CNS Testimony

Testimony of

DENNIS M. GORMLEY
Senior Fellow
Monterey Institute's Center for Nonproliferation Studies
Before the
Subcommittee on National Security, Emerging Threats, and International Affairs
Of the
U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Reform

March 9, 2004

Mr. Chairman, members of the committee, I am honored to appear before you today to help illuminate how cruise missiles and unmanned air vehicles (UAVs) pose a threat that could affect both U.S. interests abroad and the American homeland. The timing of this hearing and the release of the GAO report on improvements needed to better control technology exports for cruise missiles and UAVs could not come at a more propitious moment. We are at a crucial turning point in the proliferation of cruise missiles and UAVs--one precipitated by events during Operation Iraqi Freedom as well as by growing evidence of terrorist plans for using UAVs.[*]

Military events during Operation Iraqi Freedom demonstrated America's extraordinary capacity to deliver offensive firepower with unprecedented effectiveness. Yet, the performance of missile defenses was not nearly as impressive. To be sure, Patriot missile batteries performed immensely better than they did during the first Gulf war: all nine of Iraq's most threatening ballistic missile launches were successfully intercepted and destroyed. But the second Gulf war saw the first use of enemy land-attack cruise missiles against Patriot in combat. American and Kuwaiti Patriot batteries failed to detect any of Iraq's low-flying cruise missiles, one of which came perilously close to striking a U.S. Marine encampment on the war's opening day. What's more, at least two Iraqi ultralight aircraft--which were feared capable of carrying chemical or biological agents--were detected only after flying over thousands of U.S. troops, equipment, and command facilities prior to a U.S. Army division's advance on Baghdad. Iraq's use of cruise missiles and slow-flying air vehicles, which were manned but needn't have been, also contributed to the Patriot's unfortunate series of friendly-fire incidents, two of which led to the loss of two coalition aircraft and the deaths of three crew members.

The poor performance of Patriot missile defenses against cruise missiles, including the related problem of friendly-fire casualties, should not have come as a big surprise. In a report issued just before the second Gulf war, the Senate Armed Services Committee stated that the Pentagon's "longstanding" combat identification and friendly-force tracking weaknesses were not being rectified "in the most expeditious manner." These longstanding weaknesses, however, have less to do with Patriot's combat identification flaws than with the absence of fully integrated service data links and target-tracking techniques, otherwise known as the Single Integrated Air Picture (SIAP). Thus, pinning blame on Patriot alone is unwarranted. In a February 22 broadcast, the CBS news magazine 60 Minutes did precisely that by ignoring the impact that low-flying cruise missile threats had on Patriot's unfortunate friendly-fire incidents. The news magazine essentially branded Patriot as the exclusive culprit in causing the deaths of three aircrew members, the loss of two aircraft, and the destruction of a Patriot radar after it had mistakenly "painted" a U.S. Air Force F-16, which promptly destroyed the radar station to protect itself from a Patriot interceptor. Focusing myopically on Patriot alone, particularly the problematic performance of positive electronic means and procedural tactics, overlooks the fact that these combat identification techniques operate with low reliability when missile batteries are faced with the challenge of positively identifying low-flying cruise missiles, steep-trajectory ballistic missiles, and returning friendly aircraft. Simulated friendly-fire incidents have been disconcertingly high, often producing friendly attrition levels of 10-20% or more. Thus, fixing Patriot's combat identification flaws alone will produce inconsequential results without a broader attendance to the need for radically improved cruise missile defenses.

Although 60 Minutes disparaged Patriot's poor performance against ballistic missiles during the first Gulf war, it never posed the question why, in spite of Patriot's poor performance in 1991, its radars never once confused a returning friendly aircraft for an enemy missile, as occurred during the second Gulf war. The reason why Patriot experienced no friendly-fire casualties in 1991 was because coalition air forces quickly eliminated Iraq's air force and Iraq possessed no cruise missiles, small airplanes, or UAVs to confuse Patriot's radars. Thus, missile defense batteries could afford to establish highly restrictive rules of engagement, which effectively shut down missile defense batteries against everything but the ballistic missile threat. Because a cruise missile and UAV threat had materialized during the second Gulf war, comparably narrow rules of engagement were apparently not implemented, producing the results pre-war simulations predicted would occur.

Of course, Patriot missile defense interceptors are theoretically capable of shooting down low-flying cruise missiles, but the horizon limits of their own ground-based radar mean that a Patriot unit would not see a low-flying cruise missile until it had closed to within 35 kilometers or less of the battery. This explains why after the war, Dr. William Schneider, Chairman of the Pentagon's Defense Science Board, called for integrating airborne sensors like AWACS with Patriot units to improve chances of detecting and intercepting such threats. Surely, establishing communications between AWACS and Patriot batteries is a step in the right direction, but much more needs to be done as cruise missiles and UAV spread. Implementing an effective SIAP depends importantly on better airborne sensors for detecting low- and slow-flying cruise missiles and UAVs. The kind of high-quality fire-control sensors slated for integration into the U.S. Air Force's Multi-Sensor Command and Control Aircraft (MC2A) would radically alter and dramatically improve the currently service-centric approach to controlling the fires of missile defense batteries, whereby each missile is guided to its target by its own ground-based, horizon-limited radar. Operating as a centralized command and control system, MC2A could conceivably extend the range capability of ground-based interceptors much beyond their current horizon-limited performance levels. High-quality airborne sensors would also greatly reduce friendly-fire casualties, as potential targets, friend and foe alike, would be identified and tracked over great distances afforded by a platform flying at 35,000 feet altitude. But such an airborne platform may not be fielded for another decade, assuming it survives the inevitable battles associated with defense budget priorities.

In the meantime, America's adversaries are bound to draw important lessons from the performance of U.S. missile defenses against Iraq. Referring to Iraq's use of cruise missiles, the chief-of-staff of the 32nd Army Air and Missile Defense Command told the New York Times "this was a glimpse of future threats. It is a poor man's air force. A thinking enemy will use uncommon means such as cruise missiles and unmanned aerial vehicles on multiple fronts." At least two reasons account for why we should anticipate an acceleration of interest in acquiring cruise missiles and UAVs. First, countries wishing to deter U.S. military interventions were unlikely to invest heavily in cruise missiles until American missile defenses performed decisively better against ballistic missiles than they did during the 1991 Gulf war. Patriot's success against Iraq ballistic missiles in 2003 coupled with problems coping with cruise missile attacks increases the incentive to acquire difficult-to-defend against cruise missiles and UAVs. Second, America's adversaries are likely to appreciate the operational advantages of combining ballistic and cruise missiles launches to maximize the probability of penetrating even the best American missile defenses. Converting small airplanes or UAVs into weapons carrying "missiles" offers a particularly attractive poor man's option. When these, in large numbers, are combined with more expensive and sophisticated ballistic and cruise missiles, they raise the stakes enormously for American missile defenses. Consider, for example, the dire and unfavorable cost-exchange arithmetic associated with current U.S. missile defenses and conceivable adversary missile threats. The guidance upgrade alone on the PAC-2 Guidance Enhanced Missile costs $400,000 per missile, and each new PAC-3 interceptor costs $3.5M. A flock of cruise missiles or converted airplanes several orders of magnitude cheaper could readily saturate most economically feasible missile defense architectures. Thus, controlling the quantitative spread of cruise missiles and UAVs through improved nonproliferation policies is an absolute necessity to guarantee confidence in our missile defense expenditures.

Saturation with cheap cruise missiles or UAVs is of less concern when we consider terrorist use of such systems against the U.S. homeland. Were an attack to involve delivery of a weapon of mass destruction, one successful strike against the American homeland--particularly a major urban target--could have devastating consequences. Due to its aerodynamic stability and capacity to release agent along a line of contamination, a cruise missile or UAV is much effective than a ballistic missile in delivering chemical or biological payloads (conservatively enlarging the lethal area for biological attacks by at least ten times).

Analysts of the missile threat to the United States focus on "range rings" to show the distance beyond a nation's borders that its missiles can reach. But UAVs essentially destroy the relevance of range rings. Cruise missiles or UAVs might be launched from concealed locations at modest distances from their targets, or brought within range and launched from freighters or commercial container ships--in effect, a "two stage" form of delivery. Al Qaeda is believed to possess at least 15 freighters. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, key U.S. decisionmakers began to take such two-stage threats more seriously. The 2002 National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) on the ballistic missile threat to the United States drew attention to the covert conversion of a commercial container ship as a launching pad for a cruise missile. Even a large, bulky cruise missile like the ones Iraq used to fire at coalition forces last year could be equipped with a small internal erector for launching and still fit comfortably in a standard 12-meter shipping container. Indeed, the 2002 NIE argues that because such a delivery system, among several others, is less costly, easier to acquire, and more reliable than an intercontinental ballistic missile, a cruise missile attack against the American homeland is more likely to occur than a ballistic missile attack.

Making matters worse from a missile defense standpoint, a terrorist group might wish to convert a small kit airplane into an autonomous delivery system, which could be launched from locations near their intended target. The development approach would be similar to a state wishing to create a poor man's air force of cruise missiles. Larger than the ultralights used by Iraq last year, kit airplanes could be converted at substantially less cost, with less significant engineering prowess, and fewer steps--and thus less chance of failure--than either converting anti-ship cruise missiles, as Iraq did, or small reconnaissance or target drones, into land-attack systems. From a worldwide list of manufacturers, a terrorist group could choose from among nearly 500 well-tested designs, many with ranges exceeding 600 miles, payloads of 400 pounds, football-field takeoff distances from soft, grassy areas, and stall speeds of under 80 knots. Such slow speeds actually furnish an advantage as many of our sophisticated lookdown airborne and ground-based air defense radars eliminate slow-moving target on or near the ground to prevent their data processing and display systems from becoming overtaxed. This means that propeller-driven kit airplanes flying under knots per hour would be ignored as potential targets.

The notion that a terrorist group might entertain using a UAV is by no means far-fetched. One recent accounting of terrorist activity notes 43 recorded cases involving 14 terrorist groups in which remote-controlled delivery systems were "either threatened, developed or actually utilized," including al Qaeda plans to use unmanned airplanes to kill leaders at the 2002 G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy. Moreover, according to the London Independent newspaper, a British national held at Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, has confessed to being part of an al Qaeda plot to acquire a drone to attack the House of Commons with anthrax. Such threats may explain why member states of the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR) and Wassenaar Arrangement have pledged to strengthen efforts to limit the risk of controlled items and their technologies from falling into the hands of terrorist groups and individual.

The challenges and potential costs of defending the homeland against both offshore and domestic cruise missile threats are considerable. The North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD) is currently studying the idea of an unmanned airship operating at an altitude of 65,000 feet and carrying sensors to monitor and detect offshore low-flying cruise missiles. Several such airships would be needed together with fast-moving interceptors to cope with perceived threats. Perhaps 100 aerostats at an altitude of 15,000 feet could act as a complementary or alternative system of surveillance and fire control for an interceptor fleet. Still, other problems remain. Someway is needed of providing warning information to the Coast Guard on potentially hostile ships embarking from ports of concern. Missile threat sensor data must be capable of distinguishing between friendly traffic and enemy threats, prior to threat engagement. Progress in national cruise missile defense will not be made without corresponding improvements to respective service programs, foremost in implementing the SIAP program. The question of affordability looms large. Even a limited defense against offshore cruise missiles would cost $30-40 billion. Finally, none of these costs or technical challenges pertains to improved defenses against domestic threats. In the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, NORAD had no internal air picture--nor were its radar assets linked with those of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which controls internal US-air traffic. Progress towards making such linkages has occurred but major gaps remain, especially when dealing with the detection of low- and slow-flying air targets. One area showing particular promise, not least because of its potential affordability, is the exploitation of the nation's existing High Definition Television infrastructure to detect, track, and classify such low-flying threats. Still, the nation will remain ill prepared to cope with such threats for the foreseeable future. As a NORAD test director commented after a 2001 counter-terrorism exercise in which a simulated cruise missile is launched from a merchant ship in the Gulf of Mexico, "we are naked . . . [and] have no capacity to deal with that kind of problem."

How can more effective nonproliferation policies help constrain the kinds of threats discussed above? First, to the extent that the administration takes seriously the GAO's excellent set of recommendations, stronger compliance with existing export control provisions governing transfers of cruise missiles, UAVs, and related technologies should result. Moreover, it is imperative that the current catch-all provision be broadened to capture potential transfers of items of greatest significance for cruise missiles and UAVs that are not currently on the Commerce Control List. While the executive branch should be congratulated for taking the initiative to revise the MTCR's control lists of sensitive missile-related equipment and technology related to cruise missile and UAV technology, there is another initiative that should be taken to address the threats I have outlined in my testimony.

This initiative bears on the control of flight control systems specially designed to transform manned aircraft or radio-controlled UAVs into completely autonomous systems. In its letter to the GAO commenting on its report, the Department of Commerce tries to make an important distinction "between threats posed by a rudimentary UAV that is radio-controlled and operates only in line of sight, versus a cruise missile with a range of 1000 km and payload of 1000 kg." Of course, a cruise missile or UAV needn't possess a payload capacity of 1000 kg to achieve catastrophic damage; if a biological agent were involved, a fraction of that capacity could produce devastating effects. But such a UAV needn't be constrained by line-of-sight control, either. A small number of new aerospace firms have emerged in the last five years to sell fully integrated flight control systems that permit an air vehicle to be flown either by remote control or fully autonomously over great distances. At present, no export controls govern the sale of these flight control systems either to states or individuals. These firms not only sell a complete flight control solution, but also furnish services to help in the integration effort. The most significant technical challenge facing any terrorist group wishing to convert a small kit airplane into a terrorist UAV is building and integrating a flight control system, along with servo-controls and actuators, into the air vehicle to fly it autonomously over the desired range. If that can be achieved readily, a seemingly rudimentary radio-controlled UAV or a kit airplane could be transformed into a system capable of achieving strategic impact.

The U.S. unsuccessfully attempted to introduce a measure of control over such technology when it introduced an "anti-terrorism" proposal to the Wassenaar Arrangement in early 2003. Expressing concern about the possible terrorist use of kit airplanes or other manned civil aircraft as "poor man's" UAVs, the U.S. proposal sought export control reviews and international notifications for all equipment, systems, and specially designed components that would enable these airplanes to be converted into UAVs. It is my understanding that the proposal failed to produce a consensus for implementation because it was viewed as insufficiently specific with respect to precisely what technology was to be controlled. Executive branch authorities should redirect their efforts toward redrafting this proposal with the intention of controlling variable autonomy flight control systems that enable unmanned and manned aircraft to fly autonomously over long distances. Moreover, the proposal should be introduced not only within the Wassenaar Arrangement, but also within the MTCR. In contrast to the Wassenaar Arrangement, the MTCR possesses strong denial rules and no-undercut provisions, which provide for a greater degree of effectiveness in controlling unwanted transfers. Implementation of such a proposed measure would serve to make the terrorist's job of transforming a kit airplane or small radio-controlled UAV into fully autonomous delivery far more problematic than it is today.


[*] For a detailed elaboration of these issues, see Dennis M. Gormley, "Missile Defence Myopia: Lessons from the Iraq War," Survival, vol. 45, no. 4 (Winter, 2003-04), pp. 61-86, available at http://cns.miis.edu/research/missile.htm.


Author(s): Dennis M. Gormley
Related Resources: Missile, Testimony
Date Created: March 10, 2004
Date Updated: -NA-
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