WASHINGTON — While the past year has been filled with talk of doing more to develop missile defense sensors for space, the U.S. Missile Defense Agency’s fiscal 2019 budget showed no signs of a plan to ramp up the effort as threats grow more complex.
But despite the absence of funding in the FY19 budget request, there are military leaders pushing back on the feet-dragging when it comes to getting after space-based sensors.
“There is a lot of [skepticism] about the technical feasibility and the cost, and those are valid concerns, those aren’t unrealistic concerns. We should always be worried about that,” Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, told reporters at an Association of the U.S. Army event on missile defense. “It has caused the department to continue to look at it and say: ’We are not quite ready, we need to study it a little more.’ But I think we are ready now.”
Hyten noted that the Missile Defense Agency director, Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, agrees that the U.S. is ready to work more seriously on space-based sensors.
The commander said he planned to speak with Congress over the next couple of weeks as it prepares its policy and spending bills. “I think time is ready, and we ought to move forward now,” he said.
During a speech at the Feb. 28 AUSA event, Hyten said the highest priority in global missile defense is getting after improved sensors. He noted the efforts to build a new Long Range Discrimination Radar in Alaska is a “critical piece of the puzzle” as well as improving radars across the board. But he added: “There are not enough ships, there are not enough islands in the Pacific that radars can answer all of your sensor questions.”
The military is “going to have to go to space to actually do the midcourse discrimination element of this mission,” Hyten said.
The MDA knows how to do this and has been working toward development of a midcourse tracking sensor for space, Hyten said, noting that the U.S. has had the ability track missiles before burnout in the geosynchronous orbit for five decades, but needs to build sensors that can see the rest of the trajectory after burnout.
In fact, Hyten said, the Air Force — in recognizing that ground-based radars from a sensor perspective would always be “deficient” — had a space-based solution in the 1980s.
Such a sensor would be able to discriminate the midcourse phase of a missile’s path, but it would also be able to look down from space and detect some other, new emerging threats like hypersonics, Hyten said.
The solution “was right there and it was actually affordable, it was going to cost a few billion dollars,” Hyten said. “But look how much money we’ve spent on radars, look at how much money we’ve spent on ground-based sensors … and then we still have exploitable holes.”
Despite the existence of available technology and affordable solutions, “we are struggling to get started with it, it’s taking way too long,” Hyten said.
Instead, the military has “built an architecture that is primarily focused on the ballistic missile characterization of the threat,” Hyten added. “Our adversaries have been watching that engagement, and that is why they are going after hypersonics and maneuvering re-entry vehicles and all the other pieces.”
Part of the reason for the lack of forward movement is due to budget fears, according to Hyten. “We always get afraid of the budget in space, we always get afraid of the sticker, but as we are arguing about the sticker in space, we are spending billions other ways.”
That fear is still reflected in the FY19 budget request.
According to a report from the Center for Strategic and International Studies released Feb. 28, the MDA’s budget continues to fail when it comes to advancing the space sensor layer.
While the MDA is funding the addition of two terrestrial-based radars in the Pacific, the space-based layer efforts are stagnant.
“Each of the last five administrations have had on paper some sort of space-based sensor layer for tracking and discrimination — but each has failed to deploy an operational constellation,” the report states. “The 2019 budget request continues to kick the can on space sensors. Absent a course correction, the Trump administration may become the sixth successive administration committed to these paper satellites.”
The report points to three lines in the MDA’s budget request related to a space-sensor layer. One is working to integrate a multispectral targeting system sensor onto a UAV to test the possibility of a future sensor. The MDA continues to fund the Space Tracking and Surveillance System demonstrators, but the report notes that funding in FY19 just sustains satellites as test assets. The budget also includes more work on the Space-based Kill Assessment payload, which is delayed by a year.
The report also notes more funding could be hidden in the MDA’s classified portion of the budget request, but ruled that unlikely.
Congress would likely support Hyten’s support for a ramp up in effort. Last year, Congress made an aggressive push for space-based missile defense by carving out language in the FY18 defense policy bill that asked the MDA to develop capabilities to track and respond to missile attacks from space.
And at the end of the year, 15 House Republican urged U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to support plans for boost-phase missile defense and a space-based missile intercept layer backed by the 2018 defense authorization law.
Jen Judson is the land warfare reporter for Defense News. She has covered defense in the Washington area for 10 years. She was previously a reporter at Politico and Inside Defense. She won the National Press Club's best analytical reporting award in 2014 and was named the Defense Media Awards' best young defense journalist in 2018.