The news on the nuclear proliferation front is not good. Pakistan’s arsenal turns out to be bigger than previously thought. Iran will soon have enough fissile material for a bomb. And now Defense Secretary Robert Gates says North Korea may be capable of targeting U.S. territory in five years.

So the U.S. Missile Defense Agency (MDA) is moving out fast to deploy all the elements needed for an effective defense of America and its allies, right? Well, not exactly. Three decades after engineers in the Ronald Reagan era developed the first plan for how orbital sensors could be used to track ballistic missiles, the MDA still can’t make up its mind how it wants to proceed.

Right now, the agency is considering starting over for the fourth time on the low Earth orbit part of its sensor architecture, even though it already has spent hundreds of millions of dollars to develop and deploy satellites that can do the job. In 2009, the MDA collaborated with NASA and the U.S. Air Force to launch two demonstration satellites under the Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) program that have exhibited all of the functionality needed for birth-to-death tracking of ballistic missile warheads.

That’s important, because the MDA’s plans call for fielding an integrated architecture of networked sensors, interceptors and command centers that can track ballistic threats across every stage of their trajectory, and space is the best place from which to do that. Low Earth orbit is especially suitable for the tracking mission, because satellites there have a wide field of view while still being close enough to threats to precisely characterize them for purposes of interception.

The military has begun orbiting a very capable missile-warning constellation in geosynchronous and elliptical orbits called the Space Based Infrared System that can detect missile launches, detonations and other infrared events with great fidelity. But those satellites are too far away to provide target-quality tracking of threats, so even before they were designed, missile defense managers were pursuing a low Earth orbit constellation that grew into the Space Tracking and Surveillance System.

The basic idea behind STSS is to use the heat generated by ballistic missiles and their warheads to track threats, and then hand off that information to ground-based interceptors so attackers can be destroyed in a timely fashion. The STSS demonstration satellites use several different sensors to help determine what wavelengths are best suited to acquiring and tracking targets as they pass through ascent, midcourse and terminal phases of flight.

Because they are demonstration satellites, the two spacecraft launched in 2009 will provide lessons on how to build operational satellites utilizing much of the same technology. They are separated in space by 35 degrees so that any object being tracked can be viewed in “stereo” — from two perspectives — providing enough detail for precise interception.

STSS is gradually working its way through all the tasks necessary to accomplish such interceptions, such as handing off targets between satellites and continuously streaming track files to ground command centers. But as testing proceeds, it is increasingly clear that the technology works, and is the only near-term option for completing the orbital portion of the missile defense architecture.

Unfortunately, the MDA isn’t exhibiting a profound sense of urgency about being ready with a full defensive architecture. It now has begun to have qualms about the cost of a full STSS constellation, and wants a national laboratory or some other organization to investigate alternatives.

That possibility is really disturbing in light of what Secretary Gates said during his China trip in January about the possibility that North Korea soon may have ballistic missiles capable of hitting America. If the MDA starts over on the most important component in its sensor network, there’s no way the military will have a layered defense ready for dealing with that eventuality.

I used to teach nuclear strategy at Georgetown University and wrote my doctoral dissertation on the subject, so I can say with some authority that the central assumption in nuclear deterrence is that the players are rational. Offensively based deterrence doesn’t work if enemies can’t think straight. North Korea and Iran are both run by leaders whose erratic behavior may not lend itself to effective deterrence.

That means the Missile Defense Agency needs to stop acting like a bureaucracy engaged in running the world’s biggest science fair. It needs to get STSS up and running as an operational constellation before the Korean threat is upon us. Wasting another decade trying to find something “even better” could put millions of innocent lives at risk.


Loren Thompson is chief operating officer of the Lexington Institute.