Pentagon Officials Tout Space-Based Defense Against Emerging Missile Threats
By OTTO KREISHER, Seapower Correspondent
WASHINGTON — The nation cannot defend itself and its allies against the emerging missile threats, including hypersonic weapons, without space assets, a trio of top Pentagon officials said Sept. 4.
“We cannot do what we need to do in missile defense without space,” said Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering.
Space-based sensors can provide the early warning and persistent tracking of a missile threat that cannot be achieved by land- and sea-based sensors, but they will not replace those terrestrial assets, said Air Force Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, director of the Missile Defense Agency.
That view was echoed by John Rood, the undersecretary of defense for policy, at a Capitol Hill forum sponsored by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
All three of the officials cited the growing missile threat from Russia and China, including development of hypersonic weapons — missiles that can go at more than four times the speed of sound, or Mach 4 — as well as the growing ballistic missile capabilities shown by Iran and North Korea.
Because you can never hit a target you cannot see, “China’s hypersonic threat tells me we need to go to space,” Griffin said.
Griffin, whose involvement in missile defense dates to the Strategic Defense Initiative, or “Star Wars,” programs started by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, said the current missile defense system Greaves manages is able to handle “a middle-size raid” of strategic ballistic missiles, but is not set up to defeat hypersonic weapons.
“We do not have today a system that give us the multidomain, persistent, timely approach to missile defense that we need,” Griffin said.
Greaves said the missile defense system currently deployed “meets today’s threats, but we need to keep pace with and exceed the emerging threats,” which include hypersonic weapons.
To counter a missile, “you must maintain custody of the threat from birth to death. … You need more than one type of sensor to do that,” he said.
To counter hypersonic weapons, “you need to know where the targets are right now. … Those requirements alone would drive me to a space-based missile defense,” Griffin said.
Rood noted that the new National Defense Strategy stresses the need to address the return of great powers competition in today’s “dynamic, complex, global security environment,” and the area of missile defense threats fits into that environment. He said when he reads the morning intelligence briefings, “it’s hard not to see missile defense” as an issue. “It’s not just a ballistic missile threat, but also cruise missiles and the coming hypersonic.”
Although the current missile defense focus is on increasing and improving space-based sensors, the Pentagon has been directed by Congress to also work toward space-based interceptors.
For better anti-missile defenses, Griffin said, “directed energy is where we want to go in the long run. And I want the long run to be as short as possible. We’ll be pushing advances in directed energy … as long as I’m in this position. I think it is the path to the future.”
In response to a question, Griffin said he was confident they could get the power needed for a lethal laser in a satellite. “We need to go out and develop what we need.”
But, he conceded, he did not believe a space-based laser was “a promising tactic going after hypersonics,” because those weapons would operate in the lower atmosphere, which can diminish the effect of lasers.
Griffin said he has become “very tired of people who say we cannot afford” space-based missile defense. Using the cost of putting a certain amount of weight into orbit, he estimated that a thousand space-based directed energy systems would cost no more than $20 billion. “We’ve paid a lot more than that for less capability,” he said.