WASHINGTON — House lawmakers want the Pentagon to quickly produce a space-based missile defense strategy, according to the Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee's mark of the fiscal year 2018 defense authorization bill released this week.
The strategy would lay out the plans of the Missile Defense Agency, the U.S. Air Force and other agencies "to develop a space-based sensor layer for ballistic missile defense that provides precision tracking data of missiles beginning in the boost phase and continuing throughout subsequent flight regimes; serves other intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance requirements; and achieves an operational prototype payload at the earliest practicable opportunity," the subcommittee mark reads.
The lawmakers would require the Defense Department to provide the strategy one year following passage of the legislation to include how it would develop the sensor layer and the estimated costs including development, acquisition and operations and sustainment across its life cycle, according to the document.
The strategy should also assess the maturity of technologies needed for the layer and recommend what still requires development and further research.
And the plan should include what capabilities the layer can provide not already covered by current ballistic missile sensor layers as well as what might be needed to technically achieve capabilities such as "hosted payloads, small satellites, among others."
U.S. defense officials earlier this year were pushing to renew the effort to get missile-tracking sensors in space.
Both the Army Space and Missile Defense Commander Lt. Gen. James Dickinson and Brig. Gen. Ronald Buckley, U.S. Northern Command’s deputy director of operations, talked about the importance of space for missile defense in speeches at the Association of the U.S. Army’s missile defense conference in Arlington, Va., in February.
Dickinson said space is "fundamental for every single military operation that occurs on the planet today from satellites to GPS," and said the domain is a crucial part of connecting the battlefield and the backbone of the missile defense kill chain.
"As long as we continue to solely focus and rely on terrestrial-based for our [ballistic missile defense] sensors, there will be gaps and seams in our coverage," Buckley said. "Our adversaries are actively working to exploit any of these gaps and seams. I’m not saying that space isn’t without its flaws, but I believe it’s time we take a hard look at space as an option."
It has been thought that President Donald Trump would be supportive of a space-based missile defense layer. During his campaign, he said he wanted a BMD system with "a heavy emphasis on space-based early warning and missile tracking technologies."
Each of the past five administrations have had a space-based sensor layer as a critical component of its missile defense architecture on paper. But it’s never gone beyond that, usually dampened by bigger priorities and shrinking budgets, according to Tom Karako, an analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
A space-based sensor layer’s persistent vantage point would provide the "holy grail of birth-to-death tracking of hostile missiles, which dramatically improves the lethality of both homeland and regional defense," Karako wrote in a paper on how the new White House might consider investing in missile defense going forward.
Space-based missile defense funding is at an all-time low, according to Karako, while improvements to the terrestrial-based missile defense system would still fall short of detecting and defeating missile threats currently in development by adversaries like North Korea and Iran. That shortcoming comes from the detection system’s upward stare and such unfixable issues like the curvature of the Earth, which blocks even the most powerful radar’s full field of view.
But even understanding the utility of space for missile defense and having technology that could provide capability, the issue has always been having enough money, Karako said. In the last several years, Pentagon investment in space is now a sliver of what it was in the early 2000s.
Jen Judson is an award-winning journalist covering land warfare for Defense News. She has also worked for Politico and Inside Defense. She holds a Master of Science degree in journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Arts degree from Kenyon College.