It’s been 36 years since President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), an effort to develop technologies to counter intercontinental ballistic missiles including orbital systems that could detect and take out ICBMs with lasers or kinetic weapons. That program, dismissively called “Star Wars” by Senator Ted Kennedy, was seen as massively destabilizing from a strategic perspective—until the Soviets stopped objecting in 1987 because they realized it would never work. SDI was officially terminated in 1993, as the US focused instead on the threat of shorter-range ballistic missiles by “rogue states” in the wake of the Gulf War.
In 2019, “Star Wars” is back. While President George W. Bush got the ball rolling in 2002 with the formation of the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) and an exit from the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, President Donald Trump’s new missile defense strategy seeks to expand the MDA’s efforts by returning to a quest for a space-based missile shield and other weapons that could, as Trump put it in a January 17 speech, “detect and destroy any missile launched against the US from anywhere at any time.”
The shorter-term proposals of the 2019 Missile Defense Review (PDF), the successor to the strategy document published by the Obama administration in 2010, are incremental. As far as missile defense plans go, it also seems fairly achievable: the main actions are adding more interceptor missiles of the types the US military already has and adding ABM capabilities to other systems already in service.
Improvements to the anti-ballistic missile capabilities of the US Navy’s Aegis weapons system will continue, with plans to test the Raytheon SM-3 Block II A ship-launched interceptor missile against an “ICBM-class” target in 2020. The Navy has so far ordered 17 SM-3 II A interceptors at a cost of about $10 million each. Another missile already in the Navy’s inventory, the Raytheon SM-6, can hit cruise missiles and lower-flying ballistic missiles from over the horizon with some help from an airborne sensor. The new strategy calls for the Navy to develop a plan to make all existing Aegis-equipped missile destroyers capable of being used for ballistic missile defense—raising the number from 38 to 60 by the end of 2023. The Navy will also explore the feasibility of an Aegis Ashore facility in Hawaii to defend against potential North Korean missile threats.
The Army also has a piece in the new strategy. Development of the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) interceptor, based at Fort Greely in Alaska, would continue as planned—but with the more rapid addition of new interceptor missiles. The Missile Defense Review calls for increasing the total number of planned GMD interceptors to 64 missiles and eventually up to as many as 104 to counter not just North Korean, but future Iranian ICBM threats. The new strategy also calls for the continued development of the Multi-Object Kill Vehicle (MOKV) to make interceptors capable of dealing with missiles carrying multiple warheads, decoys, and countermeasures. The Army’s THAAD and Patriot systems would continue to be critical in protecting forward forces and allies against regional threats, meaning that upgrades will likely continue to both systems.
Beam me up, Scotty
On top of all that, there’s the Air Force’s role. The DOD is asking the Air Force to come up with a plan to integrate the F-35A Lightning II into a counter-ballistic missile role, as well as to further develop drones to shoot down missiles at launch. This strategy calls for the use of either interceptor missiles or lasers to attack missiles during boost phase, as well as attacking cruise missiles in flight. “Developing scalable, efficient, and compact high energy laser technology, and integrating it onto an airborne platform holds the potential to provide a future cost-effective capability to destroy boosting missiles in the early part of the trajectory,” the DOD strategy document states. “Doing so would leverage technological advances made earlier in DoD’s Airborne Laser Program.”
That Airborne Laser Program was shut down a decade ago by the Obama administration after a costly development effort with dubious results from its testbed, the YAL-1—a modified Boeing 747 carrying a megawatt laser. But the Air Force claims to have benefited from this research in the development of smaller laser systems like HELLADS (a 150 kilowatt laser system the Air Force hopes to field by 2020).
But the biggest potential budget burster in the new Trump strategy comes in his goals for the proposed Space Force. In his speech, Trump said:
Space is a new warfighting domain, with the Space Force leading the way. My upcoming budget will invest in a space based missile defense layer. It’s going to be a big part of our defense and also offense. We will terminate any missile launches from anywhere, even if it’s a mistake. We will ensure enemy missiles find no sanctuary. This is the direction I am heading.
The Trump administration’s strategy calls for a great leap forward in space-based defenses and other systems to defend against Russian and Chinese weapons. That tech includes hypersonic glide vehicles—atmosphere-skimming maneuverable weapons launched with ballistic missiles that are designed to overcome any existing missile defense. The strategy also calls for new space-based sensors to increase the efficiency of ground-based, sea-based, and air-launched interceptors. And the plan includes weapons to counter Russian and Chinese anti-satellite capabilities, as well as exploration of space-based missile interceptors, as the policy document states:
DoD will undertake a new and near-term examination of the concepts and technology for space-based defenses. This examination may include on-orbit experiments and demonstrations. New DoD analysis will evaluate the possible effectiveness of space-based interceptor technologies and their cost-effectiveness when compared to other systems based on land, sea, and in the air. This examination will provide an informed contemporary foundation for assessing the technological and operational potential of space-basing in the evolving security environment.
All of this adds up to billions of more dollars invested in research programs on top of the expansion of existing programs. Just how big the pricetag for all of this is won’t be clear until the Trump administration presents its Fiscal Year 2020 budget. But Trump said that he would press allies to help fund the development of these systems, saying that many wealthy countries just need to be asked to pay.
Listing image by US Navy
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