“On National Security” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the March 12, 2018 issue.

The hand-wringing continues at the Pentagon over how to respond to Chinese and Russian missile advances. The latest line of thinking is that the U.S. needs more sophisticated and more discriminating sensors that can fill in blind spots in current air and missile defense systems. And that the best approach would be to place those sensors on satellites in space.

With U.S. adversaries on a path toward faster and stealthier missiles, “sensor coverage is a very big deal,” said Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, director of the Missile Defense Agency.

It’s simple, he said. “If you can’t see it, you can’t shoot.” The reality is that current anti-missile defenses have gaps. Greaves said his agency is “looking to move the sensor architecture to space, and use that advantage of space in coordination with our ground assets to remove the gaps.”

To respond to hypersonic threats, the architecture is completely different to one designed to counter a ballistic missile threat, Greaves explained during a presentation at the McAleese Credit Suisse defense program conference. “That’s why the sensor layer is absolutely critical,” he insisted. “You will continue to see MDA advocate for a space sensor layer.”

Meanwhile, experts like Tom Karako, director of the missile defense project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, recoil at these statements.

The space sensors could have been in orbit and in operation by now except they were derailed by indecision, Karako said. Each of the past five administrations planned for space-based infrared sensors as a key component of a missile defense architecture, at least on paper, but nothing was ever deployed, he said at a recent CSIS conference.

The Pentagon has space-based infrared satellites in high orbit for strategic warning that a missile has launched, but once the motors stop burning, other sensors are required to track the missile’s trajectory more precisely. That now is done with ground and sea-based radars. Two experimental satellites called the Space Tracking and Surveillance System are on orbit. The program was conceived as a constellation of up to 12 satellites, but it was terminated after two.

Karako wonders if the Trump administration will be the sixth to be “emphatically committed to paper satellites.”

Greaves agrees with Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, that the Pentagon has to stop studying this and start building. Karako expects the soon-to-be-released Ballistic Missile Defense Review will make a definitive statement.

Ground- and sea-based radars are important assets but a modern global missile defense needs a space sensor layer for “persistent missile tracking and discrimination,” said Karako.

Former assistant secretary of the Air Force for acquisition, Bill LaPlante, said the space-based tracking technology has been analyzed to death but not taken to the next level. “We’ve allowed ourselves to get into this paralysis with the analyses of alternatives,” said LaPlante, who is now vice president of The MITRE Corp.

“The decision to spend money, that’s the hard part,” said LaPlante.

Former Pentagon budget official Jamie Morin, now vice president of The Aerospace Corporation, said the space tracking and surveillance system was a “victim of timing.” Although DoD had already invested more than $200 million, it needed to cut programs when sequestration started. “It became a bill payer,” said Morin.

Karako said it is disappointing that this program was not given the importance it deserved. The U.S. homeland, deployed military forces and allies increasingly will be at risk if current defenses are not improved. “Combining terrestrial radars below with infrared and electro-optical eyes orbiting above would dramatically help interceptors find their target,” he noted.

Hyten told the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee that the supplemental budget request for fiscal year 2018 included over $10 million to “begin the pursuit of that capability.” He said the Air Force has a budget line under the missile warning sensor technology for $42 million to build demonstration capabilities to explore space-based sensors.

But Hyten cautioned that money alone will not magically produce the space sensor layer. He said the Air Force and MDA have to get together to work out requirements and specific concepts for how to use space and the infrared element of space and “come into the Congress next year with a fully integrated program to do the missile warning missions, the missile defense missions, the threat characterization missions, all those pieces together.”

Hyten said he has “advocated for that capability for a long time,” he said. “We need to move quickly.” Decisions will be made this year, he said, “on where we’re going in the future.”

Sandra Erwin

Sandra Erwin covers military space for SpaceNews. She is a veteran national security journalist and former editor of National Defense magazine.

Sandra Erwin writes about military space programs, policy, technology and the industry that supports this sector. She has covered the military, the Pentagon, Congress and the defense industry for nearly two decades as editor of NDIA’s National Defense...