Much has been said about the US ground-based missile defense program and the sites in place or to be installed soon in Europe and Asia. But land is not the only domain where the effort it taking place. This is the time the priority is shifting to air- and space-based systems. The US officials and military leaders believe that space is now a warfighting domain on par with air, land and sea. This is one of rare issues the administration and Congress see eye to eye on.
On June 30, President Trump signed an executive order to reinstate the National Space Council – an executive agency with Vice President Mike Pence at the helm that will be tasked with guiding US space policy during the administration. The Secretary of State and the Secretary of Defense, as well as NASA’s administrator, will serve on the council as well.
During the election campaign, President Trump said he wanted a ballistic missile defense (BMD) system with «a heavy emphasis on space-based early warning and missile tracking technologies». Defence Secretary James Mattis is known as an ardent advocate of bigger investments into space exploration for defense purposes. Air Force Secretary Heather Wilson released a statement announcing the service’s pivot to space. In recent months, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein has said he wants the USAF to be «the lead service for space».
Part of the new preparations for space combat is the creation of a new position called the Deputy Chief of Staff for Space Operations. According to US Air Force (USAF) Secretary Heather Wilson, the new position will be a three-star officer to provide advice and counsel to Wilson and USAF chief of staff General David Goldfein in all space matters. The USAF will stand up its new deputy chief of staff for space operations position (A11) on August 1.
In February, Lt. Gen. James Dickinson, the Army Space and Missile Defense Commander, and Brig. Gen. Ronald Buckley, U.S. Northern Command’s deputy director of operations, talked about the importance of space for missile defense in speeches at the Association of the US Army’s missile defense conference in Arlington, Va. Dickinson said space is «fundamental for every single military operation that occurs on the planet today from satellites to GPS», and said the domain is a crucial part of connecting the battlefield and the backbone of the missile defense kill chain. «As long as we continue to solely focus and rely on terrestrial-based for our [ballistic missile defense] sensors, there will be gaps and seams in our coverage», Buckley said to substantiate his conclusion that «it’s time we take a hard look at space as an option».
The land-based detection systems have an inherent drawback – they look upward hindered by the curvature of the Earth, which blocks even the most powerful radar’s full field of view. Air- and space-based systems would have much better coverage than ground-based assets.
According to Defense News, House lawmakers want the Pentagon to quickly produce a space-based missile defense strategy laying out the plans «to develop a space-based sensor layer for ballistic missile defense that provides precision tracking data of missiles beginning in the boost phase and continuing throughout subsequent flight regimes; serves other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance requirements; and achieves an operational prototype payload at the earliest practicable opportunity».
The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is requesting $7.9 billion in FY18, an increase of $379 million from the FY17 request. The MDA will continue work on an unmanned aerial vehicle-borne laser for boost phase missile defense. The request also includes $17 million for a space-based Kill Assessment experiment. «The full SKA network is currently planned to be on orbit in FY17», the documents state. The biggest chunk of the new money – $1.3 billion, an increase of $862 million from 2016 – would go to the Air Force's Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS), a constellation of satellites meant for early missile warning and detection. The plans include the launch of SBIRS GEO-4 (November) and the development of GEO-5 and 6. The Air Force wants to build eight geosynchronous satellites in total, in addition to the three already deployed in high orbit. Some of the Air Force's larger programs include the Wideband Global Satcom (WGS) system, a series of high-bandwidth satellites meant to act as the next generation of military communication satellites.
The ground-based BMD systems, the X-37B spacecraft and Geosynchronous Space Situational Awareness Program (GSSAP) platforms could be repurposed into instruments of war in space.
Remotely operated drone swarms – groups of small robots could act together under human – have great future when used for missile defense purposes. This involves groups of small, tube-launched UAVs designed to swarm and overwhelm adversaries. The swarming drone technology was tested by the Pentagon in October 2016. They included 103 Perdix micro-drones measuring around six inches (16 centimeters) launched from three F/A-18 Super Hornet fighter jets. The air-delivered maneuvering buzzing swarm of skybots could strike launching site as well as counter ballistic missiles in flight. Space- or air-based swarms are a formidable missile defense weapon no missile or warhead can make through. Dummies and chaff will not help. The swarm technology going to space will change a lot of things, including the hopes for keeping an arms race away from this domain.
Airborne lasers are another promising direction of BMD development. The Defense Department seeks to use airborne lasers mounted on lightweight high-altitude drones to hit enemy ballistic missiles in flight, as well as ground- and sea–based launchers. «We have significantly ramped up our program in terms of investment and talking about […] what else needs to be done to mature this capability», MDA director Vice Admiral James Syring told Defense One.
The Missile Defense Agency plans to conduct «a lot of» testing with lasers mounted on Reaper drones «over the next few years» culminating with a «low-power laser demonstrator» project in 2021, Syring said. Pentagon officials hope to decide what that demonstrator might look like «in a few years». The goal of that project is to fly a powerful laser at a high altitude that can track possibly kill a missile soon after it is launched, during its boost phase.
Referring to anti-satellite and anti-missile weapons in space, Congressman Doug Lamborn of Armed Services said: «Some of the technical issues around those concepts need to be researched, but there’s a lot of exciting options».
The 50th anniversary of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty – an arms control deal reached in the heat of the Cold War – will be marked this October. The agreement bans stationing weapons of mass destruction in space but it does not prohibit the placement of conventional weapons there. No international agreement on non-nuclear arms in space exists today because the idea is objected by some countries, including the United States. The draft Treaty on the Prevention of the Placement of Weapons in Outer Space, the Threat or Use of Force against Outer Space Objects (PPWT), by Russia and backed by China in 2008 was rejected by Washington. The Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space (PAROS) – a UN resolution that reaffirms the fundamental principles of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty and advocates for a ban on the weaponization of space – has not come into force due to US objections. In 2008, Russia and China proposed a draft treaty to ban space weapons, which the US blocked from going forward in the consensus-bound committee on disarmament in Geneva. The US has never come up with an initiative of its own related to control of space-based weapons. Air-based systems are also not restricted by any international agreement.
The proliferation of air- and space-based weapons is changing the battlefield of the 21st century. The cost of stating missile defense assets in these domains may be mind boggling. A conflict sparked in space would inevitably ignite full-blown war on Earth. Adding air- and space assets to the BMD effort will have ramifications the US has given little thought to, at least publicly. After land and sea, the missile defense is to enter new domains: air and space.