Pentagon Developing Pre-Launch Cyber Attacks on Missiles

‘Left-of-launch’ missile defense to bolster post-launch interceptors

A Russian nuclear missile silo / AP

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The Pentagon is developing cyber and other electronic weapons to attack enemy missile systems prior to launch as part of a new high-technology defense initiative, senior Pentagon officials disclosed to Congress on Wednesday.

The use of non-kinetic attacks against missile system computers, their sensors, and other networks, along with other high-technology means to knock out missiles on the ground, is called "left-of-launch" defense, a reference to the location on a timeline of the process of shooting down missiles.

Few details were provided on the plans for non-kinetic missile defenses that Brian McKeon, the principal defense undersecretary for policy, said were "underway" as a result of a new security environment that includes plans to use large-salvo missile attacks and other means to defeat current missile defense.

Left-of-launch missile defense was raised in a 2014 memorandum from then-Chief of Naval Operations Jonathan Greenert and then-Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno to the secretary of defense warning that missile defense spending was "unsustainable" because of sharp defense cuts. They called for the more cost-effective "left-of-launch" strategy.

Defense officials familiar with the research said the new, non-kinetic missile defenses include the planned use of cyber attacks and other electronic warfare means, such as electromagnetic pulse attacks, against foreign command and control systems.

An electromagnetic pulse is the force emitted from a nuclear blast that can disrupt all electronics over wide areas. The weaponization of electromagnetic pulses has been under research for years.

The weapons would be used after intelligence indicators revealed a foreign adversary was planning a missile attack.

The cyber and electronic attacks would aim to prevent missiles from being launched by disrupting or disabling launch controls, or sending malicious commands that would cause them to blow up on their launchers.

Northern Command commander Adm. William Gortney said in prepared testimony that current missile defense were designed to intercept missiles after launch. They include ground-based interceptors, mobile regional defenses, and ship-based anti-missile systems.

"We need to augment our defensive posture with one that is designed to defeat ballistic missile threats in the boost phase as well as before they are launched, known as ‘left of launch,’" Gortney told a hearing of the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces.

High-powered lasers are being developed that will be deployed on drones or aircraft to hit missiles in the so-called boost phase, just after launch.

"The development of non-kinetic technologies, such as directed energy, and new concepts of operation, such as boost-phase intercept and left-of-launch missile defense, are game-changing and would have a dramatic effect on the need to rely exclusively on expensive interceptors," said Vice Adm. James D. Syring, director of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency.

Both defense contractors and government weapons designers are using "emerging technology" for "non-kinetic methods to defeat ballistic missile threats when we receive indications that a launch is imminent," Gortney said in the prepared statement.

"I believe this technology will reduce the overall cost of engagement-based missile defense and provide us options to defeat ballistic missiles that continue to proliferate around the world," Gortney said.

Asked if current missile defense strategies are unsustainable, Gortney testified at the hearing that he agreed with the two service chiefs in 2014.

"Because of our current strategy we are wearing our Patriots, soon-to-be THAAD, and our Aegis-capable platforms [that are] in high demand; the threat is increasing and we’re on an unaffordable path," Gortney said, noting that missile defenses use "very expensive rockets to shoot down maybe not-so-expensive rockets."

As a result, there are plans to shift to more cost-effective countermeasures such as airborne lasers and other means to attack missiles before launch or early in the launch phase of flight, he said.

The use of advanced technology and innovative uses of current weapons is part of a new Pentagon strategy called the "third offset" that seeks to leverage asymmetric warfare techniques.

The first two offsets were the use of nuclear deterrence against conventional forces in the Cold War and later the development of precision-guided conventional weapons and radar-evading stealth technology in the 1980s and 1990s.

The hearing was held to discuss the $7.5 billion budget request for missile defenses for fiscal 2017.

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