There is growing evidence that the US Defense Department is reviving space-based missile defense, ostensibly to counter the rise in hypersonic missiles, which can allegedly bypass conventional missile defense systems including PatriotTHAADGround-Based Mid-Course Interceptor and sea and land-based SM-3 Aegis-type interceptors.

That’s because of the speed and maneuverability of hypersonic missiles such as Russia’s Zircon 3M22 sub or ship-launched hypersonic missile and others that may be in the Russian pipeline. China also is actively testing hypersonic platforms. 

Last year China tested three hypersonic models – labeled D18-1S, D-18-2S and D-18-3S – and a hypersonic glider that can be launched by a rocket, called Starry Sky 2 (Xing-Kong-2), a “wave-rider” platform that rides its own shock waves.

According to a Chinese statement, Starry Sky 2 “conducted extreme turning maneuvers, maintained velocities above Mach 5.5 – five-and-a-half times the speed of sound – for more than 400 seconds and achieved a top speed of Mach 6, or 7,344 km/h (4,563 mph).”  

While neither the Russian nor the Chinese tests indicate any of these platforms is operationally ready, the Pentagon figures it won’t be too long before that happens. Helping energize Pentagon decision making is very strong rhetoric, especially coming from Russia, including Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, who on February 20 in his State of the Nation speech said: “This is a hypersonic missile called Tsirkon. It will have the speed of Mach 9, it has a range of 1,000 kilometers (620 miles) and can hit navy or land targets. 

A few days later Putin said, referring to the cancelled Intermediate Range missile Treaty, that if the United States put intermediate-range nuclear missiles in Europe, Russia was ready for another Cuban-style missile crisis and would be ready to use hypersonic missiles, or as Putin put it: “Let them count (the missile flight times),” a clear reference to Zircon.

The first indication that the US was once more seriously thinking about space-based defense came from a February 15 solicitation to defense companies launched by the Pentagon’s DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

The intent of the solicitation was the first step, in the form of a White Paper from interested contractors, for a “Time-Sensitive Target Mission Payloads Demonstration.”  The solicitation, in the form of a Broad Agency Announcement  (BAA), has a deadline of March 15, a very short time.  The project is under the management of the Under Secretary for Research and Engineering and will probably be formally assigned to the new Space Development Agency proposed by President Trump.

According to the BAA, the United States should be prepared to “degrade, disrupt or destroy an adversary’s missiles” before they are launched. What this means, says the BAA, is that the missiles need to be countered shortly after launch and that in turn requires space-based technology.

In 1967 in a lecture at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, nuclear physicist and prime-mover of the US hydrogen bomb program Edward Teller (1908-2003) spoke about the need for space-based defense against ballistic missiles – hypersonic missiles did not exist then. He particularly promoted the idea of a space-based X-Ray laser that would be generated by a nuclear explosion in space and direct each X-Ray tube connected to the nuclear source toward an enemy missile shortly after the missile was launched. 

In the audience in 1967, according to former Secretary of State George Shultz, was California governor Ronald Reagan. Fast forward to 1983, and President Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative (“SDI”), sometimes derisively called the “Star Wars” program. The program had many components, including a late-entry solution called “Brilliant Pebbles.”

Brilliant Pebbles was first proposed in 1987 and wasn’t incorporated into the SDI program until 1990. It was the brainchild of Edward Teller and his protege Lowell Wood. The idea was to have some 7,000 missiles in orbit around the earth, with 700 of them over the Soviet Union at any one time. The missiles would have sophisticated infrared sensors and would pick up the launch of any Soviet ICBM, energizing the missile that would destroy the launched missile using only kinetic energy – “hit to kill,” which is the approach used by the US in its current-day missile defense systems other than Patriot, which has an explosive warhead.

But by 1991 the Soviet Union had collapsed, China was not yet thought of as a credible adversary and Congress increasingly objected to the SDI Program. By 1993 and the Clinton administration, SDI was officially shut down and the focus turned more to theater ballistic missile defenses, particularly THAAD, which has had very mixed test results. 

‘Destabilizing’

The SDI organization in DOD was closed down and replaced by the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, which is now the Missile Defense Agency).  

Objections to SDI took different forms but mainly focused on whether the technology was good enough to work effectively. Because of the complexity of the SDI program, not all the technology was tested and many of the complaints about the program were aimed at blocking the program because it would be “destabilizing.” 

Scientists worried it worked against the Mutually Assured Destruction (“MAD”) principle that animated nuclear power politics between the USSR and the United States. Destabilizing meant that with “real” missile defenses the US might obtain a first strike capability and that even the threat itself could stimulate the Russians to act before SDI was made operational. 

Teller rejected this argument and wrote a book in 1987 largely about missile defenses and defense technology called Better a Shield Than a Sword: Perspectives on the Defense and Technology (Free Press). He also lobbied for SDI, appearing before Congress and on television programs, perhaps the most important in a “Firing Line” TV interview on October 19, 1987 where Teller explained that most of the scientific objections to SDI were not technical arguments but “political and emotional” and came from the guilt felt by many scientists over the Hiroshima bombing. 

Teller, in the same TV program, made a strong case for international cooperation in SDI. By 1986, the US had signed classified agreements with Germany, the United Kingdom, Italy, Japan and Israel on SDI industrial cooperation. Teller argued that international cooperation and in future possible SDI cooperation with Russia made sense if the purpose of SDI was to provide “active” civil defense against mass missile attacks.

The new DARPA request – unlike SDI and the philosophical ideas that underpinned active civil defense – specifically excludes any foreign cooperation. As the BAA makes clear: “Time-Sensitive Target Mission Payloads Demonstration (TSTMPD) BAA Industry Day on 1 March 2019. The TSTMPD BAA Industry Day will be held at the collateral Secret level, and all participants must possess an active Secret clearance to participate. Foreign Nationals may not participate in the TSTMPD BAA Industry Day.” 

What this means right now is that close allies and friends of the United States, especially those with extensive ballistic missile defense capabilities or unique science or technological know-how, cannot participate in the new DARPA program.  

Times have changed

Much has changed since the SDI program was canceled in 1993. North Korea and Iran, for example, today have long-range missile capabilities. China has grown far more powerful and its relationship to Russia has changed from the 1980s where China feared Soviet missiles to where China and Russia cooperate on a wide range of sensitive military and missile programs.

It is easy to forget that in the 1980s China feared Russia and was asking the United States for help countering Russian long-range missiles on its border. And today there is emerging a new generational threat of hypersonic missiles, with Russia and China leading the United States.

As the DARPA announcement makes clear, this means a space-based defense that would require a Brilliant Pebbles-type system to counter current and emerging threats. Hypersonic missiles can only be killed if intercepted early in their flight by hypersonic interceptors, which may be some way off. A space-based interceptor before they reach hypersonic velocities may be the key.

It would seem that Brilliant Pebbles is again emerging as a credible means to counter such threats. An open question is whether the United States will invite allied and friendly countries into the effort or continue to shut them out.