Drones and cruise missiles are a growing threat to US troops and territory, Pentagon says

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Drones and cruise missiles are increasingly threatening the United States and its allies, the Biden administration said in its new assessment of the global missile threat.

The Missile Defense Review, released Thursday, comes as kamikaze drones are increasingly being used in the conflict in Ukraine.

“Use of drones is likely to increase and continue to pose a threat to US personnel abroad, allies and partners, and potentially the US homeland,” the report said.

Missile defense assessments conducted by the Trump administration in 2019 and the Obama administration in 2010 did not single out drones, also called unmanned aerial systems.

Drones “are an inexpensive, accessible, flexible, expendable, and plausibly deniable means of conducting armed attacks and projecting outsized power over a wide range of areas,” the report said. “Accelerating technology trends continue to transform applications of UAS, making them increasingly powerful platforms in the hands of state and non-state actors.”

Russia has used Iranian drones to attack Ukrainian infrastructure. Meanwhile, the US has been supplying Ukraine with switchblade kamikaze drones, also known as loitering munitions. Drones have also been used to attack Saudi oil refineries.

Drones “can have a similar lethality to cruise missiles and can be launched virtually undetected from a variety of locations,” the report says. They “are not generally perceived by adversaries as having the same destabilizing geostrategic effects as larger missile forces, making them an increasingly preferred method of conducting tactical-level attacks.”

The Pentagon will “commit to reviewing technical solutions” to counter drones and cruise missiles, a senior defense official said Thursday ahead of the review’s release.

Numerous defense contractors demonstrated counter-drone technology earlier this month during the Association of the US Army’s annual meeting and exhibition in Washington.

“Russia has indiscriminately deployed thousands of offensive missiles in Ukraine, mainly not for military precision purposes, but instead has long-range terror weapons to inflict terrible suffering on innocent civilians,” the senior defense official said. “Their use of missiles in Ukraine shows that we should expect these weapons to become a common feature of conflicts in the 21st century.”

The Missile Defense Review also noted the threat of cruise missile attacks to the US mainland and called for the development of “active and passive countermeasures against regional hypersonic missile threats.” Hypersonic weapons can fly and maneuver faster than five times the speed of sound, much like a cruise missile. The Pentagon will “track a durable and resilient sensor network to characterize and track all hypersonic threats, improve attribution, and enable engagement,” the report said.

The review also advocates building a sophisticated defensive shield to protect Guam, a key logistical hub and base for US military aircraft and ships, from a Chinese missile attack. The report also states that an attack on Guam would be met with the same response to an attack on the US mainland.

The Missile Defense Review can be seen as “a step forward from previous reviews in several ways,” said Tom Karako, missile defense expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

“It corrects several deficiencies of the 2019 review, including insufficient attention to integration, air defense layering for cruise missiles and [drone] threats and survivability,” he said. “While the public version of the review leaves a few things to be desired, it advances several critical mission areas: a comprehensive approach to missile defense, homeland defense against cruise missiles, defense of Guam, and distributed operations.”

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