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Pentagon sees space as next frontier

Defense Secretary James Mattis introduced Vice President Mike Pence this month before he announced the administration’s plan to create a Space Force by 2020.
Defense Secretary James Mattis introduced Vice President Mike Pence this month before he announced the administration’s plan to create a Space Force by 2020.Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

WASHINGTON — President Trump’s quest to create a Space Force to stand equally with the Air Force, Army, and Navy is overshadowing a significant shift already well underway in the US military toward the development of new orbiting defenses and futuristic weaponry.

The United States is perched on the threshold of a new era in space militarization, with rising threats from global rivals and fresh impetus from a new administration that is eager to engage in a high-tech arms race. Advances in technology and lower barriers to deploying satellites are enabling Pentagon planners to think big.

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Space hawks in the Department of Defense and Congress, for instance, are pushing for a laser or particle-beam weapon to be deployed in Earth’s orbit within a decade, regardless of whether Trump’s dream of a Space Force comes to fruition. If such a weapon system made it over the inevitable political and financial hurdles, it would mark a partial return to the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, which has been largely on ice since the early 1990s.

Call it “Son of Star Wars.”

The most immediate goals are to better leverage space as a critical front in the defense of the United States against long-range ballistic missiles from North Korea and Iran and a newly emerging threat: super-fast Chinese and Russian hypersonic missiles. That means building better eyes and ears in orbit with a new array of satellites, a “sensor layer’’ that could cost tens of billions of dollars.

This new tech race involves existing branches of the armed services, especially the Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency, which is responsible for antimissile installations in California and Alaska. There is only lukewarm support in the Pentagon to create a new branch, a Space Force to take over this new military frontier, and considerable skepticism in Congress about hugely costly systems that remain unproven.

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Lawmakers remain in the dark about the Trump administration’s overall missile defense strategy, as they continue to wait for a report called the Missile Defense Review that was supposed to be completed at the end of 2017.

Space-based weapons “would elicit a guaranteed response from Russia, China, and other countries that would further escalate the overall expenditures that would have to be made,’’ said Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat. “We need the report first; otherwise instead of spending smart, we’re going to spend crazy.’’

Adam Routh, an analyst at the Center for a New American Security, a Washington think tank, said the Space Force idea is getting all the media attention, but lots of space-related work is going on already, much of it classified.

“Space is one of the areas,’’ he said, “where the general public is most ignorant.’’

The latest proposals are giving arms control advocates the jitters, but military officials and hawks in Congress say an array of new global threats demands urgency.

“In the United States, we’ve been on holiday for 25 years’’ while Russia and China have forged ahead on advanced weapons, Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin said at a Washington conference soon after his Senate confirmation this year. “We kind of went to sleep.’’

President Trump.
President Trump. Al Drago/New York Times

Both Russia and China claim to have developed prototypes of super-fast hypersonic missiles that go much faster than the speed of sound and are extremely difficult to defend against.

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Russia, which says it can put a conventional or nuclear warhead on its hypersonic missiles, has released dramatic videos of a prototype. The video showed an animation of the missile skirting ground-based radar, which is still the backbone of US defenses.

The Pentagon wants to accelerate a program to build its own hypersonic missiles, fitted with conventional warheads. The most promising version of this technology features a rocket that boosts the warhead into near space, then allows it to break loose and surf the top of the atmosphere, achieving speeds as fast as 5 miles a second on the way back to Earth.

The United States has lagged on hypersonic missiles because of the constraints forced by 17 years of the war on terrorism and seven years of strict Department of Defense budget caps, said Thomas Karako, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. Karako noted that the Pentagon’s most recent national defense strategy shifted the focus to global competition with Russia and China.

“Are we serious about prosecuting that goal? If we are, then we have to take this mission much more seriously,’’ he said.

Congress is attempting to jump-start new programs with a few billion dollars, a fraction of what will be needed over the long term. Big defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, Waltham-based Raytheon, and Boeing are bidding to design next-generation weapons. The Pentagon awarded Lockheed Martin $1 billion to build a hypersonic missile prototype last year.

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Griffin, a veteran of Reagan’s SDI team as well as a former NASA administrator, is one of the premier voices in Trump’s Pentagon for deploying weapons of much greater technological sophistication.

“In the area of hypersonics, to pick one, both China and Russia are ahead of where our current state of practice is,’’ Griffin said this year. “We’re playing catchup ball.’’

A quest by North Korea and Iran for nuclear ballistic missiles is another key driver for a stronger US presence in space.

The United States wants to deploy a more extensive array of satellites in orbit, carrying infrared trackers and other types of sensors, to target enemy ballistic missiles. Looking at missiles from the side, against the cool backdrop of space, makes them easier to spot than looking up at them with radar from Earth.

To shoot down those missiles once they have been targeted, new kinetic interceptors are being developed, including new systems by Raytheon. Killing a missile with another missile has proved extremely difficult. Failures have received heavy attention. Some of the latest defensive weapons will be able to launch multiple projectiles that can maneuver — working like high-tech buckshot at the edges of space — to increase the odds of hitting an enemy missile.

Griffin is among those advocating that the United States build interceptors in space or a space-based laser or particle beam system to shoot down enemy missiles — whether they are fired by Russia, China, North Korea, or Iran.

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“By the latter part of the next decade I want a device that can go in space and protect us against enemy strategic missiles,’’ Griffin said in congressional testimony earlier this year. “These things are within our grasp if we focus our efforts.’’

The US Air Force also has an experimental unmanned spacecraft, not much bigger than a U-Haul truck, called the X-37B, built by Boeing. It looks like a miniature space shuttle. It has performed a few secret missions to space. Experts have speculated that it is being used to test the latest satellite-based sensors and tracking systems. More conspiracy-minded people have speculated that the X-37B could be used to destroy or spy on enemy satellites.

Space X, the commercial rocket company founded by entrepreneur Elon Musk, launched the X-37B on a secret mission last year. Experts say it’s an example of how an increase in commercial rockets and the potential for smaller, lighter, cheaper satellites will help fuel a new military space race.

Sunrise from the vantage point of the International Space Station, about 220 miles above the surface of the Earth.
Sunrise from the vantage point of the International Space Station, about 220 miles above the surface of the Earth.Scott Kelly/NASA via AP

Even so, costs could be high. A space-based defensive system with interceptors aimed at, say, the Korean peninsula might cost $25 billion, while a system to cover all global missile threats would cost up to $200 billion, according to a 2011 government-sponsored analysis.

The United States put most development of space weapons on the shelf when it pulled the plug on the Strategic Defense Initiative in 1993 and refocused attention on ground-based missile defense.

The latest developments are causing discomfort, if not outright alarm, among arms control advocates, who say they make the world a more dangerous place.

Blinding enemy satellites and deploying systems that make it easier to shoot down nuclear missiles erodes the doctrine of nuclear deterrence. In theory, it upsets the balance of “mutually assured destruction’’ that supposedly keeps any side from launching its missiles.

Hypersonic missiles, whether they are armed with nuclear or conventional weapons, are similarly destabilizing, critics say.

Because they go so fast, they greatly compress the time that commanders have to make decisions in a crisis. That could increase the chance of someone hastily launching nuclear weapons. Independent experts have confirmed the risk.

“Hypersonic missiles create new challenges to global security,’’ said a 2017 report by the Rand Corporation, a global nonprofit policy think tank, explaining they “encourage hair-trigger tactics that would increase crisis instability.’’

Calls for a space-based laser or particle beam in space, meanwhile, are generating similar worries. Arms control advocates warn that a return to the futuristic concept would destabilize the delicate balance of global nuclear deterrence. The result would be a new arms race with unpredictable outcomes.

“Continuing the norm of not weaponizing space is a tremendous benefit to us,’’ said Kingston Reif, director of disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association, a Washington nonprofit.

Reif also expressed concern about attempting to match Russia and China on hypersonic missiles.

“Everybody is taking for granted that just because the Russians and Chinese are rushing headlong forward to develop hypersonic weapons, that we need to do so as well,’’ he said.

“There’s virtually no discussion about these stability concerns, at least not in public in the Defense Department.’’


Christopher Rowland can be reached at christopher.rowland@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeRowland.