Monday, March 24, 2014

Southern Exposure

While much of the globe is occupied with the hunt for Flight 370 (and we plead guilty as well), there was this item in the National Journal.

Could the U.S. Face a Cruise Missile Threat from the Gulf of Mexico?

According to writer Diane Barnes, the American military has been focusing increased attention and resources on the problem:

"A 2013 military exercise pitted systems such as Patriot interceptors, Aegis warships and combat aircraft against potential cruise-missile or short-range ballistic missiles fired from the Gulf. But the drill highlighted a particular vulnerability to cruise missiles lobbed from that region, U.S. Northern Command head Gen. Charles Jacoby indicated in congressional testimony last week.
He said the Pentagon has "some significant challenges" in countering these missiles, but is exploring "some opportunities to use existing systems more effectively to do that." Many detailed results of the Oct. 11 drill conducted near Key West, Fla., remain classified, Jacoby said.

"The cruise-missile threat portion of that we are working on very hard," the general added at the March 13 Senate Armed Service Committee hearing, in response to a question from Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas).

The military leader -- whose command focuses on defense of the U.S. homeland -- referenced an initiative to quickly mobilize assets against such threats in a configuration called the Joint Deployable Integrated Air and Missile Defense system."

According to the Journal, the effort falls under the Pentagon's Joint Test and Evaluation Office, which seeks to remedy operational deficiencies with "what we have."  But as one analyst told the publication, the problem is that our systems have been optimized for the ballistic missile threat.  Cruise missiles, launched from aircraft or surface vessels, present a different set of challenges.

First, they can be deployed on a number of platforms, including strategic bombers, Navy ships, submaries and even a container vessel.  Secondly, their small size and flight profile makes them extremely difficult to detect.  And if detection is delayed--assuming you actually spot them--the intercept window is very narrow.  And did we mention that cruise missiles can be easily outfitted with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads?

In his recent Congressional testimony, General Jacoby said the U.S. has been "closely following" advances in Russian cruise missile technology.  One of the scariest weapons in that arsenal is the Klub-K system, with enough range to hit targets at extended distances, but small enough to fit into a shipping container.  For a price tag of $10-20 million, you get the box, launcher and up to four missiles, which can be readied for launch in a matter of minutes.  Tucked away inside a 40-foot shipping container, the system is almost impossible to detect.

Russia Reveals New Missile Fired from Container

Artist's concept of the Klub-K system, hidden on a container vessel (Israel

With a range of 130km, the cruise missile could be launched well outside our coastal waters--with no warning--making it a very viable terrorist weapon.  The Klub-K is already in service with the Russian military and has been sold to various foreign customers, including India and Algeria.  Venezuela and Iran are also interested in the system, which raises fears about terrorist proliferation, and potential launches from the Gulf of Mexico.

So far, there have been no confirmed deliveries of the missile to Tehran, or Russia's friends in Caracas.  But cruise missiles are a legitimate threat to the U.S. homeland and, as noted in a recent Pentagon assessment, the number of operators will certainly increase over the next decade.  Meanwhile, our land-based defenses remain limited, and the Navy's budget for anti-submarine warfare (ASW) has been shrinking for years.  There were reports that a Russian Akula-class attack sub--an excellent cruise missile platform--went undetected for weeks in the Gulf of Mexico back in 2012.  Those claims--published in the Washington Free Beacon--were denied by the Pentagon.  

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