The Pentagon is studying the deployment of space-based missiles and new sensors to counter the growing threat of high-speed missile attacks from China and Russia, senior defense officials said Tuesday.
Michael Griffin, undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, said a network of 1,000 missile interceptors deployed on satellite launchers, could be built for $20 billion—not at a cost of hundreds of billions as critics of space weapons assert.
Griffin, a long-time missile defense expert, said missile threats are increasing and space-based defenses are needed to counter the threats.
China has conducted "dozens" of tests of a new hypersonic missile that is designed to strike the United States, he said, and Russia also is moving ahead rapidly in building maneuvering hypersonic missiles.
"We just can't do what we need to do in missile defense without space," Griffin said during a conference on Capitol Hill.
Current missile defense sensors based on ground and at sea are not designed to detect hypersonic missiles that travel at speeds over 7,000 miles per hour.
Those sensor—radar and other electronic systems—also have limited capabilities against other types of missiles such as intermediate-range ballistic missiles.
Current missile defense interceptors are designed to attack missiles in the middle course of their flight.
"In brief, we do not have systems today that give us globally, comprehensive, persistent, timely, multi-mode awareness of what is going on on earth, everywhere, all the time. We don't have that," said Griffin, who is a key defense leader for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis' drive to produce more lethal and agile military forces.
The commander of U.S. strategic command, Gen. John Hyten, said during a recent conference that U.S. missile defenses will never hit a missile target that cannot be seen coming.
"And the Chinese hypersonic threat is one that in today's world, we cannot see coming until it's too late," Griffin said, adding that he favors deploying a new layer of missile defense sensors in space.
Also, if the United States deploys its own hypersonic strike missiles of its own, "we have to know where the targets are," Griffin said.
Space sensors will be needed to track and strike mobile missiles and launchers, he said.
Disclosure of plans to deploy missiles in space is the first time Pentagon officials have outlined current thinking on military space systems.
The comments come as both China and Russia have sought to use the United Nations to impose limits on U.S. weapons in space through arms control agreements—at the same time both Beijing and Moscow are building space weaponry. The weapons include anti-satellite missiles, lasers, and small satellites that can attack orbiting satellites.
Griffin said the current U.S.-led, rules-based international order remains in place due to American military power projection capabilities, mainly on sea and in the air. And that order is now being threatened by authoritarian states such as China and Russia.
"So it is up to us to defend that. And in order to defend that order we must now go to space … both for the sensory layer and the ability to project power," he said.
Griffin said he was "very, very tired" of critics who say the United States cannot afford to deploy space arms.
The undersecretary, a former NASA administrator, said a rough estimate for deploying space-based interceptors can be calculated on the $20,000 per kilogram is costs to send material into low earth orbit.
Thus a force of 1,000 space-based interceptors each weighing 1,000 kilograms would cost $20 billion, he said.
"We've paid a lot more and gotten a lot less in the Defense Department over the years," Griffin said.
Congress, in last year's defense authorization bill, directed the Pentagon to draw up proposals for space-based missile defenses.
John Rood, undersecretary of defense for policy, said during the conference that his office is working on plans for missile defenses in space, including both sensors and interceptors, noting threats from China and Russia and their hypersonic missiles.
Hypersonic missiles are being developed by both countries, Rood said. "Certainly these are separate programs, separate countries pursuing separate activities but nonetheless we’re concerned about both."
Space-based defenses will provide advantages for dealing with those threats, he said.
"We have been looking at that question and trying to examine what the appropriate capability mix would be," Rood said. "Space-based interceptors and sensors provide persistent, continuous coverage. They can engage missiles launched by any adversary any where on earth."
Griffin, Rood, and Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, director of the Missile Defense Agency, spoke at a conference sponsored by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance.
The officials' remarks previewed the Pentagon's forthcoming study called the Missile Defense Review that is expected to be made public in the next few weeks.
Also, if the technology is affordable and effective, space based defenses also will permit so-called "boost-phase" defense—attacking missiles before they are launched, or shortly after launch in the boost phase of flight.
Boost phase defense is "very attractive because it both avoids debris but also thins out the missile threat before mid-course and terminal defenses have to deal with it," he said.
Current mid-course and terminal defenses including the 44 Ground Based Interceptors in Alaska and California, Army THAAD and Patriot missile defenses, and the Navy's Aegis sea-based missile defenses.
Currently, early warning satellites and communications satellites are used to detect missile launches and guide interceptors to destroy enemy missiles.
The Pentagon also sees space-based missile defense as a mission for the new space force that President Trump has announced will be created in the future.
Rood said before the new space force is set up a sixth branch of the armed forces a space command will first be created, along with a space development agency that will assist in developing and deploying forces and weapons.
"Space is an increasing focus at the Defense Department," Rood said. "As directed by the Congress, we're looking very seriously at capabilities that could be employed for space-based missile defenses, whether that be sensors or other capabilities," he said.
Greaves, the Missile Defense Agency director, said rapidly preparing to counter advanced missile threats such as hypersonic weapons is one of three priorities for his agency.
"The threat is coming, we know it is. It's not fantasy," Greaves said. "Those with access to reliable intelligence information have seen and know that threat is demonstrating itself and will be operationalized very soon."
Asked about concerns that China and Russia may oppose the new U.S. military space programs, Griffin dismissed those nations' concerns as irrelevant.
Space-based defense are needed in response to publicized threats from Russia's President Vladimir Putin, who earlier this year bragged of building a multi-thousand-mile hypersonic nuclear strike weapon, and by the dozens of successful Chinese hypersonic strike weapon tests over the past decade.
Also, North Korea is developing long-range nuclear missiles and Iran too is working vigorously to produce long-range missiles, he said.
In the context of those threats, "somewhere well down on my priority list is what other people think," Griffin said. "We just cannot afford to do that."
The United States should not be allowed to be drawn into discussions, he added.
Rood, the undersecretary for policy, said his office has addressed those kinds of questions.
Building a space-based sensor system for missile defense is not provocative, he said. "I don't regard it as a provocative act to observe the missile flights that are potentially threatening to the United States," he said.
Griffin was asked if lasers could be used against advanced missiles and said directed energy does not appear to be a very good option for countering hypersonic missiles.