat characteristics blend or converge — for example, with hypersonic gliders — should offense-defense integration include all air and missile defense, or be more narrowly focused on certain missiles? What does the military need to change to integrate its offenses and defenses effectively into a “missile defeat” force?

A good approach to this complexity is to think in terms of forces to survive the battle and defeat a threat rather than “offense” (shooting at the enemy) and “defense” (shooting at what the enemy shoots at us). Offensive and defensive forces could be integrated into units at lower levels than today, and use the same command-and-control systems. Such a change would help our forces to better operate within the challenging timelines imposed by contemporary air and missile threats.

Implementing this vision of offense-defense integration will be a challenge. Bringing them together will involve crossing service lines, domains and levels of conflict as well as combining current organizational and operating concepts. The full challenge includes doctrine, organization, training, materiel and logistics. Multimission missiles, shared radars and common launchers may also be part of the solution.

The most important technical aspect of realizing this vision will lie with better battle management and command-and-control networks. Sensors, data, communications and software are not inherently offensive or defensive, and one might think such integration would be easy. It is not. Over the years, the services have developed their own C2 systems for defensive forces — the Navy Integrated Fire Control-Counter Air (NIFC-CA) and the Army’s IBCS — to manage the defensive battle, but all the services also have separate C2 systems to manage the offensive battle.

Fortunately, interest in offense-defense integration seems to be rising. Over the past six months, Army leaders have begun to express considerable interest in using these networks together for integrating both offensive and defensive fires. By accommodating offensive and defensive fires, both NIFC-CA and IBCS can better contribute to Joint All-Domain Command and Control.

Integrating strike with air and missile defense is the proper and necessary goal. Recent efforts point in the right direction, but organizational inertia and technological development may defy rapid advancement. The threats, however, are quite real and increasingly complex. Offense-defense integration will not be a panacea, but it will be critical to a realistic and cost-effective way to contend with the threat.

Brian R. Green is a nonresident senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary of defense.

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