Cruise Missiles: When defence is not an option

Russian military fires a Termit cruise missile during 2017 exercises in the Arctic. (Photo courtesy of the Russian Ministry of Defence)

See The Simons Foundation's Arctic Security Briefing Papers for information on military policies and practices in the Arctic region by Ernie Regehr, Senior Fellow in Arctic Security and Defence at The Simons Foundation.

Cruise Missiles: When defence is not an option

Cruise missiles recently made the front pages when President Vladimir Putin marshalled impressive audiovisuals to hype Russian strides in developing new and sinister military technologies. Cruise missiles were included but concerns regarding them didn’t just arrive with his speech. They have figured prominently, for just one example, in the current Canadian and American intention to replace the Arctic-based North Warning System.  Cruise missiles pose a two-fold challenge: the unavoidable reality that there is no credible defence against long-range nuclear-armed cruise missiles; and, the related and equally inescapable reality that the only way to manage them in the long term is through internationally negotiated control agreements. The latter challenge is obviously made all the more daunting by a current political climate that is less than conducive to anything quite that rational. 

The threat

Cruise missiles first made their mark in World War II, and they are still spawning new bouts of anxiety. They are still essentially pilotless, airbreathing, flying bombs, but the V-1 buzz bombs of the German Luftwaffe have given way to variants that can carry nuclear weapons, fly largely undetectable  for thousands of kilometers, and then strike within feet of the intended target. They can be launched virtually from anywhere – from land, surface ships, submarines, or aircraft. And now military planners are pursuing models intended to reach supersonic and hypersonic speeds. Mr. Putin has promised a nuclear-powered, indefinite range version capable of outmanoeuvring any US defences,  while President Donald Trump has also proposed a new nuclear-armed cruise missile to support a nuclear posture that is shifting toward more “flexible” nuclear options. 

Russia’s Arctic exercises around the Kola Peninsula and the Barents Sea last fall featured multiple cruise missile firings from surface ships, submarines, and land launchers.  The American Coast Guard is reportedly mulling plans to include cruise missile launchers on a proposed fleet of three heavy icebreakers.  

And cruise missiles also figure into American charges that Russia is in violation of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, a bilateral US-USSR treaty which entered into force in 1988 and banned all land-based missiles, including ground-launched cruise missiles, with a range between 500 and 5,500 kms. A 2014 report by the Obama Administration concluded that Russia was in violation of its obligations under the INF,  and the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review charges that Russia is engaged in the  “production, possession, and flight testing of a ground-launched cruise missile” within the prohibited range.  Russia in turn makes the credible claim that the US launcher system for the NATO ballistic missile defence system, deployed in Romania, and soon in Poland, also has the capacity to launch cruise missiles banned by the INF Treaty.  These claims and counter-claims put the Treaty in jeopardy, and, as the Brooking Institution’s Steven Pifer argues, if the INF differences are not resolved and the Treaty preserved, the prospects for renewal of the New Start Treaty in 2021 become increasingly bleak. 

Basic cruise missile technology (complicated guidance systems and necessarily small propulsion plants) is also spreading - although, for now, relatively few states have deployed them. According to the 2017 report of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Ballistic Missile Analysis Committee, the US, Russia, China, and Iran have the capacity to deploy long-range cruise missiles. These same countries, plus France, Germany, Sweden, Spain, South Korea, India, Israel, Pakistan, Taiwan, the United Arab Emirates, and the UK all have the capacity to launch short-range (roughly up to 400 kms) versions.  

Homeland defence is not an option

In the 2016 North American Vigilant Shield exercise, involving Canadian and American forces through NORAD, participating US National Guard forces operated out of Canadian Forces Base North Bay and reportedly used Boeing Avenger surface-to-air missiles intended to shoot down cruise missiles at short range.  But that is not evidence of any effective homeland defence against cruise missiles. 

Long-range cruise missiles do pose a serious threat, meaning they are one more threat against which there is no credible defence. The only feasible defence against cruise missiles is point defence – that is, specific locations can be identified for protection through the installation of concentrated air-defence systems. In localized battlefield operations, damage limitation efforts against conventionally-armed cruise missiles are feasible. Nationally, there can be selective points chosen for defence, and currently the US has chosen to deploy such systems around Washington, D.C.  

Some propose that key ports be added to the list of protected points – but the protection of ports is not just a matter of localized air defence systems. Defence also depends heavily on intelligence and detection technologies to identify which of the millions of containers that enter North American ports each year might have warheads or other explosives, or even cruise missiles,  on board.

None of that constitutes continental defence, and in the case of nuclear armed cruise missiles, damage limitation efforts have little meaning when failure to intercept even one attacker would mean devastating catastrophe. Given that cruise missiles, launched off-shore from aircraft, ships, or submarines, could come from just about anywhere, and given that their target destinations could also be just about anywhere, continent-wide defence is impossible. Even if approaches to Canadian and North American coasts along the full length of the continent could be effectively monitored, there simply is no possibility of deploying interceptor aircraft or anti-aircraft systems broadly enough to mount a credible defence.

Recognition that broad defence against cruise missiles is in fact not possible has led some analysts to assert (or fantasize about) the possibility of mounting a defence that focuses on the “archer” rather than the “arrow.” In this scenario, the arrows are obviously the cruise missiles and the archers are the platforms from which they would be launched – e.g. an adversary’s ships, submarines, or strategic bombers. There being no credible defence against arrows after they’ve been launched (besides potentially coming from just about anywhere, cruise missiles are small, employ stealth technologies, and fly at very low altitudes, making reliable detection impractical), the thought is that their launch platform (the archers) could be destroyed before any cruise missile arrows were launched.

In other words, the proposed solution is pre-emptive attack, but pre-emption as a defence posture amounts to a dangerously destabilizing conflict escalation strategy. The more an adversary understands that its opponent is betting on pre-emption, the more it is itself incentivised to launch even earlier surprise attacks. In the midst of any deep political crisis, the last thing antagonist states should want is a strategy that has both sides concluding that there is advantage to be gained from the early resort to military attacks – even a nuclear attack.  Continue reading...