By Thomas Karako
Space is the place for a variety of missile defense tasks–including launch detection, tracking, discrimination, intercept, and kill assessment.
Ballistic missiles travel in space, and the missile defense task is by definition largely a challenge in and through the space domain. For all but very short range missiles, a considerable part of the ballistic trajectory is spent in space, after the motors burn out and before the warhead re-enters the atmosphere. Exoatmospheric midcourse intercept is the exclusive realm for two of the four currently deployed U.S. missile defense programs, Aegis Standard Missile-3 and Ground-based Midcourse Defense.
Space is thus the place for a variety of missile defense tasks — including launch detection, tracking, discrimination, intercept, and kill assessment. Space-based sensor concepts have been underway since the beginning of the missile age, from the early Missile Defense Alarm System, to Brilliant Eyes, to more recent efforts such as the Space Tracking and Surveillance System demonstrators. It is therefore unfortunate that U.S. funding for space- and near-space missile defense assets is at an all-time low. It may be time to reverse that trend and renew efforts for a space sensor layer. The concept of a “layered” defense applies, after all, not just to interceptors, but also to sensors.
To intercept a missile in its midcourse phase, one must detect its launch, track its flight, and then differentiate or “discriminate” the threatening warhead target from any countermeasures and from the flying junk pile of debris created from launching it. For launch detection and warning, the United States relies on the 1970s-era Defense Support Program, two Space-Based Infrared System-GEO satellites, and two highly elliptical SBIRS payloads. Tracking tells the interceptor and other sensors where to look, and discrimination determines what interceptors need to kill. In the 1960s and 1970s, the way to compensate for discrimination shortcomings was with nuclear-armed interceptors, which besides frying satellites within line of sight would also damage the defenders’ own radars. Nobody wants to go back to that, and missile defense efforts have for decades focused on hit-to-kill.
Picture: NASA [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
By Rebeccah Heinrichs
This week the nation’s top space and missile defense military and industry leaders will gather in one place, Huntsville, Alabama, for the 19th Annual Space & Missile Defense Symposium. Those gathered there should consider the findings and recommendations of a Hudson Institute report I had the privilege of authoring with the guidance and stamp of approval of an all-star senior review group.
The report concludes that the debate over whether or not space is “weaponized” has long been decided in the affirmative. Adversaries are exploiting U.S. vulnerabilities in space in a variety of ways but in particular, adversaries are advancing in the area of missile development including direct-ascent anti-satellites. Indeed, this is a new missile era. Adversaries are heavily investing in missiles including of particular concern, hypersonics.
To close the gaping holes in U.S. defensive capabilities the United States must fully utilize space across domains to protect what the United States values most: the U.S. homeland, deployed forces, allies, and assets located in space. Specifically, it is time for the United States to move from a policy of providing a limited missile defense capability to one that is robust, and the most effective ways to do that is to deploy a satellite constellation in space that provides sensor coverage as well as a kinetic kill capability.
In particular, several adversaries have prioritized the development of missile forces to hold at risk the U.S. homeland, allies, deployed forces, and space assets.
Russia and China have long held the ability to hold the U.S. homeland and other key target areas at risk, and continue to devote significant resources to increasingly complex missile systems including anti-ship missiles, hypersonic glide vehicles, and direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles. Even North Korea and Iran, countries once deemed capable of building only “limited” missile capabilities, are achieving greater ranges, mobility, increased accuracy, and have the technical ability to use more challenging counter-measures, all while amassing great numbers of missiles to enable salvo launches.
The threat posed by direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles is especially grave.
Picture: NASA.Mrshaba at en.wikipedia [Public domain], from Wikimedia Commons