Pentagon Wants More Missile Defense Capabilities in Space

By Jon Harper
Space Tracking and Surveillance System satellite concept art

The Missile Defense Agency is aiming to create a more robust network of space-based sensors and communications technologies to help protect the United States from ballistic missile attacks. But questions remain as to whether there will be enough funding in the near term to turn those ambitions into reality.

North Korea’s fervent efforts to advance its long-range missile and nuclear weapons capabilities have created a sense of urgency in Washington, D.C.

“In the not too distant future … North Korea is going to be able to test and have the capability to fire an intercontinental ballistic nuclear missile that can hit the lower 48 of the United States,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, a member of the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee, which oversees the Missile Defense Agency.

“The classified estimates might be a little scarier than some of you imagine,” he said at a recent missile defense conference hosted by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We need to develop an integrated layer of space-based missile defense sensors, and we need to start now.”

These technologies would benefit not only homeland defense, but also regional missile defense systems such as Patriot, Aegis and Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, he noted.

Rear Adm. Jon Hill, deputy director of the Missile Defense Agency, said the only way to ensure persistent “birth-to-death tracking” of enemy missiles is to have sophisticated sensors in space.

Ground-based radars are “inherently limited by the curvature of the Earth and physics,” he said at a separate conference on space issues hosted by CSIS. “Being able to look down and see the whole trajectory is pretty critical.”

Space-based assets can play an important role not just in intelligence and early warning, but also persistent flight tracking to enable successful intercepts by ground-based systems, he said.

Since 2009, the Missile Defense Agency has been operating an experimental Space Tracking and Surveillance System, or STSS. It consists of two satellites orbiting at 840 miles above the Earth. The system is equipped with sensors capable of detecting visible and infrared light. It can identify missiles in their boost phase and track reentry vehicles, according to a MDA fact sheet.

The technology has completed a series of on-orbit tests, and demonstrated “full calibrated performance” of the satellites, their crosslink systems, and the acquisition-and-track sensor payloads. It was able to provide tracking data to the ballistic missile defense system in near real-time, the fact sheet said.

Nevertheless, there are no plans to expand the system.

“We’re continuing to collect data but that’s … just feeding into the architecture studies,” Walter Chai, director of space systems at the Missile Defense Agency, said in an interview with National Defense.

“It’s unlikely that we’re going to copy the STSS and populate more, but it’s informing what the future systems will look like,” he added.
Hill said one key takeaway from the experiment is the cost-savings benefits of having multipurpose space systems.

“We ought to make our investments to where we can support multiple missions” such as intelligence and early warning, detection and moving into precision track, or moving data to firing units on the ground, he said.

Another key experiment is Space-based Kill Assessment, or SKA. It will consist of a network of small electro-optical infrared sensors that will perform a battle damage assessment mission, said program manager Michael Schlacter, who serves as Chai’s deputy.

The sensors are being developed by the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory.

Missile defense personnel need to know whether their interceptors hit their target before deciding whether to launch more. Without such information, they might waste precious interceptors against a target that has already been destroyed, officials have noted.

The SKA experiment “allows us to go up and collect phenomenology of intercepts,” Hill said. “We will be able to understand what an intercept looks like when it has occurred, and we can hold back on that other [interceptor] shot or redirect it to something else.”

The system is expected to generate sensor data on intercept characteristics, like the energy radiating from the intercept’s so-called fireball, that indicates payload type for the target object as well as how the intercept occurred, experts at CSIS explained in a recent report, “Missile Defense 2020: Next Steps for Defending the Homeland.”

The Space-based Kill Assessment project began in 2014. All of the flight hardware has already been delivered, and satellite integration began earlier this year. The ground system will be put through exercises in the coming months, and the sensors are expected to be on orbit next year, Schlacter said.

“SKA as a program is in great shape,” he said. “There are no obstacles to on-orbit deployment, which we hope will happen in 2018.” 

The Pentagon will conduct tests to determine the effectiveness of the technology.

“It’s going to be an experiment first but our hope is that it will be added to the operational [ballistic missile defense system] baseline,” Schlacter said.

It’s hard to say when the technology might make that transition, he added.

“It’s not a calendar-based answer, it’s really a data-driven answer,” he said. “When we have sufficient data to prove the efficacy of this capability, we believe that the warfighter will say, ‘Yep, that’s enough. I am convinced that this is good enough and provides enough benefit for you to add it.’”

A decision to proceed along these lines wouldn’t necessitate much follow-on work aside from possible tweaks to the ground component of the system such as the software, Schlacter said.

“We designed the space segment with the full expectation that it will become operational,” he added.

During the experiment, the sensors will piggyback on commercial satellites.

Using the hosted payload model made the project more affordable, officials noted.

“By leveraging the commercial side of the house we’re seeing huge cost advantages,” Hill said.

Schlacter said: “MDA in this case only has to pay for the payload. They don’t have to pay for the satellite structure itself, nor the rocket, nor the ground antennas or the data transport networks. … All of those costs are already borne by the commercial host.”

He estimated that the program would see 50 to 75 percent cost savings relative to traditional acquisition models.

The Missile Defense Agency also demonstrated that it could meet the business needs of commercial industry, he noted.

“Our experience on SKA has shown that MDA has really successfully worked inside of a commercial products and services contract strategy,” Schlacter said. 

Officials see industry as a critical enabler of efforts to deploy a robust missile defense architecture in space.

“There are a lot of satellites going up on the commercial side, and small sats are exploding,” said Gary May, chief engineer for advanced technology at the Missile Defense Agency. “There’s just a lot of things that we can smartly use to make space … more accessible and make programs easier to get started and get moving.”  

One effort slated to move forward next year is the CubeSat Networked Communications Experiment. In Spring 2018, the Missile Defense Agency plans to launch three breadbox-size 3U cubesats equipped with communications gear.

“One of the programs we have at MDA is looking at [deploying] multiple kill vehicles on a single interceptor,” May said. “We’re going to use these small satellites flying in formation to kind of mimic what a group of kill vehicles flying together would have to do and how they would have to communicate.”

A critical piece of any national missile defense architecture is the communications element, he noted.

“This is a chance for us to very soon start to understand what that communication network might have to look like,” he said. “If you have a network in space you’re going to need comms, perhaps you may even some day need to communicate from space to an interceptor. So those are all the sorts of things we can do leveraging this experiment.”

Additional work along these lines could be performed the following year with a focus on encryption, he added.

Down the road, Chai said the space-based components of the ballistic missile defense system must be responsive to evolving threats; resilient to attacks or other forms of disruption; and provide 24/7 coverage over areas of interest. They also have to be affordable.

“There are different ways to field this space system and I think we have high technology readiness that we could do that,” he said. “The question is: what’s the optimal way to develop this architecture?”

Officials are weighing different orbital regimes such as low-Earth, medium-Earth or geostationary, he said. They are also considering which kinds of technologies should be used, and whether commercial hosting will remain an option or the government needs to use its own satellites.

“All those are on the table,” Chai said. “We’ve been asking industry partners to help us sort through that — what are some of the innovative ideas to keep the costs low, … field rapidly and be persistent, resilient and responsive?”

Building a robust, space-based architecture is not a pipedream, he said. 

“The technology is there. And there are a lot of acquisition options” such as leveraging existing contracts or developing new ones.

The Missile Defense Agency recently completed an analysis of alternatives for sensor systems.

“It’s an investment for the nation, and so there’s got to be … a close look at what the alternatives are before we field a space sensor,” Chai said.

From a technical perspective, “I think it could be done rather rapidly,” he added.

There is less certainty about whether there will be enough funding.
The budget is the biggest obstacle to making the envisioned architecture a reality, Chai said. “I see that as the biggest hurdle to fielding a system, not the operations or the development.”

Tom Karako, a missile defense expert at CSIS, noted that building out the missile defense space component has been a long-stated priority of the government.

“The last five administrations have … had it on paper as a critical element for long-range missile defense … [but] for whatever reason it continues to get pushed back,” he said.

Between 2007 and 2016, MDA’s budget topline decreased 23 percent from $11 billion to $8.4 billion. And the space sensor budget has “gone off the cliff,” he said.

However, President Donald Trump has identified improving the nation’s missile defenses as one of his top priorities, and he suggested that funding for the effort would be beefed up under his watch.

A new ballistic missile defense review is currently under way at the Pentagon that could shape the future of the enterprise. Space-based assets are expected to be part of that study, officials have said.

The space layer “is something that I think the new administration has indicated they want to look at and they should look at,” Karako said.
Sullivan is optimistic that lawmakers are ready to put more money behind the effort to enhance missile defenses.

“There’s already bipartisan support there” on Capitol Hill, he said. And “we’re going to see a White House that’s more supportive.”

Sullivan said he and his colleagues plan to introduce a bill that would boost funding for capabilities such as space sensors.

Nevertheless, Hill doesn’t expect to see a financial windfall for missile defense.

“We have to be cost effective,” he said. “Despite what you’re hearing of truckloads of dollars pulling up to the Pentagon and dumping piles, I just don’t see that happening.” 


Topics: Space

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