Missile Defense Review Sets Sights on Advanced Technologies

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Publication date: 
24 January 2019

The Trump administration’s new Missile Defense Review argues there is a pressing need to develop and test a variety of advanced anti-missile technologies to respond to an increasing range of international threats. Administration officials indicate they plan to press ahead with a network of space-based sensors for detecting enemy missiles as well as explore more unproven systems such as space-based interceptors.


President Trump addresses an audience at the Pentagon during an event marking the release of the Missile Defense Review.

President Trump addresses an audience at the Pentagon during an event marking the release of the Missile Defense Review.

(Image credit – White House / Joyce Boghosian)

Last week, the Department of Defense released its long-awaited Missile Defense Review (MDR), which establishes the Trump administration’s policy for developing and deploying missile defense systems. Among the points it stresses is the need for new technologies capable of countering an expanding variety of threats.

President Trump and Vice President Pence both spoke at a Pentagon event on Jan. 17 marking the MDR's release. Pointing to the review's focus on technology development, Trump affirmed that his upcoming budget request for fiscal year 2020 will “invest in a space-based missile defense layer.” DOD officials elaborated that this layer would comprise a space-based sensor network and potentially space-based ballistic missile interceptors.

In the fiscal year 2018 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), Congress directed DOD to proceed with both space-based sensors and interceptors contingent on the MDR recommending them. However, the review’s release was then delayed by more than a year. In the interim, Congress directed DOD via the fiscal year 2019 NDAA to go ahead with developing the systems subject to the availability of appropriations for them. While the MDR reflects that policy, it does not firmly commit DOD to implementing either system.

Administration moving quickly on space-based sensors

At a press briefing following Trump’s address, DOD officials made clear the administration is highly interested in developing and deploying a space-based sensor architecture for tracking missiles. John Rood, the under secretary of defense for policy, reported there are plans to start conducting experiments in space in the early 2020s and that operational systems would be implemented in the middle or latter part of that decade.

Currently, DOD has in place a system called Space Based Infrared Surveillance (SBIRS) comprising satellites in geosynchronous and highly elliptical orbits that can detect the bright infrared signatures of ballistic missiles. The department has also previously considered a complementary constellation that would operate in low Earth orbit called the Precision Tracking Space System. However, a 2012 National Academies report concluded the system would not be cost-effective. The Pentagon cancelled the project in 2013.

The MDR renews the justification for space-based sensor systems in part by stating they could provide distinct advantages for detecting and tracking the new hypersonic weapons that nations such as China and Russia are developing. It explains, “The wider view from space allows for improved tracking and potentially targeting of advanced threats such as [hypersonic glide vehicles], which fly at lower altitudes than ballistic missiles and can maneuver throughout their trajectories to avoid some radar coverages.”

At the press briefing, Mike Griffin, the under secretary of defense for research and engineering, elaborated that DOD now believes the “best approach is a network of satellites in low orbit — how many, what orbit, all to be determined.” He explained that hypersonic vehicles are “dimmer targets” that require sensors to be closer to the Earth than the current SBIRS system. Addressing the new sensor network’s anticipated cost, Griffin said he believes it will be “comparable to other existing assets today that we already have in the fleet,” adding, “It’s not some outlandish number.”

DOD to explore speculative anti-missile systems

The MDR indicates that DOD also plans to move ahead with assessing the feasibility and cost of other, more speculative anti-missile technologies.

The review states that DOD’s Missile Defense Agency will produce a report within six months on space-based ballistic missile interceptor systems that “will identify the most promising technologies, and estimated schedule, cost, and personnel requirements for a possible space-based defensive layer that achieves an early operational capability for boost-phase defense.” The report will inform future decisions on whether to pursue such a system. In addition, the MDR indicates DOD will conduct a broader “examination” of potential interceptor systems that could include experiments and demonstrations in space.

Space-based interceptors have been a subject of considerable controversy since they were first considered by President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative. They are intended to launch from orbit to intercept and destroy ballistic missiles during their “boost phase,” meaning the first few minutes following launch. Opponents claim such systems face excessive technical challenges, are prohibitively expensive, and threaten to militarize space.

Explaining the department’s renewed interest in the technology, the MDR states, “Much has changed since the United States last considered space-based interceptors in a potential architecture, including major improvements in technologies applicable to space-basing and directed energy.” It also cites the “rapid advancement and diffusion of offensive missile threats and technology,” as well as the directions provided in the fiscal year 2018 NDAA.

The MDR indicates that DOD will also explore other technologies for defeating ballistic missiles during their boost phase, including “compact high energy laser technology” that is designed to be carried on an “airborne platform,” such as an unmanned drone. The review says such a system would build on advances already made on beam propagation and control in the department’s Airborne Laser Program, as well as on the MDA’s ongoing program to develop a Low-Power Laser Demonstrator.

Addressing directed energy weapons in general, the MDR states that DOD is currently developing a strategic roadmap for the technologies that will inform the upcoming budget request and satisfy a requirement in the fiscal year 2017 NDAA.

Emphasizing testing, DOD avoids technological commitments


The U.S. Air Force’s Airborne Laser Test Bed makes its final takeoff from Edwards Air Force Base on Feb. 14, 2012.

The U.S. Air Force’s Airborne Laser Test Bed makes its final takeoff from Edwards Air Force Base on Feb. 14, 2012. The aircraft was used to test the use of directed energy technologies against ballistic missile threats.

(Image credit – Missile Defense Agency)

The MDR’s emphasis on not committing to specific technologies is consistent with DOD’s recent focus on using prototyping and testing to better inform its development and acquisition programs.

The review states that tests provide data to “demonstrate the operational effectiveness, suitability, survivability, and security” of ballistic missile defense system elements. It continues, “Even tests that are not fully successful may be useful by providing valuable information to assess the performance of the system. We must not fear test failure, but learn from it and rapidly adjust.”

At the press briefing, Griffin echoed that sentiment, remarking, “We are confident that the technologies outlined in the report are technologies we want to investigate, with experiments and prototypes and tests — and I’ll emphasize again, tests — to see how well they work.”

Missile Defense Agency Director Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves agreed, adding,

One of the most important takeaways from the Missile Defense Review is the fact that we will be executing a disciplined acquisition process for everything. … Prove things in the laboratory, prove things on the ground, maybe go to air, maybe go to space if that’s where it ends up. But the most important thing for us and within this administration and the Hill is that you won’t see us jumping to the objective system immediately.

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