Commentary | Space-based interceptors: realistic, affordable, and necessary
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.
By holding at risk U.S. space systems, adversaries threaten that which gives the United States much of its military superiority. As aptly stated by the National Security Space Strategy, when combined with other capabilities, space systems allow joint forces to see the battlefield with clarity, navigate with accuracy, strike with precision, communicate with certainty, and operate with assurance.
For many years such space systems were both beyond the capability and reach of any potential U.S. adversary. In recent years, recognizing the asymmetric nature of U.S. space dominance together with space assets’ fragility and vulnerability to attack, our adversaries have taken advantage of this U.S. Achilles’ heel by developing weapons to target space assets. While it is true adversaries are developing various types of methods to disrupt or destroy space assets, including co-orbital anti-satellite weapons, the scope of this study is limited to the threat to space systems posed by direct-ascent anti-satellite missiles, as these systems are the first to have been demonstrated in actual flight tests.
China has demonstrated an operational direct-ascent anti-satellite missile capability, and has proven that it can reach from low Earth orbit to geosynchronous altitudes putting nearly the full spectrum of our defense and intelligence satellites at risk. Not only does this give China a powerful coercive ability, it also creates the temptation to eliminate in a pre-emptive strike the warfighting assets upon which the United States is most reliant.
Although China is the most advanced in this regard, other spacefaring adversaries are increasingly able to hold U.S. space assets at risk. Russia has a formative space weapons program and media reports indicate it has tested a direct-ascent anti-satellite missile. North Korea and Iran have each launched satellites into orbit. These developments clearly show the sanctuary status once assumed for U.S. space assets has been irredeemably lost, and, whether we wish it or not, powerfully demonstrates that the space domain is a battlefield.
Our current space defense posture is primarily passive and reactive, an anachronism of the Cold War era during which we had a single superpower adversary and the uneasy deterrence construct relying on Mutual Assured Destruction. Acknowledging its vulnerability in space, the United States has begun to build resiliency into its space architectures, and military leaders are advocating to Congress for the funds necessary to improve space situational awareness (SSA). Both resiliency and a robust SSA capability are critical to a successful U.S. national security space strategy, but are not by themselves enough. The United States cannot prevail in space merely by passively defending itself against hostile force; it must have active defenses as well.
A critical component of a strengthened and modernized strategic posture that better integrates the space domain is a robust, layered, missile defense system that provides protection of the United States and that which it values most. The current U.S. ballistic missile defense system is composed of land- and sea-based interceptors, cued by sensors on land, at sea, and in space.
There is no interceptor layer located in space. While each present-day element of the ballistic missile defense system plays a significant role in the defense of the U.S. homeland, allies, and deployed forces, the system is designed to handle only limited threats posed by rogue nations. It is not designed to handle the more complex missile threats from near-peer adversaries such as Russia and China. Additionally, the pace at which rogue nations such as North Korea and Iran are improving both the quality and quantity of their own missiles poses significant challenges for the present system.
The United States must adapt the U.S. strategic posture to the current and future challenges by enabling the use of space for the defense of the United States across military domains; specifically, the United States should immediately begin the necessary steps to deploy a space-based interceptor capability.
A space-based interceptor capability would dramatically augment U.S. terrestrially- and sea-based defensive capabilities, reduce the demands upon current systems, and provide the U.S. with the optimal vantage point for destroying enemy missiles regardless of their launch or target location, whether on land, at sea, in the air, or in space. A critical benefit of an space-based-interceptor layer is the ability to destroy many missiles during their boost phase, while the missile is still over enemy territory and before the enemy can deploy their nuclear warheads, counter-measures, and decoys.
Opponents of space-based interceptors offer numerous arguments against deploying the capability, but those arguments are predicated on false assumptions. For example, opponents have argued that deploying space-based interceptors would instigate an arms race with the likes of Russia and China. But American military strength has not provoked adversaries’ investments in military capabilities; rather, U.S. capability gaps have prompted our adversaries to invest in weapons to exploit U.S. vulnerabilities.
The task at hand is to close those gaps in order to deter adversaries’ continued investments. Opponents have also insisted that a kinetic interceptor capability in space remains technically out of reach and is cost prohibitive. However, available technology makes it entirely feasible and affordable in the near term. Others have said that deploying space-based interceptors is prohibited by an international treaty and threatens to create devastating permanent space debris, but there is no treaty that prohibits space-based interceptors, and the risks from debris are manageable. For example, an enemy missile destroyed in boost phase cannot produce long-lived orbital debris.
The U.S. will not maintain its preeminent global power status by default nor absent further action. We must choose this path, and if chosen, we must better utilize the space domain to nullify any adversary’s ability to coerce and blackmail the U.S. with missiles, possibly armed with nuclear weapons.
Although missile defense is only one component of the U.S. strategic posture, by optimally defending what the United States values — the entire U.S. homeland, allies, deployed forces, and assets located in space — the ballistic missile defense system, with space-based interceptors, would serve as a powerful deterrent and a critical means of defense should deterrence fail. This issue must move beyond the entanglements of partisan and ideological disagreement. Considering the nature of the threat, and the availability of the technology to defend against it, to remain intentionally vulnerable is simply inexcusable
Rebeccah Heinrichs provides research and commentary on a range of national security issues, and specializes in nuclear deterrence, missile defense, and counter-proliferation. This opinion piece originally appeared in the Aug. 15 issue of SpaceNews Magazine.