By Howard “Dallas” Thompson Recent Russian aggressiveness around the world, combined with an increasingly widespread understanding of their burgeoning weapons systems capabilities and proliferation, has caused the Combatant Command responsible for the defense of the nation to seek congressional support to counter these threats. In the coming weeks and months Congress will debate whether to support a special funding request designed to better protect the U.S. homeland from attack. This ask — known as an Urgent Operational Need from the Commander of Northern Command — is a fairly common practice, and yet its implications may impact Americans across large swaths of our country.
The specific need is for the fleet of Air Force F-16s to be retrofitted with an advanced radar capable of detecting and shooting down cruise missiles — an Airborne Electronically Scanned Array radar. Congress must work smartly and quickly to help field this critical capability. Here’s why.
While some believe they can in a timely manner clearly divine enemy intent, and thus do not feel compelled to act until the winds of hostility shift, the fact is that rarely do we foresee enemy intent in time to field new capabilities. Instead, military professionals have been trained to focus on enemy “capability” vice intent, as intent can change, and often does, overnight. Apparently, recent Russian misbehavior seems to have finally garnered the Pentagon leadership’s attention to spur action.
In addition to substantial improvements in range and stealth, Russian cruise missile technology has significantly improved with respect to guidance and targeting capabilities. Russian cruise missiles no longer require to be launched from relatively predictable “shoot boxes” over mapped terrain close to our shores. They can now launch from virtually anywhere and a thousand miles or more from our coastlines, vastly complicating our defensive problem.
Additionally, the Russians are attempting to “desensitize” us to their presence by an ever increasing number of flights at distances close to our shorelines not seen since the Cold War. This dangerous combination of significantly enhanced capability and overt aggression simply cannot be ignored.
That’s where the Urgent Operational Need funding request from NORTHCOM comes in. It is critical to get the most prolific homeland defense aircraft — the F-16 — an AESA radar, but it must be done right.
While this radar retrofit is indeed urgent, it is also too important to be done haphazardly. We must be able to do it both right and fast. In order to ensure the best possible equipment for our warfighters, competition for the contract award would be wise, but must and can be done in an accelerated fashion to rapidly field the critical counter cruise missile capability to our air defense fighters.
A competed F-16 AESA radar retrofit would, in fact, provide substantial quality, quantity, responsiveness, and versatility to a “family of systems” needed to counter the cruise missile threat. As such, any radar fielded must be fully integrable with existing command and control and data links to ensure complete interoperability with the counter-cruise missile “family of systems”. This systemic family necessarily includes persistent radar surveillance and weapon cueing, a capability currently represented by the Army’s Joint Land Elevated Netted Sensor, or JLENS. US Navy Aegis radar capable ships and their Standard Missile-6 are also needed along with fighters to provide a fully capable layered defense.
Fortunately in the short term, we can mitigate the threat by temporarily tasking the relatively small number of AESA capable F-15C fighters with air defense alert duty at Andrews AFB, MD, to ensure enhanced protection for the nation’s capital. This would provide a little “breathing space” for NORTHCOM, the DoD acquisition process, and industry to arrive at the best possible solution. Those F-16s at Andrews currently shouldering alert duties for the national capital region, which they have done in an incredibly stellar fashion, should be the first to be retrofitted with AESA radars.
Action is long overdue. Tight budget constraints make the F-16 - AESA radar the best solution for the mission in the short and mid-term. Congress should support the NORTHCOM request but do so smartly. It must ensure taxpayer dollars go to the best equipment possible while simultaneously demanding the Pentagon acquisition machine work quickly to field this critically required cruise missile capability. Congress, therefore, needs to fully fund and direct a swift competition that ensures the best value for taxpayers and the absolute best capability for our warfighters.
Retired Maj. Gen. Howard “Dallas” Thompson is a former chief of staff for NORAD/NORTHCOM and Air Force fighter pilot. See photos, follies, HOH Hits and Misses and more at Roll Call's new video site. Get breaking news alerts and more from Roll Call in your inbox or on your iPhone.