The United States should not hesitate to begin deploying new space-based sensors for missile defense warning giving the rising threat of Russian and Chinese hypersonic missiles.
That’s the recommendation of Rebeccah Heinrich, an expert on missile defense and nuclear weapons affiliated with the Hudson Institute.
She argues that though the other great powers are actually years away from deploying hypersonic missiles despite recent claims that such systems are already in place by Russia, Beijing and Moscow have begun contesting the U.S. in certain regions of the world, which is fueling their weapons development programs.
If the United States is really going to “develop a state-of-the-art missile defense system to protect against missile-based attacks from states like Iran and North Korea” as stated in a Trump administration policy document, the United States must shore up weaknesses in the current sensor architecture. That also requires committing the resources necessary to deploy a space-based sensor constellation.
The current U.S. missile defense architecture relies on a combination of terrestrial and sea-based sensors (and a very limited space-based sensor layer) to cue defensive systems. While impressive and effective against many of the ballistic missiles the United States is trained on, the threats emanating from North Korea and Iran, the missile defense systems are only as capable as their sensors. Ground and sea-based systems will always be limited by permanent problems like the curvature of the earth that make difficult persistent tracking from the birth of the missile until intercept.
The vantage point of space, looking down at the earth, deals with that problem handily, and will provide a complement — not a replacement — for the current sensors deployed around the globe. Talk is cheap and the solutions are often expensive, but not as expensive as not doing it. This is the message of Strategic Command’s Gen. John Hyten, who, days before Putin’s brag fest bluntly stated: “There are not enough ships, there are not enough islands in the Pacific that radars can answer all of your sensor questions.”
Read the full assessment here.