With North Korean missiles on everyone’s mind, it’s no wonder Americans and their elected representatives are searching for a solution.  While Secretary Mattis has (so far) been successful in convincing a public and a Congress that any military solution to North Korea is messy at best, every time Kim tries something else, we publicly go through our military options.  The United States must now give serious thought to a troubling opinion:  North Korea may be beyond deterrence.  The old-school Cold War strategies of “you nuke me, and I’ll nuke you back” do not carry as much appeal in today’s world.  Nuclear annihilation, or any annihilation, just isn’t a viable option.  We needed something better when we had Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD), and we need something better now.  So once again, we return to the idea of Missile Defense with renewed vigor.  The House is now contemplating bringing back a Reagan-era idea for space-based missile defense.[1]


Defend Against the Indefensible

The United States has pursued Missile Defense for decades.  When the Russians fielded their first intercontinental ballistic missile, the United States scientific community was at odds on how to counter such a thing.  Could we shoot it down?  The physics alone on intercepting something moving at 10 km/second was mind-boggling.  It becomes ridiculous when you have thousands of them. This is why the intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) remains a perfect strategic weapon.  It is indefensible.

From the start, the Pentagon has been searching for ways to improve US missile defense capabilities to close this defense gap and eventually overtake the missile threat.  Enter the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a pre-cursor to the modern day DARPA.  This organization loves impossible problems. So when Nicholas Christofilos came to them in the mid-1950s with an idea to create a no-kidding missile shield, they jumped on it.  Christofilos claimed if we detonated enough nuclear weapons just above the atmosphere it would create a band of high energy electrons trapped by the Earth’s magnetic field just above the atmosphere.  The Christofilos Effect would render inoperable anything passing through the shield.  Soviet warheads nullified.  The United States was so intrigued by this ludicrous idea they tested it, three times.  Project Argus, the only truly classified nuclear project in US history, detonated three nuclear warheads in the upper atmosphere at 340, 115, and 84 nautical miles high.  It worked, but not as well as hoped.  The data suggested the US would have to detonate megaton after megaton on a recurring basis to “recharge” the shield.[2]  The effect was also not nearly as strong as desired.  While the effect blacked out radars and disabled all radio signals, it was not enough to destroy incoming warheads.

There was no magic shield.  To kill an incoming warhead would require a kinetic touch.  To kill thousands of them would require thousands of touches.


MAD was Insane

Ronald Reagan hated the concept of Mutual Assured Destruction, despite the stability it appeared to provide.  The idea that no one could win did not sit right with the new President.  He continued the search for a way to nullify incoming missiles.  High Frontier, led by Retired Lieutenant General Daniel Graham, pushed a forward based missile defense system.  However, Graham could not get air defenses close enough to Russia, so the forward based defense was space-based.  He created the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).  The Reagan Administration loved it.

The program was commonly referred as Star Wars because many of its ideas included nuclear-powered x-ray lasers, subatomic particle beams, and precision-guided projectiles fired from electromagnetic rail guns; all under the control of an artificial intelligence supercomputer.[3]  30 years later, it still sounds like science fiction.  The Soviet version of SDI was called Polyus and entailed spaced-based lasers and guided missiles.  Thier system was not designed to stop US ICBMs but to attack the US SDI satellites.[4]

Developing unproven laser and missile technology, equipping them on satellites, and operating a global network from space was the easy part.  Graham knew his project was sunk by something as simple as launch.  SDI would require thousands of space launches to create a global defense system capable of intercepting hundreds or thousands of reentry vehicles.  The cost of SDI would be unprecedented unless launch costs were reduced. This is where missile defense crosses paths with hypersonics.  Single-Stage-To-Orbit (SSTO) was the only way SDI would ever be cheap enough to be realistic.  X‑20, X‑30, DC‑XA and the National Aerospace Plane were all attempts to achieve SSTO and make SDI possible.  They all failed to deliver in some sense.  SDI ran into insurmountable billion-dollar technical issues that defeated the program, SSTO was only one of those.

In 1993, The Strategic Defense Initiative Office (SDIO) became the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization (BMDO) and then became the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).  The name changes represented a paradigm shift in space policy and the strategic context that existed. Missile Defense was still desired, but to do it from space without cheap launch was not worth the effort.  The whole concept shifted to ground‑launched interceptors and radar systems.  There were no Soviets anymore, so the program did not have to embrace wide-band defense and was eventually pared down to today’s Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) program, one with a specific and limited strategic context. Regional, not global. BMD interceptors still fly through space, but they are big, expensive, and multi-stage.  While the strategic effect of BMD is useful, the tactical effectiveness of BMD is questionable.

The apparent lack of effectiveness in today’s missile defenses are a product of policies we have left behind, namely the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and Mutual Assured Destruction.


I’m Not MAD

The current nuclear confrontation is not MAD.  Only North Korea’s destruction is assured.  The only thing mutual is that no sane person one wants a nuke to go off anywhere.  MAD is a deterrence strategy, and if North Korea is beyond deterrence, such strategies will not work.  Therefore, if they cannot be deterred, they must be defeated.  We need to deal with the eventuality of North Korean missiles flying over American territory.  Combatting and defeating those missiles is of the utmost importance.  Striking those missiles while they are on the ground is one way to defeat them, but universally accepted as a really bad idea.  Our ground-based midcourse defense system is the bastard step-child of SDI’s leftovers.  It is also our only remaining defense against these missiles, and its usefulness is questionable at best.  We need something better.

Is a new SDI the answer?  High energy lasers have come a long way since the 1980s, so have rail-guns, computing power, and artificial intelligence.  Are we ready for a fresh look at wide-band, global missile defense?  Are we finally ready for the Strategic Defense Initiative?  Many believe we are.

The old SDI was also a mid-course defense, engaging warheads near their apogee in space.  It was also attempting to thwart thousands of Russian warheads and decoys, with our very survival at stake.  This new system is boost-phase defense.  These interceptors would launch from low earth orbit and strike missiles at their weakest, while their rocket motors are still firing and they are easily detectable.  It only needs to combat a few missiles, and our national survival is not on the line.  The stakes are considerably lower, and the technology is considerably better.  Why not take another shot at SDI?


Because It’s Never That Easy

Physics was never really the problem.  Politics, strategy, and economics highlight the real problems with space-based systems.  However, since we’re on physics, here are some issues physics has with space-based missile defense.

Today, our missile defense is regional.  Space-based missile defense requires such a system be global.  When we abandoned SDI, we abandoned the concept of global missile defense.  Earth based systems are regional by definition and by physics. The system fielded in the Pacific is designed specifically to combat missile launches from North Korea, but only from North Korea.  Physics prohibits ‘regional’ space-based missile shields.  Geostationary satellites are used for regional effects because they sit on a stationary piece of earth.  However, GEO satellites are 22,500 miles up.  No interceptor could reach a warhead in time.  Physics demands the interceptors or kill vehicles be in low earth orbit.  LEO satellites move relative to the ground. Therefore it would require many satellites to keep the target area in view continually. To combat the relatively meager number of North Korean missiles, the US would need hundreds of interceptors in low earth orbit.  This makes ALL space-based missile defense global.  A regional system is not possible from space.

To date, US efforts to build viable missile defense has cost $180 BILLION.  A marginally effective global system is estimated to cost ten times more than any of the alternatives, a minimum investment of $300 BILLION MORE.[5]  This economic sticker shock reinforces what we have been telling ourselves for many years:  space-based missile defense is not economically feasible.  It wasn’t feasible when we needed to defeat the entirety of the Soviet threat, and sadly, it isn’t feasible to defeat a dozen North Korean missiles.

The reason they have been tactically ineffective is our technology development has been forced to live within the guidelines of the ABM treaty.  For decades we did not pursue effective technology because the ABM treaty would not permit it.  Getting out from under this treaty was the first truly effective step in developing a ‘real’ missile defense system. However, our scientific and industrial base is slow to come around, and we are still pursuing less than effective technologies and designs.

And then there is strategic destabilization.  For the same time we have been telling ourselves this type of defense is too expensive, we have also told ourselves it is destabilizing to the world order.  The premise of destabilizing missile defense is closely tied to MAD and the ABM treaty.  Being defenseless is considered a stabilizing effect. No nation initiates a first-strike because it knows it is defenseless against a second-strike. If a nation had a workable missile shield, it would not need to worry about a retaliatory second-strike.  Missile defense makes first-strike possible. This is the foundation of MAD, and it was made reality by the ABM treaty.

SDI shattered the invulnerability of MAD.  No longer would we be susceptible to a first strike or a second strike.  No longer would our destruction be mutual or assured.  SDI nullified the Soviet arsenal.  MAD was insane for decades, and many Presidents knew it.  SDI was our ticket out of this insane strategy.  However, it was ridiculously destabilizing to a 1985 Soviet Union.  If the Soviets believed half of what SDI was capable of doing, they would have initiated the first strike before it became operational. Destabilizing then? Certainly.  But now?

This is the essence of the destabilization myth.  Because MAD only applied to our relationship with the Soviet Union, the destabilizing nature of missile defense only applied to the Soviet Union.  MAD is as dead as the Soviet empire.  It no longer exists; not in philosophy, practice, or reality.  MAD and the ABM treaty are based on a bipolar, peer adversary, Cold War world.  The US recognized this years ago.  They rejected MAD and ABM and were still successful in reducing US and Russian nuclear arsenals. The current makeup of nuclear weapons, no matter the scenario, does not assure the destruction of America.  So why is missile defense destabilizing to anyone?

Many nations, including Russia, China, Canada and others, continue to view missile defense in a destabilizing manner.  However, the US has left such logical fallacies behind.  Because the makeup of those nation’s national security ambitions is still rooted in past policies, they continue to act by yesterday’s model.


Physics and Politics Cannot Trump Command and Control

A great General once told me, “if you haven’t solved the Command and Control problem, you aren’t ready to move forward one more inch.”  C2 poses the final problem of a space-based missile defense system.  Traditional systems are mid-course or terminal defenses.  These defenses have one thing a boost-phase, space-based defense system will not have: TIME.

When digesting C2 issues in missile defense, two variables are primary: Detection and Decision.  Detecting missiles is accomplished by space-based infrared satellites and ground-based radar systems.  While the satellites detect and track the missiles far earlier in the timeline than radars, they can only track the missile while it is hot; only while the rocket is burning.  This boost-phase typically lasts 4-5 minutes.  Line-of-sight limits ground based radars to post-boost flight.  Therefore, boost-phase engagements are dependent on orbiting infrared satellites and cannot rely on ground based radars.

One of the bedrocks of missile WARNING for the past 50 years has been a concept called dual-phenomenology.  Satellite and radar are both needed to re-assure the decision maker what they see is reality.  Boost-Phase engagement require us to act without the reassurance dual-phenomenology provides decision makers.

At the start of the burn, detection systems need enough time to detect and categorize what is happening.  Since boost-phase interceptors will be infrared guided, they must result in a kinetic strike while the rocket is still burning, still ‘boosting.’  The timeline from detection to the decision must occur within the early part of the boost to facilitate the engagement.  This compressed timeline leaves the decision maker only minutes to decide.  Two minutes from detection to decision.[6]

Is our Command and Control structure capable of such a timeline?

Decision authority must be decentralized to local commanders to have any hope of working.  Centralized command and control simply will not work.  Also in question is the identity of the ‘local commander.’  Space-based assets would fall under the purview of STRATCOM, while NORTHCOM controls the BMD ground-based interceptors. Is there a multi-COCOM rule set that would work?

Physics and politics aside, this problem of Command and Control is no trivial issue.


What Comes Next?

It is important to remain focused on what missile defenses can and cannot accomplish against the specific North Korean threat.  Missile defense cannot make North Korea go away.  It also cannot stop North Korea from creating and fielding nuclear-armed missiles.  Such a space-based system may become very effective against ICBMs targeting North America, but would be marginally ineffective against short-range missiles targeting Soth Korea or Japan.  Missile defenses may also force North Korea into more nefarious forms of nuclear blackmail, such as supplying other adversary nations or terrorist organizations.  Negating any missile delivery systems, it could refocus their efforts on non-missile nuclear delivery methods.

But these things should not stop the US from pursuing a truly workable, cost-effective, space-based, missile defense.  There are technologies that show promise, both in physics and politics.  The ABM treaty is gone, no longer a roadblock in developing engineering solutions.  Arguably, SDI was too much, too fast for the world to absorb.  It was destabilizing.  But in that MAD world, anything that stepped away from proven policies brought us closer to the unthinkable.  Such a world no longer exists.  We now can use a space-based system as another layer to the existing ground-based system, slowly adding more and more to the space-system while upgrading and improving the ground-based system.  The end effect is a global space-based system, with regional ground based segments adding layers of necessary redundancy.

However, that system must be cost-effective.  $300 Billion for this system is (arguably) not worth it. Innovative and economically viable solutions are there, for the technology, the launch systems, and the organization required to operate this system.

Space-based missile defense is revolutionary in every sense.  It forces us to revisit our ideas on Command and Control, our strategies for combatting emerging adversaries, and our doctrine backing up decentralized execution.  It also completely washes away the specter of MAD and the ABM treaty.  Committing to space-based missile defense sends a signal to the rest of the world the US is moving forward, untethered to past policies.  It is time to leave the old world behind.



[1] Caroline Houck, “Spooked by North Korea, Lawmakers Resurrect an Old Missile-Defense Idea” Defense One. http://www.defenseone.com/threats/2017/07/spooked-north-korea-lawmakers-resurrect-old-missile-defense-idea/139267/

[2] Annie Jacobsen. The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top Secret Military Research Agency.  Little, Brown and Company, 2015.

[3] “The Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI): Star Wars,” The Cold War Museumhttp://www.coldwar.org/articles/80s/SDI-StarWars.asp

[4] Bart Hendrickx and Bert Vis, Energiya-Buran: The Soviet Space Shuttle (London: Praxis Publishing, 2007), 272.

[5] Union of Concerned Scientists, “Fact Sheet: Space-Based Missile Defense” http://www.ucsusa.org/sites/default/files/attach/2015/06/space-based-missile-defense-fact-sheet.pdf

[6] Boost-phase defense timelines.  https://www.aps.org/newsroom/pressreleases/upload/nmdgraphics.pdf

Christopher Buckley

Content and Production Editor at Angle of Attack
Bomb dropper, High Desert dweller, baller.

Latest posts by Christopher Buckley (see all)

One thought to “Star Wars Strikes Back: Return of Space-Based Missile Defense”

  • Larry Roach

    I just found your site. Your contributions are thoughtful and detailed. I’m not certain I agree with your conclusions entirely in this case. I think a cheaper alternative may be a much more comprehensive deployment of the existing GMD system (with associated proliferation of sensors and C3 nets as needed) along with a second, quick-reaction kinetic-kill missile deployed on a large scale. It would be a relatively simple missile directed by ground-based assets. It would rely on atmospheric discrimination to eliminate decoys. It would look and act very much like Sprint, but would rely on hit-to-kill, something Sprint was actually eminently capable of, directed not by internal seekers (which are expensive and lost with every missile fired), but by ground based hardened radars.

    But the latter may not even be needed unless proof of a sophisticated threat develops. I think there is enough threat now to warrant R&D into a endo-atmospheric ultra-fast interceptor (HiBEX was designed to hit warheads at as little as 15-20k ft) but deployment may not be required for some time. GMD is sufficient for a simple threat, as it is designed to operate in a shoot-shoot look shoot-shoot methodology (meaning 40 deployed interceptors are really only insurance against 10 inbound RVs). Yes each GMD missile may only have a 50-70% chance of hitting the target but 4 of them take that to near 100%. Should the threat develop, short-range (of necessity) last-ditch defenses could be deployed, though cost would be high since you’d need a battery for about every 30,000 sq miles (roughl 100 to cover CONUS). Each battery would need a quite capable fire control radar, so maybe the cost would come out in the wash, though I think 300 billion for a space based system is extremely low, experience shows it would probably be 2-3 times that amount.

    Another thing to consider is how all these systems operate in a nuclear effects environment. Sprint worked quite well,it operated “under” the primary effects, a space system, to be hardened against EMP, might be too much.

    Food for thought? Thanks for the thoughtful commentary.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *