‘Star Wars’ Redux: Experts Debate Reviving Strategic Defense Initiative

By Stew Magnuson
A 1984 artist's concept of a space laser satellite defense system

Art: Air Force

It was 25 years ago when the Clinton administration announced the demise of the Strategic Defense Initiative, a Reagan-era program which sought to create a shield against the Soviet Union’s intercontinental ballistic missiles.

The end of the Soviet Union was the primary reason for the program’s 1993 cancellation. Then Defense Secretary Les Aspin stripped out the space portion of the initiative — better known to the public as “Star Wars.” What remained were the ground-based missile defense programs being pursued today.

But a quarter century later, Russia is again seen as the United States most serious rival, with China and North Korea and its missile arsenals added to the mix. In addition, Russia and China both report advances in hypersonic technology, weapons that travel at speeds of Mach 5 plus.

It is time to add space-based solutions back in the missile defense mix, Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said Dec. 1 at the Reagan National Defense Forum held at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, California.

The National Defense Authorization Act of 2017 redefined and broadened the definition of missile defense to include emerging threats, Kyl said. “This language I believe launches us into another Strategic Defense Initiative 2.0 to deal with the peer competitors — Russia and China — not only theater-range defenses.”

It would be seen by potential rivals — as it was conceived during the Reagan administration — as a deterrent. A layered missile defense, which would include space-based sensors and defensive weapons, would not necessarily defeat every missile launched toward the United States, but it would stop most of them, thus making the decision to attack the United States more complicated, Kyl said.

“We can kill an enemy missile, but the question is: can we deter an enemy attack?” he asked. That can only happen if the United States has the ability to defeat many missiles launched at the same time. Current missile defense systems may be able to shoot down an individual missile, but the system could not handle a “swarm,” he noted. “My point is we don’t have that capability deployed today.”

Retired Air Force Gen. Hawk Carlisle, former Air Combat Command commander, said as it stands today, missile defense systems can’t handle a swarm scenario. It would entail deploying $10 million kill vehicles to take out $10,000 missiles. But there are technologies in development such as directed energy weapons that can change that equation.

“We are at an inflection point today,” Carlisle said.

A new system would have to have a space-based sensor suite as well as some deployed on land and sea, said Carlisle, who is now president and CEO of the National Defense Industrial Association, publisher of National Defense. “You have to have all that interconnected so it shares and talks and learns from each other. You have to be able to characterize a launch as rapidly as you can and determine what the trajectory is and what the probable impact point is.”

Thomas Kennedy, chairman and CEO of Raytheon, said much of the technology to kick off a Strategic Defense Initiative 2.0 is mature. A lot of progress has been made in the past 25 years. Directed energy weapons such as high-energy lasers and high-powered microwaves have matured in the past few decades and are ready to be fielded, he said. Those, along with cyber effects and conventional kinetic weapons, could destroy missiles in the boost phase when they are most vulnerable. Underlying all these new technologies are improvements to artificial intelligence and machine learning, he said. They can be applied to missile defense, he added.

Kennedy said what has changed most since SDI was cancelled is that its infrastructure could be obtained at a “reasonable cost.” The commercialization of space has led to less expensive satellites and reduced launch fees, he noted. The question then becomes: what is reasonable?

The emergence of hypersonics and claims by Russia and China that they have made significant advances in the technology is another factor that has changed since SDI’s demise in 1993.

Carlisle said he believed those claims and that defeating Mach 5 plus weapons is a priority in the Defense Department. SDI had a three-star general in charge of the program, he noted. The Army, Navy and Air Force are all involved in hypersonics, but need to be more cohesive, he said.

“That is a strategic technology that we cannot allow ourselves to fall behind in anymore, because I think we already are,” Carlisle said.

A space-based sensor system could track hypersonic weapons “from birth to death,” Kennedy added.

However, the Defense Department has competing budget priorities. Missile defense is only one of them. Kyl acknowledged that the Budget Control Act and sequestration may return. If that happens, SDI 2.0 “won’t be properly resourced and we won’t be able to get to the things we are talking about here today.”

“The priority depends on the costs involved, the timeframes, the viability of the technology that we can employ, and other strategic factors. … I would personally put it at a pretty high level in our [funding] planning,” Kyl said.

Topics: Space, Missile Defense, Strategic Weapons

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