The views and opinions expressed or implied in WBY are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the Department of Defense, Air Force, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.
By Capt Joshua Daviscourt, USAF
/ Published June 28, 2021
“We don’t have any defense that could deny the employment of [hypersonic missiles] against us.” Gen John Hyten, Vice Chairman Joint Chiefs of Staff1
American interests at home and abroad are under threat by three major classes of exo-atmospheric missiles: ballistic nuclear weapons, hypersonic nuclear or conventional glide vehicles, and short-range theater-based missiles such as the SCUDs used to attack American air bases. Traditional mono warhead ballistic missiles might be successfully countered by ground-based midcourse defense (GMD); however, limited availability of local air defenses, patriot batteries, and phalanxes have left our bases open to attack. Even more worryingly, the Department of Defense (DOD) has no current counter to modern warheads and hypersonic delivery vehicles favored by the Russian and Chinese missile services.2 The current, conventional ground and space-based detection grids being developed and fielded by the DOD are not capable of detecting hypersonic glide vehicles after separation from the launch vehicle.3 Due to the capabilities gap, hypersonic vehicles are proliferating rapidly. Current monolithic architectures are unable to meet the needs of a rapidly evolving battlespace. Space-based missile defense, targeting hostile nation’s weapons in the boost-climb phase of flight, is far more cost-effective than traditional terrestrial interdiction. The following is intended to be a thought-provoking proposal for a treaty compliant, space-based missile interception network using commercially available technology.
The Status Quo
Hostile incoming ballistic missiles are only countered by the GMD program leaving the United States vulnerable to attack. The program is an antiquated, $70 billion answer for long-range ballistic missile attacks, as well as being prohibitively expensive. Each interceptor rocket has a probability of effectiveness at only 58 percent.4 Expenses for the GMD architecture increase drastically when the cost of fielding a fleet of Aegis destroyers, and radar stations needed for missile tracking are accounted for. Requirements mandate a 97 percent effectiveness; therefore, the GMD must launch four missiles to intercept a single threat, so long as said missile is using outdated technology. GMD can be thwarted by modern systems which are either hypersonic or separated into multiple independent re-entry vehicles (MIRV) prior to midcourse.5 In the event of a strike against the United States, our nation is unprepared and under-equipped. Fortunately, this critical capabilities gap can be mitigated using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) products, at the fraction of the price, while being available to the warfighter against any ballistic or theater-based missile across the globe.
Costs of missile deterrence and interception have continued to rise; to meet this challenge, Congress has requested additional research into boost-climb interception.6 The objective of this article is to assess the concept of “space-based micro-missile interception” as an effective ballistic missile interceptor, during the boost-climb phase of flight. Hostile intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) and theater-based ballistic missiles are at their most vulnerable state to interdiction during their initial climb to apogee, prior to the conventional Midcourse-terminal intercept point.7 A global network of cube satellites could be fitted with dozens of affordable, lightweight micro-missiles at a fraction of the cost of a single GMD interceptor while having greater effectiveness and probability of kill. Conventional and nuclear missile systems are weapons platforms existing in space and will not be countered cost-effectively or reliably by anything other than another space-based system.
Command of the Sea - Command of Space
Space is the vast ocean humanity is just beginning to embark on—one which has littoral waters and vast shipping lanes which are the basis of space power. The pre-eminent theory of Naval power is “Command of the Sea” by Adm. Mahan.8 Naval power projection does not focus on controlling the entire vast sea, rather Naval forces must concentrate power on the shipping lanes and lines of communication adversaries use to threaten allied interests. Missile flight paths through space are the new shipping lanes used by foreign space and terrestrial armed forces. Realist “Astropolitics” must be applied when monitoring the flight paths and shipping lanes of low Earth and cislunar orbits.
Low-cost SCUDs, ballistic missiles, and clandestine military operations under the guise of civilian programs are a threat to the safety of allied interests at home and abroad. These programs plot the course of eventual nuclear or conventional armament capable of striking American interests using missile flight paths in low Earth orbit (LEO) and sub-orbital space.9 Hostile nations, such as Saddam’s Iraq, Iran, and North Korea, have endeavored to build asymmetrical ballistic and nuclear threats using civilian space programs with the intent to militarize the dual-use technology. A pre-MIRV nuclear weapon acts like any other satellite, plotting a course from launch along predetermined flight paths where they can be interdicted as they emerge from the atmosphere’s safe harbor. Like air or sea power, astronautical interdiction favors the state which can interdict foreign conventional and nuclear threats at their most vulnerable point.
Command of space is also critical in interdicting and eliminating conventional threats. Shashoujian—the Assassin’s Mace—strategy is the basis of Chinese defensive and offensive action. The Assassin’s Mace uses an array of ballistic missiles; cyber-attacks; and commercially produced or copied technology from the west.10 The Peoples Liberation Army’s (PLA) deep strike capabilities in the form of nuclear and conventional missiles are of grave concern as the Chinese have positioned their forces to strike from outside of the GMD’s effective flight profile weapon employment zones.11 Chinese missile proliferation greatly outstrips the United States with cruise missile production doubling in Fiscal Year 2019 and a fivefold increase of Intermediate Range Ballistic Missiles (8). The rapid production of conventional, dual-purpose missiles and the potential use of hypersonic warheads shows China’s recognition of America’s weakness should the sub-orbital “shipping lanes” become clogged with threats. Modern Russian and Chinese missile systems are equipped to host multiple hypersonic or ballistic re-entry vehicles capable of dodging defense networks (4). The Australian Institute of International Affairs has highlighted the need for America to take the lead in assuring its allies that it can counter the growing space and asymmetric missile threat a re-energized China poses (10). Large numbers of warheads, hypersonic guided munitions, and electronic warfare are what the PLA believes will counter the traditional defenses the United States has for aircraft carriers and fixed bases in the Pacific.
Missile Flight Profile
The three kinds of exo-atmospheric missile threats facing America and her allies have one thing in common: a high firing arc which can be intercepted from space. Below is an example of a traditional ballistic missile OV-1. The weapon may reach altitudes as high as 1,200 km, or three times as high as the International Space Station and speeds up to 24,000 km/hr.15 Terminal guidance of an intercepting GMD can carry a closing velocity between vehicles greater than 50,000 km/hr, adding complexity to a carefully timed and fragile kill chain.
Midcourse represents the apex of the target weapon’s altitude and speed; at this point, GMD will interdict the target. Each engagement creates a fragile chain of events, where initially radar tracks the launch, the missile exceeds radar range and is handed off to satellite tacking, then terminal guidance from the warhead. This represents the “legacy” threat system which is a baseline for the historic threat America has faced, hypersonic vehicles and modern launch systems allow the hostile missile to host several warheads (rather than the single payload shown) and separate its warheads MIRV much earlier in the flight profile. MIRV warheads and hypersonic glide vehicles cannot be tracked using overhead persistent infrared (OPIR), due to the infrared exceedance of the rocket being tracked by the system rather than the relatively “cold” glide vehicle.16 GMD is geographically bound to the Alaska and California launch sites, preventing this system from being employed in the protection of allied nations.17 Geographic determinism hands the power projection and potential physical command of space and Asian missile flight paths to the Chinese. Absent of any countermeasures, China possesses the forces needed to project power through sub-orbital and LEO flight paths into the Pacific region.
Hypersonics developed by modern belligerents account for GMD’s intercept profile by using MIRVs early in the flight profile and using the Earth’s gravity to glide into the target. Hypersonic glide vehicles are currently undetectable once separation from the vehicle occurs shortly after boost-climb.18 Chinese warheads can obtain sustained speeds of Mach 10 in the Earth’s atmosphere while retaining maneuverability capable of thwarting all currently fielded defense networks, even when they are detected.19 The high speeds achieved by many stealthy Russian vehicles leave only 10-30 seconds between radar detection and weapon impact, giving service members at most the opportunity to seek cover.20 Threats can be tailored to be conventional or nuclear, for almost any distance. The warheads separate from the target shortly after boost-climb and travel too quickly for either GMD or Patriot systems to intercept the target.21 Due to the advent of hypersonic weapons, in the event of war, all US Navy carrier strike groups will be targeted by conventional warheads in “smart” guided hypervelocity kill vehicles.22 Pre-MIRV boost-climb will be the easiest, low-velocity interception point for these vehicles.
The Space Development Agency
The Space Development Agency (SDA) was developed as an additional procurement arm for DOD Space enterprises.23 The agency is not part of the United States Space Force (USSF) and is endorsing to maintain its independence by successfully delaying its absorption. Space systems developed by the SDA include a space transport layer, a new OPIR network, and at least three highly maneuverable Cis-lunar vehicles for power projection into deep space.24 The diffused OPIR and data transport networks disrupt monolithic programs under development by the USSF’s Space and Missile Systems Center in Los Angeles. The SDA’s architecture is in production and will begin launching in 2022 after only two years between contract award and launch.
The USSF can learn from the joint commercial-military approach of the Chinese to leverage our domestic industrial base. The agency’s focus needs to shift to finding and adapting low-cost dual-use technologies for highly complex missions. Remaining relevant with monolithic systems becoming out of date before they are fielded will be a challenge for the USSF. The SDA is leading the way with its recent contract with Starlink to produce advanced early missile warning satellites. Tranche 0 will comprise of eight OPIR space vehicles for only $343 million. These vehicles are projected to launch in 2022 with construction only taking a year and a half.25 The agency plans on launching as many as 1,000 data transport and OPIR space vehicles, using an economy of scale to reduce costs.26 This level of rapid acquisitions is unheard of in the space industry. This system will also be attuned to capabilities gaps the USSF has no current or planned answer to. To give the reader context, the USSF spends $1.2 billion and more than a decade to build a single monolithic system.27 By the time the USSF fields a conventional system, the SDA network would have been operating for four years at a fraction of the cost of a single USSF space vehicle and a time savings of more than eight years. Along the current SDA development path data transport, missile warning, and space defense acquisitions will become the preview of the agency with acquisitions capabilities eclipsing that of the USSF. Rapid acquisition allows the agency to use the latest technology and space power tactics in each batch, leaving the conventional DOD’s monolithic systems both technologically and numerically behind. Budgets are likely to suffer drawbacks due to cost-cutting measures, further driving the need for the Space Force to learn from the SDA’s example.
The same industrial scale can be applied to missile interception. Agile startups out of Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s (MIT) Lincoln Labs, the University of Oklahoma, and Silicon Valley offer an array of technology America can exploit. Dozens of companies have dual-use civil-military capabilities which have allowed both the SDA and the PLA to innovate faster than the conventional DOD. MIT created a tranche of dual-use companies capable of building a space-based phased array targeting system with in-mission data processing and targeting for less than $2 million. Another startup, Casey Corp, has access to a revolutionary composite rocket motor and micro-missile system capable of fielding a rocket pod of 100 interceptors at a cost of approximately $60,000 per micro-missile.28 Research being conducted at the University of Oklahoma is evaluating atmospheric re-entry and terminal guidance from space at speeds up to Mach 10, more than fast enough to match threats in development by China or Russia during boost-climb and hypersonic transition. American industry is capable of creating a highly effective global counter missile defense grid for the cost of a single conventional GMD interceptor. Initial payload costs hover around $3 million using COTS technologies—which already have commercial space—and terrestrial economies of scale. Using other COTS-based programs from the SDA, and similar programs as a model for SpaceX’s off-the-shelf space vehicle bus production, this solution could cost approximately $15 million per vehicle meeting the SDA’s cost objectives.29 The civil sector solutions are largely posted preliminary design review or already flying on civilian space missions.
Success in missile defense and deterrence can only be reached by breaking the fame of view the “blue water” conventional Air Force, Army, and Space Force has. The future of space systems are smaller, highly networked, resilient systems. America’s goal should be to provide the leadership and security our allies need at the numbers and low-cost needed to prevent circumvention by Russia or the PLA’s “Assassin’s Mace.” Agile acquisitions and program management of COTS systems will guarantee the pre-eminence and safety of the United States and her allies.
The numerical advantage and tactical flexibility of COTS-based interception allow for the “weaponeering” of the defending space vehicle. Tracking and cross-linked communication to the “mule” spacecraft can be handled by the SDA network acting as an “eyeball” transmitting threat range and trajectory data to the wider system. This approach mirrors the architecture the United States Air Force uses to destroy terrestrial targets through air to ground fire. The numerical advantage would allow for the shot on hostile to be on axis, on a forward aspect during boost-climb, allowing the largest possible room for the micro-missile to maneuver to intercept. In a terrestrial dogfight, the aircraft that can maneuver the best at the narrow end of its opponent’s flight envelope wins. The USSF can do the same with missile defense; by maneuvering to where the incoming missile is slow and unable to enact countermeasures, the probability of destroying the incoming threat is maximized.
Orbits can also be tailored to meet the needs of the joint force, further adding to the value of a diffused interception network. Each space vehicle will achieve an Earthrise over potential launch sites or shipping lanes up to two times per orbit. Due to the Earth being spherical, a highly inclined space vehicle can intercept the missile “shipping lanes” multiple times. The tactical advantage can be pressed by having overlapping weapon employment zones. Inclination of the space vehicle should be between 80 and 90 degrees to favor a flight profile extending flight time over hostile missile flight paths. The flight profile shown at i=-85 deg and an altitude of 300 km demonstrate how half of all orbits will intersect both the Atlantic and Pacific “missile shipping lanes” while the rest will provide regional security to allies located in Australia, the Gulf Region, and Central Europe. Furthermore, missiles directed from mainland Asia to the South Pacific will be flying co-directional and potentially near co-altitude alongside the intercepting space vehicle, reducing the relative speed between the interceptor and hostile vehicles.
The on azimuth forward aspect impact of an intercepting rocket on the hostile missile allows the conical fragmentation pattern to be directed to and contained by Earth’s atmosphere. Conventional missile interception results in fragmentation and debris, which may contribute to Kessler syndrome and potentially destroy or degrade American assets in LEO. While aggressive in theory, a space-based kinetic interception network has a lower environmental impact on the wider space ecosystem. The proliferation of space-faring ICBMs and hypersonic re-entry vehicles will be reduced by an active interception mechanism further reducing debris and military conflict in the space domain.
The focus of traditional Napoleonic Naval power rested in tight formations where each side could focus its cannon fire en masse on the enemy. Battles were determined by line tactics and the ability to focus fire from long-range. Rather than focusing on conventional tactics, Lord Nelson broke the frame of perspective for Naval engagement. He allowed the French to cross his “T” using the mass of French fire against him to limit exposure to only a few ships at the front of his fleet. The advantage of the weight and number of French cannons was mitigated at close range where Nelson’s more maneuverable ships were able to decimate Napoleon’s forces. Ballistic and hypersonic missiles in space are no different. America needs to get close to the threat where the mass number of warheads in the hostile space vehicle and velocity are useless. Through command of space, international security is assured.
There are no current treaties which have been found to impact the proposed solution of space-based missile interception. The hurdle has been the astronomical cost of developing and fielding traditional monolithic interceptor architectures.30 For this reason, the Reagan and Bush Sr. Administrations did not further the “brilliant pebbles” concept during the Strategic Defense Initiative. Industry and technology have caught up to this concept, and, as the new decade dawns, policy-driven by the threat of Chinese and Russian missile forces will drive space-based interceptor development.
The future of space power and missile interception closely resembles Mahan’s Command of the Sea doctrine. Command of space will require allied nations to remain flexible and agile enough to use current technology and tailor program requirements that are future proof for the modern battlespace. Interdicting a Pre-MIRV ICBM in midcourse is not scalable or reliable enough to provide the American mainland the security it needs in the midst of growing threats. Furthermore, conventional interception leaves our allies vulnerable to attack as GMD is geographically bound to Alaska and California. The SDA is an exemplar for the USSF and our endeavor to create technologically superior capabilities and create a tactical advantage.
Intercepting space-based nuclear and conventional threats can only be achieved in a sailable and tactically relevant fashion from the shipping lanes potential adversary’s use to attack America and her allies. Command of the Sea cannot be attained by shore batteries or littoral action alone; America must be willing to enter the ocean to meet its security objectives. The future of America in space is small and highly scalable. Creating a focus on agile, robust systems will provide the reliability space needs to contribute physically to the joint fight and save American lives on the battlefield.
Captain Joshua Daviscourt
Capt. Josh Daviscourt is a space acquisitions officer at Los Angeles Space and Missile Systems Center. As a former AFSOC pilot, he brings a warfighter perspective to the Astropolitical domain. His other interests include cycling and the outdoors.
1 Alan J. Vick, et al., “Air Base Defense: Rethinking Army and Air Force Roles and Functions,” RAND Corporation, May 2020, https://doi.org/.
2 Vick, et al., “Air Base Defense.”
3 Kelly M. Sayler, Hypersonic Weapons: Background and Issues for Congress Report R45811 (Congressional Research Service, 27 August 2020)
4 Thomas Karako, "Missile Defense and the Nuclear Posture Review," Strategic Studies Quarterly 11, no. 3, Fall 2017, 48-64, https://www.airuniversity.af.edu/.
5 “Ballistic Missile Basics,” Missile Defense Advocacy Association, 14 August 2018, https://missiledefenseadvocacy.org/.
6 “GMD: Frequently Asked Questions,” Center for Arms Control and Non-Proliferation, 12 February 2020, https://armscontrolcenter.org/.
7 “GMD: Frequently Asked Questions.”
8 Dr. Milan Vego, “Naval Classical Thinkers and Operational Art,” Naval War College, 2009, https://apps.dtic.mil/.
9 Everett C. Dolman. Astropolitik: Classical Geopolitics in the Space Age (Portland, OR: Frank Cass, 2001).
10 Vego, “Naval Classical Thinkers and Operational Art.”
11 Vego, “Naval Classical Thinkers and Operational Art.”
12 Jason E. Bruzdzinski, “Demystifying Shashoujian: the Chinese ‘Assassin’s Mace’ Concept,” The MITRE Corporation Online, December 2005, https://www.mitre.org/.
13 “Threat Fact Sheet.”
14 Bates Gill, and Adam Ni, “The People’s Liberation Army Rocket Force: Reshaping China’s Approach to Strategic Deterrence,” Australian Journal of International Affairs 73, no. 2, (2019): 160–80, https://doi.org/.
15 “America's Nuclear Triad,” US Department of Defense, Accessed 9 October 2020, https://www.defense.gov/.
16 Sayler, “Hypersonic Weapons.”
17 US Department of Defense, “Elements: Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD),” Missile Defense Agency, Accessed 22 October 2020, https://www.mda.mil/.
18 Sayler, “Hypersonic Weapons.”
19 “Threat Fact Sheet.”
20 “Review and Evaluation of the Air Force Hypersonic Technology Program,” National Research Council, 1998, https://doi.org/.
21 Karako, "Missile Defense and the Nuclear Posture Review."
22 Vego, “Naval Classical Thinkers and Operational Art.”
23 Kimberly Underwood, “Military Aims to Urgently Provide Disruptive Satellite Capabilities,” Space Development Agency, 1 August 2020, https://www.sda.mil/.
24 “Emerging Capabilities” Space Development Agency, Accessed 9 October 2020, https://www.sda.mil/.
25 Underwood, “Military Aims to Urgently Provide Disruptive Satellite Capabilities.”
26 Nathan Strout, “One Military Space Agency's Plan for 1,000 New Satellites by 2026,” C4ISRNET, 21 January 2020, https://www.c4isrnet.com/.
27 Sandra Erwin, “Northrop Grumman Gets $2.3 Billion Space Force Contract to Develop Missile-Warning Satellites,” SpaceNews, 18 May 2020, https://spacenews.com/.
28 Sean Casey, “COTS and Post PDR Capabilities,” Proprietary Briefing, August 2020.
29 “Missiles and Missile Defense Issues,” Arms Control Association, May 2020, https://www.armscontrol.org/.
30 Jon Harper, “Special Report: Legacy of The Strategic Defense Initiative,” National Defense Magazine, April 2019, https://www.nationaldefensemagazine.org/.
31“Missiles and Missile Defense Issues.”
32 Bahman Zohuri, et al., “New Weapon of Tomorrow's Battlefield Driven by Hypersonic Velocity,” Journal of Energy and Power Engineering 13, 2019, 177-196, http://www.davidpublisher.org/.
33 “Battle Of Trafalgar, 1805” SkyAtlantic, Spring 2020, http://thebritish.syndicut.com/.
34 Henry Boyd, “2019 Pentagon Report: China's Rocket Force Trajectory,” International Institute of Strategic Studies, 15 May 2019, https://www.iiss.org/.
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