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

Russian President Vladimir Putin poses inside a cruise missile-equipped Tu-160 strategic bomber in 2005. The United States is working "very hard" to bolster its defenses against potential cruise-missile threats from the Gulf of Mexico, a senior military official said last week.
National Journal
Diane Barnes
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Diane Barnes
March 21, 2014, 9:39 a.m.

The United States is puzz­ling over how to block cruise mis­siles that the­or­et­ic­ally could be launched from the Gulf of Mex­ico, even after throw­ing some of its most ad­vanced tech­no­lo­gies at the prob­lem.

Rus­sia and Ir­an have been cited as pos­sible threats that might, at some point, lurk in the wa­ters just off U.S. shores.

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.

The ef­fort is housed with­in the Pentagon’s Joint Test and Eval­u­ation pro­gram, which aims to ad­dress “op­er­a­tion­al de­fi­cien­cies” in mil­it­ary pre­pared­ness, ac­cord­ing to in­form­a­tion re­leased by the Pentagon.

“The idea is to cobble to­geth­er enough stuff [so] that maybe something will work. But none of these sys­tems were de­signed for cruise-mis­sile de­fense,” King­ston Re­if, an ana­lyst with the Cen­ter for Arms Con­trol and Non­pro­lif­er­a­tion, said in an e-mail.

Cruise mis­siles can be par­tic­u­larly chal­len­ging to de­fend against, as they can be more dif­fi­cult than air­craft to de­tect on radar and are some­times tricky to shoot down, ac­cord­ing to mil­it­ary ex­perts.

A 2013 U.S. mil­it­ary in­tel­li­gence re­port fore­cas­ted that cruise mis­siles would spread in­to more hands over the com­ing dec­ade. The doc­u­ment also hints at the abil­ity to evade de­fenses de­signed against bal­list­ic mis­siles.

“Cruise mis­siles can fly at low alti­tudes to stay be­low en­emy radar and, in some cases, hide be­hind ter­rain fea­tures. New­er mis­siles are in­cor­por­at­ing stealth fea­tures to make them even less vis­ible to radars and in­frared de­tect­ors,” says the 2013 as­sess­ment by the Na­tion­al Air and Space In­tel­li­gence Cen­ter.

Cruz’s of­fice did not re­spond to re­quests to dis­cuss his spe­cif­ic con­cerns about po­ten­tial at­tack risks fa­cing the United States from the Gulf of Mex­ico. His com­ments came, though, in the wake of some oth­er pub­lic dis­cus­sion of pos­sible threats of this kind.

Ir­an last month an­nounced it in­ten­ded to de­ploy war­ships near the U.S. mari­time bor­der, prompt­ing heightened dis­cus­sion of the Middle East­ern na­tion’s grow­ing mil­it­ary cap­ab­il­it­ies.

At last week’s hear­ing, Jac­oby also spoke to Mo­scow’s cruise-mis­sile cap­ab­il­it­ies.

Re­spond­ing to a ques­tion from Sen­at­or Jeff Ses­sions (R-Ala.), the North­ern Com­mand lead­er said the United States has been “track­ing for a num­ber of years Rus­sia’s con­tin­ued in­vest­ment in im­proved cruise mis­sile tech­no­logy.”

The Krem­lin has armed its bomber air­craft with cruise mis­siles for dec­ades, he noted.

“They also are cap­able of in­tro­du­cing cruise mis­siles in­to a theat­er from sub­mar­ines,” said Jac­oby, without elab­or­at­ing on the spe­cif­ic re­gions to which these ves­sels could de­ploy. “They’ve just be­gun pro­duc­tion of a new class of quiet nuc­le­ar sub­mar­ines spe­cific­ally de­signed to de­liv­er cruise mis­siles.”

One 2012 news art­icle quotes U.S. gov­ern­ment in­siders as­sert­ing that a Rus­si­an sub­mar­ine equipped with cruise mis­siles had evaded de­tec­tion for weeks in the Gulf of Mex­ico. However, the De­fense De­part­ment denied the con­ten­tions de­scribed in the Wash­ing­ton Free Beacon re­port.

The fisc­al 2014 de­fense au­thor­iz­a­tion bill, en­acted in Decem­ber, man­dates a U.S. de­fense fo­cus on “bal­list­ic mis­siles that could be launched from ves­sels on the seas around the United States, in­clud­ing the Gulf of Mex­ico.”

Jac­oby said the in­creased fo­cus on cruise-mis­sile de­fense took shape well over a year ago, at the dir­ec­tion of then-De­fense Sec­ret­ary Le­on Pan­etta.

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