WASHINGTON — A “vastly different” design for homeland defense is in the works at U.S. Northern Command, its leader said during a May 9 hearing before the Senate Strategic Forces Subcommittee.
Air Force Gen. Glen VanHerck noted he’d already recommended to the Pentagon a plan to change overall policy for homeland defense. But in addition to that, “I’m also in the middle of developing what I call ‘Homeland Defense Design 2035,’ ” he said, “which gets after … a new way of defending the homeland, and that’s vastly different than the way we do it today with fighters, tankers, [airborne warning and control systems aircraft], those kinds of things.”
NORTHCOM is responsible for guarding the continental United States. North American Aerospace Defense Command, which is housed with NORTHCOM, combines U.S. and Canadian efforts to monitor and protect North American airspace.
Part of NORTHCOM’s design will come up with a modernization plan for the North Warning System, a joint early-warning radar system with Canada that provides air surveillance for North America across the polar region and was built in the 1980s to replace the Distant Early Warning Line system.
“The department hasn’t made a decision on the modernization of the North Warning System or further replacement of the radars associated with the North Warning System,” VanHerck said, but that will be “part of the relook at homeland defense and the policy study ongoing right now.”
U.S. adversaries’ rapidly maturing technologies and capabilities are threatening the homeland in new ways, including hypersonic weapons and cruise missiles. In February, a Chinese surveillance balloon floated across the United States. As a result of these growing threats, the U.S. is rethinking its approach for detection and response to possible threats on the homeland.
NORTHCOM and NORAD must embrace “future types of systems” that in the past may have sounded like science fiction, VanHerck said earlier this year at a congressional hearing on the fiscal 2024 budget request.
“I think the future of homeland defense is vastly different than what we see today,” he said at the time. “It’s likely including autonomous platforms, airborne, maritime platforms, unmanned platforms with domain awareness sensors, and effectors that are kinetic and non-kinetic.”
Autonomous and uncrewed systems could linger and observe for extended periods of time, providing a steady feed of information that can then be evaluated for threats. They could also park in places considered too risky or complicated for troops to be in-person, he described.
The command is also heavily involved in discussions on over-the-horizon radar with Canada, VanHerck said at the May 9 hearing, which will enhance situational awareness in defense of the homeland.
VanHerck stressed that over-the-horizon radar is not “the end-all, be-all solution that will give me domain awareness further away from the homeland.”
While he is “still confident” in the military’s ability to detect balloons like the one from China, VanHerck said there must be a link between over-the-horizon radars, and that data needs to channel properly to an “endgame effector.”
This requires additional domain awareness, a well-built infrastructure of radars and sensors, and the ability to pass data across an integrated air and missile defense system that can lead to neutralizing threats, he explained.
“I’m not focused on an endgame kinetic kill,” VanHerck said. “I’m focused primarily on the policy for what we must have, [an] endgame kinetic kill, but more broadly for developing capabilities such as the use of electromagnetic spectrum, non-kinetic effectors to deny and deceive, and limited-area or wide-area defense capabilities to include the use of autonomous unmanned platforms with domain awareness capabilities that could be maritime and airborne.”
Colin Demarest contributed to this report.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.