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former Administrator of the National Nuclear Security Administration
March 7, 2018
U.S. Aims to Deploy Space-Based Missile Interceptors in Five Years

Wade Boese

The United States is exploring concepts for basing missile interceptors in space with the objective of beginning deployment of three to five armed satellites for testing purposes as early as 2008, according to recent Pentagon briefings and statements.

An official for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency (MDA), which oversees missile defense research and development, stressed in a February 6 interview that the effort to create a so-called space-based test bed, comprising at least three satellites, is in the preliminary stages. The official said no design for the satellites yet exists and that MDA will seek to draw up specifications for possible systems this year. The agency plans to award contracts to private companies as early as next winter to start work on design proposals.

The guiding idea is to field satellites armed with multiple hit-to-kill interceptors capable of destroying a ballistic missile through a high-speed collision shortly after its launch. Ideally, the interceptor would hit the missile in its boost phase, when the rocket engines are still firing and the warhead has not yet separated from the missile.

The proposal is reminiscent of former President George H. W. Bush’s “Brilliant Pebbles” concept, which the Clinton administration shelved after assuming office in January 1993. The elder Bush’s plan, however, was much more ambitious than current thinking, envisioning up to 1,000 interceptors based in orbit.

Past U.S. efforts to develop space-based missile defenses have failed, largely due to a combination of technological infeasibility, other funding priorities, and strong congressional opposition. With Republicans, who are generally more supportive of missile defense efforts than Democrats, in control of Congress, the Pentagon’s plans are more likely to win legislative approval unscathed.

While the MDA official emphasized that any interceptors initially deployed in space would be strictly for testing, other countries leery about U.S. missile defense plans, such as China, might draw different conclusions, particularly since the Bush administration announced in December 2002 that missile defense systems previously described as being for testing purposes would serve as the initial elements of a multilayered missile defense system.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld highlighted the dual nature of U.S. missile defense programs at a February 13 Senate Armed Services Committee hearing, stating, “I would characterize what we have proposed as simultaneously a test bed as well as a minimal deployment. It is both things.” Rumsfeld was referring to the ground-based missile defense system to be set up in Alaska and California next year, but presumably a space-based test bed would also have some operational capability.

China is spearheading efforts at the Geneva-based UN Conference on Disarmament, which operates by consensus, to negotiate an agreement on the prevention of an arms race in outer space. (See ACT, March 2003.) One of the driving concerns behind China’s proposal is the potential deployment of U.S. missile defense elements in space.

The United States is opposing the Chinese proposal, arguing that there is no arms race in outer space and that the 1967 Outer Space Treaty, which bans the deployment of weapons of mass destruction in space, is sufficient.