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One of the surprises of the 2019 Missile Defense Review is that it did not cheer the use of weapons in space. The arms-control community had braced for the MDR to recommend actual deployments of lasers and other missile interceptor weapons in space.
The review does call for further study of space-based interceptors, which suggests the Pentagon is not convinced the technology can work or that it’s smart policy, said Joseph Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund. “We don’t get the much ballyhooed weapons” such as space lasers..
Laura Grego of the Union of Concerned Scientists cautioned that whatever studies are conducted on space weapons should stop short of actual tests. “The research may include on-orbit testing, and that would be a great concern,” she said. “That is a line we have not crossed.”
A recommendation in the MDR to deploy a new Space Sensor Layer for hypersonic missile defense is a far less controversial proposition. New sensor-equipped satellites would not necessarily be destabilizing, although it could motivate China and Russia to proliferate more missiles, said Cirincione. “The fact that you announce this process [to build new missile defense sensors] forces adversaries to ramp up their offensive capability.”
Grego said she worries that the Pentagon’s emphasis on “rapid acquisition” and easing bureaucratic red tape for projects such as the Space Sensor Layer could lead to a massive waste of taxpayer dollars. She noted that the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense that was developed in the 1990s to counter North Korean and Iranian ballistic missiles cost $70 billion and has only showed a 50 percent success rate. “When you back off oversight, you end up spending billions on something that doesn’t work,” she said. If Congress fails to exert proper oversight, the Pentagon’s Space Sensor Layer could turn into a “recipe for spending money and getting nothing.”
More details here on the Pentagon’s efforts so far to develop a Space Sensor Layer and where the program might be headed.