WASHINGTON — Ahead of the release of the new administration's first budget request, U.S. defense officials are pushing to renew the effort to get missile-tracking sensors into space.
President Donald Trump made a campaign statement touting the need to pursue space-based missile defense in an October 2016 memo. In the memo, he said he wanted a ballistic missile defense system with "a heavy emphasis on space-based early warning and missile tracking technologies."
Each of the last 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.
While pursuit for a space-based missile defense sensor layer is nothing new, the likelihood that Trump will boost defense spending is renewing hope in programs simmering on the back-burner.
So Defense Department leadership have started up the call again for funding of missile defense threat detection capabilities in space.
Both the Army’s new 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 US Army’s missile defense conference in Arlington, Virginia, Feb. 7.
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 BMD 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."
Buckley highlighted the BMDS Overhead Persistent Infrared Architecture and the Space-based Kill Assessment experiment as promising and good examples of "what some out-of-the-box thinking can do to capitalize on space."
BOA uses sensors already in orbit to provide the BMDS system with "more and possibly better data," he said. And the SKA program uses the concept of commercially hosted payloads to get a "fairly significant" number of sensors on orbit on time and in a fraction of the cost of traditional Defense Department space programs.
"This is the kind of thinking we need to continue to pursue," Buckley said, "as the sticker shock of most space programs is perhaps the biggest impediment to capitalize on this domain within the DoD system."
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.
Now 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 told Defense News. In the last several years, Pentagon investment in space is now a sliver of what it was in the early 2000s.
Still, space isn’t totally devoid of missile defense efforts.
There are two Space Tracking and Surveillance System demonstrators in low orbit intended to track a missile’s path from launch to intercept, but Karako said the mission ends for these two demonstrators this year. A follow-on program to STSS was canceled in 2013 that would have included a constellation of nine to 12 satellites with a large telescope and a gimbaled tracking system, he added.
Karako said there are several creative options that could be pursued going forward including using commercial satellites to host payloads like the Missile Defense Agency’s SKA program and relying on international cooperation and joint agency endeavors.
"We know what needs to be done in terms of capability and the question really just is, do we field the rest of the [STSS] constellation in its current form or do we have a smaller more distributed, potentially cheaper, constellations with similar capabilities," Karako said. "That is what it really comes down to."
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.