Cruise missiles are flying bombs that can precisely strike distant targets after traversing circuitous, ground-hugging routes. They are capable of delivering a wide range of destructive mechanisms, including conventional high explosives, chemical agents, nuclear warheads and electromagneticpulse devices. Over 80 countries possess cruise missiles and 18 countries manufacture them. Most of the cruise missiles currently in world arsenals are designed for attacking ships at sea, but more countries are acquiring land-attack cruise missiles such as the U.S. Tomahawk that can strike deep into the interior of an enemy nation.
Cruise missiles have long posed a danger to U.S. forces overseas. In recent years, though, the U.S. intelligence community and independent analysts have speculated that cruise missiles could become a potent threat to the U.S. homeland. Such weapons are relatively inexpensive to build or buy, difficult to intercept in flight, and easy to conceal in a variety of launch modes (including trucks and container ships). New technologies — global positioning receivers, compact gas turbine engines, composite aerostructures — are available to virtually any state or non-state actor wishing to fashion a precise and lethal cruise missile. Analysts reason that land-attack cruise missiles might provide adversaries with a novel means of attacking the U.S. against which defense would be very difficult. Homeland defense against cruise missiles is difficult because of the vast amount of airspace and littoral waters that must be monitored, the numerous launch modes and paths of approach that might be exploited, the minimal visibility of attacking weapons, and the possibility of many weapons being launched at the same time. Experts generally agree that the most effective defensive architecture is likely to be a layered system of multiple tiers that (1) effectively disseminates relevant intelligence, (2) constantly surveils potential attack corridors, (3) quickly distinguishes threatening and non-threatening vehicles, (4) continuously tracks threatening vehicles despite variations in weather and terrain, (5) effectively engages incoming weapons far from their intended targets, and (6) achieves high reliability and resilience through an integrated battle management network.
Most of the relevant assets and experience for fashioning such a system reside within the individual military services, which have developed defenses for protecting forward-deployed forces against cruise missiles. The U.S. Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and the Joint Theater Air and Missile Defense Organization (JTAMDO) are the lead agencies responsible for formulating joint doctrine and operating concepts that could support a national defense against cruise missiles. An effective national defense would require the integration of military capabilities usually dedicated to other missions with the relevant assets of various domestic agencies such as the Federal Aviation Administration and the Coast Guard.
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