By Kingston Reif
The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2020 defense budget request contains unexpected proposals to fund space-based missile defense weapons. Submitted to Congress in mid-March, the request seeks funds for the Missile Defense Agency (MDA) to develop and test by 2023 a prototype space-based laser weapon to destroy intercontinental ballistic missiles during their boost and midcourse phases of flight. The budget submission includes $34 million for the new program in fiscal year 2020 and $380 million over the next five years.
“The addition of the neutral particle beam effort will design, develop, and conduct a feasibility demonstration for a space-based, directed-energy intercept layer,” the budget documents state. “This future system will offer new kill options for the [ballistic missile defense system] and adds another layer of protection for the homeland.”
In addition, the budget request for the new Space Development Agency includes $15 million to “develop a government reference architecture for a space-based kinetic interceptor layer for boost-phase defense.”
Critics have argued that space-based interceptors are an unaffordable, ineffective, and destabilizing form of defense. Rep. Adam Smith, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, warned in a Jan. 17 statement on the Missile Defense Review that “a space-based interceptor layer…has been studied repeatedly and found to be technologically challenging and prohibitively expensive.”
The administration’s Missile Defense Review report, released on Jan. 17, proposed a six-month feasibility study “of the concepts and technology for space-based defenses.” (See ACT, March 2019.) The report gave no indication that the MDA would pursue the neutral particle beam.
Overall, the budget submission would sustain increased funding levels for missile defense. The administration is asking for $13.6 billion for missile defense efforts in fiscal year 2020, an increase of $700 million, or 5.4 percent, above what the administration requested for fiscal year 2019. Of that amount, $9.4 billion would be for the MDA.
The request for the MDA is $1.1 billion less than Congress appropriated in fiscal year 2019. In a March 12 Pentagon press briefing, Comptroller Elaine McCusker disputed claims that the reduction is inconsistent with the Missile Defense Review’s call for an expansion of missile defense capabilities. She said the reduction was planned and reflected a surge in missile defense capabilities in 2018 and 2019 that is winding down.
She added that the Pentagon is investing an additional $1.3 billion in technologies outside of the MDA budget.
The program to protect the U.S. homeland against a limited, long-range missile attack, known as the Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system, would receive about $1.7 billion under the budget proposal, a decrease of about $160 million from last year’s spending level.
Notably, the request proposes to delay by two years the previous plan to increase the number of ground-based interceptors deployed in Alaska from 40 to 60 by 2023, citing the need to refine the design of a more reliable kill vehicle that would arm the additional interceptors. The Government Accountability Office had raised several red flags about the new kill vehicle program. (See ACT, July/August 2017.)
On March 25, the MDA conducted a successful intercept test of the GMD system against an intercontinental-range ballistic missile target. For the first time, the test involved firing two interceptors against one target. In a real-world scenario, multiple interceptors would be fired at an incoming missile.
The MDA has now conducted 19 intercept tests of the system, of which 11 have been reported as successful.