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SBIRS illustration
DSP and its successor, SBIRS (above), are satellites increasingly critical to missile defense programs—and thus potentially vulnerable to attack. (credit: Lockheed Martin)

Space systems and missile defense in 2010


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The recent Chinese missile defense test is just one of many signs that anti-ballistic missile systems are the “must have” military fashion accessory of 2010. For China the need for such weapons is obvious: the only neighbors they have who lack a real or potential short- to medium-range missile capability are Laos, Burma, and perhaps Mongolia. All of their other neighbors, especially Russia, North Korea. and India, have been building up their rocket forces at a rapid rate.

For both Europe and China, any effective BMD requires space-based early warning sensors similar to the US Defense Support Program satellites based in GEO.

China itself has also been aggressively expanding its missile units facing Taiwan and this has been pushing the Taiwanese into a variety of countermeasures. US pressure has, so far, stopped Taipei from building its own force of ballistic missiles, but they have been developing and fielding long-range cruise missiles. The HY-9 ballistic missile defense (BMD) system that was tested was not probably intended for use in the Taiwan theater. Instead, China may be looking at other threats, such as the one south of the Yalu River.

On the other side of the Eurasian continent, France is openly thinking about ways to integrate the Franco-Italian SAMP-T version of the Aster missile into a NATO-led European missile defense complex known as the Active Layered Theater Ballistic Missile Defense (ALTBMD). This is, in theory, designed to protect NATO forces deployed overseas, but could, in an emergency, be used to actually defend European-based forces or even civil populations.

For both Europe and China, any effective BMD requires space-based early warning sensors similar to the US Defense Support Program (DSP) satellites based in geosynchronous orbit (GEO). In February 2009 France launched a pair of Spirale technology demonstration satellites intended to be the precursor for an operational European early warning system. In spite of the apparent success of these spacecraft, though, other EU states have shown themselves reluctant to join in this French-led project.

Since 1991, when the DSPs showed themselves indispensable in providing warning for both Israel and Saudi Arabia of the launches of Saddam’s Scuds, the US has connected several allied nations to its network. Outside NATO and the Middle East, both South Korea and Japan are integrated into the system. Other American space sensors include the Space Based Infrared System Highly Elliptical Orbit (SBIRS-HEO) and the experimental pair of Space Tracking and Surveillance (STSS) satellites launched in low Earth orbit in September 2009.

Reports say that Russia has at least five early warning satellites in both GEO and HEO. The commander of their space forces announced in 2007 that they are working on a new generation of these spacecraft. There have been no reports that China is working on this kind of technology, but there is also no proof that they are not. Other nations, such as Japan and India, are showing interest in having their own space-based national warning assets.

Heat-sensing early warning satellites serve multiple functions. During the height of the Cold War, they were designed to warn of a major nuclear attack. They would detect the heat generated by large missiles blasting out of their silos or of submarine-launched missiles when their motors ignited on reaching the ocean’s surface. Since then they have been used to detect hot jet engines as well as so-called battlespace characterization, which helps intelligence operatives determine such things as the intensity of artillery or rocket barrages.

In the absence of space-based BMD weapons such as the old “Brilliant Pebbles” infrared-guided LEO based satellites, missile defense and space war are intimately linked.

Yet, as BMD systems proliferate, these satellites will be used principally to detect, track, and target ballistic missiles. This distances them from the world of intelligence and a Cold War-type nuclear exchange and makes them instruments of a new kind of missile warfare. Within a decade we could see war plans that depend on the early elimination of missile tracking satellites in order to degrade the enemy’s BMD capability. Defensive plans will be made to counter these attacks.

This may be what Chinese Air Force Commander General Xu Qilang was thinking of in an interview last November when he said, “As far as the revolution in military affairs is concerned, the competition between military forces is moving towards outer space… this is a historical inevitability and cannot be turned back.”

In the absence of space-based BMD weapons such as the old “Brilliant Pebbles” infrared-guided LEO based satellites, missile defense and space war are intimately linked. To imagine that an attacker is going to ignore space-based sensors and allow the target nation or force to employ its defense system at maximum efficiency is to ignore the lessons of history.

Meanwhile, France is still having difficulty with this new concept. While they are working hard on missiles, radars, and satellites that can be integrated into a BMD system, Defense Minister Hervé Morin, quoted in the January 4th issue of Defense News, challenged the whole idea of missile defense. He asked rhetorically, “How many times in the past has the shield defeated the sword?” Perhaps he can study the defensive victories won by the British in 1940 and by the Russians in 1941 at Moscow and in 1942 at Stalingrad, to name only three examples.

All-out offensive war failed in 1914 and the world is lucky that is was never tried in the years between 1945 and 1991. Today the geopolitical world is as messy and uncertain as at any time in world history. General Xu Qilang was only saying publicly what any informed observer knows to be true.


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