The Complex

Cruise Missiles: Everyone's Building Them

It's bad enough that the United States is losing its monopoly on drones, stealth technology, and advanced electronic warfare gear. But what makes matters worse is that America is also beginning to losing its edge on a particularly deadly and effective weapon, according to a new U.S. Air Force report: long-range "land attack" cruise missiles.

Modern cruise missiles are basically jet-powered drones capable of hiding from enemy radar by flying along the nap of the Earth or even taking circuitous routes to evade enemy air defenses before exploding when they reach their targets.

The Tomahawk is America's land-attack cruise missile, or LACM. For the last 30 years, it has been one of the U.S. military's most effective weapons in kicking down the air defenses of its enemies. The latest version of the Tomahawk uses GPS, video cameras, and satellite communications -- allowing commanders to reroute the missile in flight. This lets the Tomahawk hunt down a target whose exact location isn't known when the missile is launched. The U.S. Navy is even working on fielding small drones than can work with Tomahawks in hunter-killer teams.

However, the success of the Tomahawk -- thousands of which have been launched in anger -- at taking out targets has made the world jealous.

"The success of U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles has heightened interest in cruise missile acquisition in many countries," states the document. "At least nine foreign countries will be involved in LACM production over the next decade, and several LACM producers will make their missiles available for export."

Until the last 15 years or so, only the United States, Russia, Britain, and a handful of others possessed such weapons. Now, a host of nations around the globe -- including France, the United Arab Emirates, Germany, Sweden, Spain, India, Pakistan, South Africa, Taiwan, and Iran -- are developing a new generation of stealth cruise missiles. If they work as planned, they'll be able to penetrate the latest air defenses -- defenses that can stop a Tomahawk. And that means trouble for the United States, the Air Force warns.

"U.S. defense systems could be severely stressed by low-flying stealthy cruise missiles that can simultaneously attack a target from several directions," reads the document.

"Newer missiles are incorporating stealth features to make them even less visible to radars and infrared detectors. Modern cruise missiles can also be programmed to approach and attack a target in the most efficient manner. For example, multiple missiles can attack a target simultaneously from different directions, overwhelming air defenses at their weakest points," the report adds. "Some developmental systems may incorporate chaff or decoys as an added layer of protection."

As that last sentence points out, modern cruise missiles really are suicide drones, equipped with most of the features we see in modern combat aircraft: jet engines, stealth technology, radar, satellite communications, video sensors, and countermeasures. For decades, the United States was miles ahead in each of those areas. Now, the lead is shrinking.

Wikimedia Commons

National Security

The Navy's Stealth Drone is Stuck at the Beach

The X-47B stealth drone that made history yesterday after landing aboard an aircraft carrier is today sitting on a little-known NASA airfield on the Virginia coast after it had to cancel a third landing aboard the ship.

One of the Northrop Grumman-made jet's three, redundant navigation computers failed as the plane was on final approach, four miles behind the carrier. That caused it to automatically "wave off" and fly above the carrier, awaiting instructions from its human supervisors.

The people in charge of the jet chose to order the plane to immediately land at Wallops Island spaceport (the airfield is actually on the mainland) -- the planned landing site for the jet if any problems were encountered during yesterday's flight tests, conducted about 80 miles off the coast of Virginia. (The ship was crowded with onlookers, and service officials wanted to take no chances with getting a multi-ton flying robot to land on a 200-foot floating runway.)

The plane will now sit at Wallops until the Navy can fly it back to its home station across the Chesapeake Bay at Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland. Navy officials hope to get the jet there before Monday so they can do another round of flight tests aboard the carrier. If they can't figure out what went wrong with "Salty Dog 502," they'll have to use its twin, Salty Dog 501, for Monday's tests.

Engineers are "working through the data right now," said Carl Johnson, Northrop Grumman's program manager for the drone, during a phone call with reporters on July 11.

Johnson said it was likely a "minor issue" that can be resolved by resetting the drone's computers.

Still, it doesn't sound like the Navy knows exactly when the jet will leave the airstrip at the little known rocket-launching site on coastal Virginia.

"The conversation on how and when we get 502 out of Wallops is an active, dynamic, and ongoing engineering discussion to determine the best path forward for that," said Rear Admiral Mat Winter, the Navy's top officer for drone development. "We're gonna launch air vehicle 2 [502] out of Wallops island and bring it back to Pax River when the weather's appropriate, when I have the right people."

Still, this is a sign that the jet's systems performed correctly, even when something went wrong. Remember, the Navy doesn't have humans remotely controlling these stealthy drones. Instead, humans simply tell the planes to execute certain missions or tasks like landing; the drones figure out how to perform them. In this case, the plane knew something was wrong with itself and called off its own landing and reported the problem to its handlers. This is the future of unmanned warfare: jets that fly missions on their own, working with humans instead of directly controlled by them.

U.S. Navy