Space-based interceptors still far, far away

In a little-noticed provision in the 2016 defense authorization bill, Congress asked the heads of the Missile Defense Agency and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency to begin figuring out what a new space-based ballistic missile intercept program might look like.

In other words: interceptors prepositioned in space. Such an addition, lawmakers said, would provide another way to defend against direct-ascent antisatellite weapons, like those often associated with China and Russia, and hypersonic glide vehicles, whose missile-shield-breaching maneuverability concern Defense Department officials.

“We need to be pursing space-based missile defense,” Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said earlier this year. “One of the advantages of space-based missile defense is that if you have a missile launch in North Korea or you have a missile launch in Iran, a spacebased missile defense can take out one or two or three missiles before it can cross over and do damage,”

This year, both the House and Senate drafts of the defense authorization bill seek to move the potential program a half step further.

The House bill asks the head of the MDA to include the program in its 2018 budget with plans for an on-orbit demonstration in 2025. The Senate said the director of the MDA can begin coordinating program activities once it submits a report defining the concept of the program.

Michaela Dodge, an analyst at the Heritage Foundation, called this a “decidedly positive step.”

Ground-Space_based_hybrid_laser_weapon_concept_artBut interceptors in space, an idea once derided as “Star Wars” when it was a hallmark of the Reagan-era Strategic Defense Initiative, still seem more likely in a galaxy far, far away from today’s policy and budgetary environment.

For starters, current White House officials think interceptors in space are a terrible idea.

“There currently is no requirement for a space-based intercept and there are concerns about the technical feasibility and long-term affordability of interceptors in space,” the White House said in a statement of administration policy opposing both the House and Senate versions of the authorization bill.

Navy Vice Adm. James Syring, the head of the MDA, also bristled at the idea. During a posture hearing this spring, Syring told the House Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee he has “serious concerns about the technical feasibility of the interceptors in space, and I have serious concerns about the long term affordability of a program like that.”

Rep. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.), the ranking member of the HASC’s strategic forces subcommittee, called it a “pipe dream.”

Yes, folks on Capitol Hill fear that too much of MDA’s budget is spent on procurement and not enough on research and development. Cost estimates for a spacebased interceptor program vary widely, ranging from $30 billion to $300 billion over 20 years.

For comparison, the Defense Department plans to spend about $22 billion on all of its space programs this year. The acquisition of the much-beleaguered Space Based Infrared System satellites is about $19 billion. Thirty billion, much less $300 billion, would be a gigantic investment and would make it one of the Defense Department’s most expensive programs.

MDA is clearly not interested in traveling this path; the little amount of work they’ve done thus far, beginning concept definition, is simply checking a box for Congress.