The four-star Air Force general in charge of Northern Command (NORTHCOM) and North American Aerospace Defense Command told an audience in New Orleans this week that the U.S. “homeland is no longer a sanctuary.”

Air Force Gen. Terrence O’Shaughnessy, at the end of his speech to the 140th National Guard Association Conference, said that increasing great power competition means that the American homeland is much more vulnerable today than ever before.

Peer or at least near-peer adversaries are actively probing U.S. defenses across multiple domains, leaving the continental United States well within the range of a number of weapons systems.

“We’re in a changing security environment,” O’Shaughnessy said. “We used to think about the sanctuary we had with oceans and friendly countries to our north and south, but that’s changing with adversaries that are actually able to reach out and touch us now.”

The NORTHCOM commander’s concerns match up with those of Defense Secretary James Mattis, who laid out similar concerns in the new National Defense Strategy.

The document calls for the U.S. military to move away from preparing for low-intensity conflicts such as those in Iraq and Afghanistan which have dominated U.S. military involvement over the past 17-plus years, and reorient the force towards great power conflict with peers like Russia and China.

“We have to think about our defense in different ways than we have in the past. That means we need to fundamentally re-think when we say homeland defense how we’re going to do that against a peer competitor,” O’Shaughnessy said.

“A good example is the new AESA radars we’re trying to put in the F-16s, and we’re making progress on [it]” — a reference to Northrop Grumman’s APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar with an active electronically scanned array, or AESA, which the Pentagon seeks to outfit 72 Air National Guard F-16s in the coming years.

The radars are not needed for traditional home-defense missions like interdicting hijacked airliners, but rather for detecting cruise missiles.

Analyst comment: O’Shaughnessy’s comments should not be taken to mean that, ‘for the first time ever,’ the U.S. homeland is within range of enemy systems. Nuclear-tipped ICBMs have been around since Russia deployed them in the late 1950s.

Rather, the NORTHCOM commander is saying that additional conventional and nuclear systems like hypersonic glide missiles, sub-launched ballistic missiles, and other conventional and non-conventional threats are increasingly capable of piercing U.S. defenses should they be utilized to strike the American homeland.

Russia is a known quantity, but Moscow continues to build new systems and upgrade older ones to make them more capable and less detectable. China, meanwhile, is also rapidly modernizing its military forces, including the addition of new nuclear weapons-equipped ballistic missile submarines and stealth fighters. 

All in all, the threat to the American homeland today is no longer mitigated by two oceans and friendly neighbors to the north and south. O’Shaughnessy — and Mattis — are attempting to reorient the U.S. military to this new reality and prepare it to fight near-peer foes.

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