New Missile Defense Review Has Echoes of Reagan’s Star Wars

New Missile Defense Review Has Echoes of Reagan’s Star Wars

President Trump’s speech today at the Pentagon to release DOD’s new Missile Defense Review (MDR) conjured memories of Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or  “Star Wars.”  The MDR calls not only for better space-based sensors to support ground-based missile defenses as expected, but restores Reagan’s vision of space-based interceptors.

SDI envisioned space-based systems that could destroy missiles during their boost-phase as they ascend through space enroute to a ground-based target.  They were to be part of a layered missile defense strategy to destroy incoming missiles during different phases of their trajectory — boost, mid-course, and terminal.

Two of the biggest criticisms of space-based interceptors were that they were technically infeasible and prohibitively expensive.  The perception of U.S. technological superiority gave the idea sufficient credence that many credit it with contributing to the collapse of the Soviet Union, but the technical and cost hurdles were too great.

The Strategic Defense Initiative Office (SDIO) morphed into the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) which continues to develop and implement missile defense using ground-, air- and sea-based radars and interceptors to protect against missiles launched by “rogue” states like Iran and North Korea.

Space-based sensors are crucial for missile defense systems to know when a missile is launched anywhere on the globe and track it “from birth to death.”  There is considerable interest in developing and deploying next-generation sensor systems.  It was widely expected that the new MDR would call for a space-based sensor layer.

It does, but goes further. Two paragraphs of the 18 page Executive Summary are devoted to the “Importance of Space.”

Later the report says “As directed by Congress, DoD will identify the most promising technologies, and estimated schedule, cost, and personnel requirements for a possible space-based defensive layer that achieves an early operational capability for boost-phase defense.”

During his speech, Trump said U.S. missile defense now will focus not only on ballistic missiles, but cruise and hypersonic missiles.  Instead of being designed to protect against launches from rogue states, it will protect against attacks from any adversary.  “We are committed to establishing a missile defense program that can shield every city in the United States.”

“Our goal is quite simple: to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States — anywhere, anytime, anyplace.” — President Donald Trump

Trump also said “space is a new warfighting domain, with the Space Force leading the way.”

During an off-camera, on-the-record press briefing after Trump’s remarks, DOD Under Secretary for Research and Engineering (USD/R&E) Michael Griffin cautioned that it will not happen overnight.

The technologies identified in the report are those  “we want to investigate, with experiments and prototypes and tests, and I’ll emphasize again tests, to see how well they work… You’ll start to see some of those experiments materialize over the next very few years. .. The first things that you’re going to see, the President specifically alluded to a space-based sensor layer. …  So look for  rapid progress on that.”

As for space-based interceptors, Griffin said DOD will be initiating “yet another study, designed to say, in fact, what has changed…. We’re going to take another look at it.”  Griffin has considerable experience in missile defense technology.  He was SDIO’s Deputy for Technology in the Reagan Administration. (Separately, he was Administrator of NASA during President George W. Bush’s second term.)

John Rood, Under Secretary for Policy, clarified there will also be a study of directed energy weapons in space, and both will be done in the “next few months.”

Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves, Director of MDA, emphasized it will be a step-by-step process.

“Crawl, walk, run. Under-promise, over-deliver, as in deliver in a timescale that we are promising soon. Prove things in the laboratory, prove things on the ground, maybe go to air, maybe go to space if that’s where it ends up. …

“We will take a very disciplined, milestone-driven — those are very key words — data-rich decision-making process to get there.” — Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves

Trump promised that his FY2020 budget request will include funding to move forward with new missile defense technologies, but added “we will insist on fair burden sharing” with allies:  “…many of them are so wealthy they can easily pay us the cost of this protection.”

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