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SM-3 launch
The use of the SM-3 for missile defense in Eastern Europe could raise space security issues since the same missile has already been used to intercept a satellite. (credit: US Navy)

The space security implications of missile defense

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Last week the Obama Administration unveiled a new plan for European missile defense which was roundly criticized from almost all sides. Those on the right of the political spectrum denounced it as appeasement of Russia and throwing our European Allies “under the bus”. Those on the left who were expecting a complete abandonment of missile defense plans felt their hope drain away. Others suggested that the Obama Administration was simply swapping one technically unfeasible system for another.

The major change in this plan from the previous Bush Administration plan is the planned use of Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) interceptors launched from both Aegis warships and the ground.

There absolutely are legitimate concerns regarding the future of American missile defense. This article will attempt to dispel some of the most serious falsehoods bouncing around the echo chamber regarding the new plan and also discuss the impact the new plan could have on space security. These impacts should not be construed as reasons for the outright abandonment of missile defense, rather as potential consequences that need to be seriously considered in the broader strategic calculus of national security.

The Obama Administration’s plan for missile defense

The Obama Administration’s new strategy for missile defense is clearly outlined in a fact sheet posted to the White House website. The plan calls for four steps:

Phase One (in the 2011 timeframe) – Deploy current and proven missile defense systems available in the next two years, including the sea-based Aegis Weapon System, the SM-3 interceptor (Block IA), and sensors such as the forward-based Army Navy/Transportable Radar Surveillance system (AN/TPY-2), to address regional ballistic missile threats to Europe and our deployed personnel and their families;

Phase Two (in the 2015 timeframe) – After appropriate testing, deploy a more capable version of the SM-3 interceptor (Block IB) in both sea- and land-based configurations, and more advanced sensors, to expand the defended area against short- and medium-range missile threats;

Phase Three (in the 2018 timeframe) – After development and testing are complete, deploy the more advanced SM-3 Block IIA variant currently under development, to counter short-, medium-, and intermediate-range missile threats; and

Phase Four (in the 2020 timeframe) – After development and testing are complete, deploy the SM-3 Block IIB to help better cope with medium- and intermediate-range missiles and the potential future ICBM threat to the United States.

The major change in this plan from the previous Bush Administration plan is the planned use of Standard Missile 3 (SM-3) interceptors launched from both Aegis warships and the ground instead of just ground-based interceptors (GBIs) that would be variants of the interceptor already deployed for the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) system in Alaska and California. This change should not come as any surprise as it has been under discussion for months. The role that naval forces should play in Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) was heavily focused on in this discussion, prompted in part by the success of Operation Burnt Frost in February 2008 and the geopolitical and technical issues ensnaring land-based missile defense in Europe.

The advantages of sea-based missile defense over land-based are clear and outlined in a recent CRS report. The same document also outlines the major technical disadvantages. In brief, these advantages are flexibility and mobility regarding the placement of interceptors to meet changing threats, a proven track record of successful interceptions, and avoiding the problem of negotiating base access agreements and basing rights which could spark geopolitical tensions.

Some of the criticisms of the new Obama Administration plan are simply false. The new plan does not abandon missile defense in Europe, as some have misleadingly claimed—in fact, on paper it calls for missile defense in Europe to be in place two years earlier than under the Bush plan. And while there are disagreements over the exact timelines, the new plan calls for the system to be operational in Europe at around the same time as the previous one.

One major issue that is not being talked about in regard to this new plan is the implications it has for space security.

A number of pundits and politicians have said that not having interceptors in Europe allows Iran to target the US, should it ever develop an ICBM. General Patrick O’Reilly, director of the Missile Defense Agency, stated in testimony before the Senate on June 16, 2009, that the United States is already protected from non-existent Iranian ICBM by the GBIs on alert in Alaska:

Senator LIEBERMAN. I agree with that. Am I right—you tell me—do the ground-based interceptors in Alaska and California protect all of the continental United States?

General O’REILLY. Yes, sir.

Senator LIEBERMAN. So that what we would achieve with the GBI system in Poland and the Czech Republic would be a redundancy of protection.

General O’REILLY. Yes, sir.

Assuming the head of the MDA is being truthful, the real issue at hand is whether shifting to the SM-3 interceptor on both fixed and mobile assets improves the protection of US forces and allies in Europe from short and medium range ballistic missiles targeted at Europe.

Space security and the concept of dual use

One major issue that is not being talked about in regard to this new plan is the implications it has for space security. Space security has many definitions. In the US, it is commonly defined as protecting space assets and capabilities. In Europe, most would define it as using space capabilities to enable human security on Earth. More broadly, it can also be defined as protecting the long-term sustainability of and access to the space environment for continued socioeconomic benefits.

All of these definitions are valid and may be in play at different times for different people. Many people assume that space security inevitably means a ban on space weapons or military activities in space. However, that is not true and there are many different perspectives on this. For example, from the perspective of space sustainability, only those space weapons that adversely affect the space environment, such as kinetic energy interceptors, would be seen as something to control or ban. Many states also recognize the difference between militarization and weaponization of space, and increasingly define peaceful uses as non-aggressive instead of non-military.

The same kinetic-kill interceptors that can destroy a missile in-flight could also be capable of destroying a satellite in low Earth orbit.

At the heart of the relationship between BMD and space security is the issue of dual-use technology. Broadly defined, these are technologies that have both a legitimate defensive use and potential military weapons application. Now, this definition has its issues—many would argue that everything is potentially dual-use, such as a pencil that could be used to both write and stab. But an essential element of arms control and proliferation is the concept that certain technologies are important (and potentially dangerous) enough that they require special controls. This was behind the addition of many space-related items to the United States Munitions List (USML) after two US companies were fined for providing technical help to China on space launch vehicles, which allegedly also benefited their ballistic missile program in the 1990s. The USML contains many technologies and articles that fall under export controls.

A current example of this issue of dual use is North Korea’s ballistic missile program. The DPRK maintains the position that its space program is solely for peaceful purposes and is geared towards developing space launch capability, something that many other sovereign States have pursued in the past. However, it is also the case that much of the same technology behind space launch vehicles is also applicable to ICBMs capable of carrying a WMD payload (see “A space launch vehicle by any other name…”, The Space Review, March 9, 2009).

The same dual-use argument can be made for several technologies being used for BMD. The same kinetic-kill interceptors that can destroy a missile in-flight could also be capable of destroying a satellite in low Earth orbit (and in doing so, effectively become anti-satellite weapons, or ASATs). This was unequivocally demonstrated by the previously mentioned Operation Burnt Frost, which only required minor modifications, reportedly just software, to an existing Aegis SM-3 interceptor to destroy a satellite (USA-193), albeit one that was in the initial stages of atmospheric re-entry.

There are limits on the utility of BMD systems as ASATs: the maximum speed of the interceptor limits the maximum altitude at which it can attack satellites. In the case of the SM-3 Block 1A, its maximum velocity is reportedly around 3 km/s. This gives it a maximum ballistic flight range of about 1000 kilometers and a maximum theoretical ASAT altitude of about 500 kilometers, about twice the altitude of 240 kilometers at which it destroyed USA-193.

However, the newer Block 1B and 2A of the SM-3 will have a much greater burnout velocity and thus increased ASAT engagement altitude, reportedly around 4.5 km/s for Block 2A. This would allow it to reach satellites throughout low Earth orbit, up to a theoretical altitude of around 2000 kilometers. From this it is clear that as BMD interceptors increase their maximum velocity to be able to intercept ICBMs, they also increase in potential ASAT capability.

Capability-based analysis

The core of the space security concerns with regard to BMD, and in particular Aegis, is summed up in this question posed to General James Cartwright during the pre-mission press brief for Operation Burnt Frost:

QUESTION: General, if this shot is successful, would it be fair for the international community to regard the standard missile now as an anti-satellite-capable weapon? And have you dealt with that issue in the international community already?

GEN. CARTWRIGHT: A fair question and a good question. One, this is a modification to the SM-3. In other words, this modification can't coexist with the current configuration. So it's a one-time deal. Does it have the kinetic capability? That's why we picked it. But you'd have to go in and do modifications to ships, to missiles, to sensors and they would be significant. This is an extreme measure for this problem. It would not be transferable to a fleet configuration, so to speak.

As an ex-military officer who worked under General Cartwright (admittedly, several levels below) I believe he is sincere in his belief that this was a “one-time” deal. However, if I was another sovereign state and potential adversary of the United States, I do not think I would have that same luxury.

Many military planners would argue that the appropriate way to establish threats is to base it off what potential adversaries are capable of doing, and not on what they are likely to do. And in this case, I think it is logical to argue that potential US adversaries with space capabilities, such as Russia and China, would have to assume that the US could reconstitute the sea-based ASAT capability should it want to.

More critically, there is no way for any outside entity to independently verify that the US has or has not modified any of the operational SM-3 interceptors for ASAT capability, since there are no external tell-tales or inspections. Lacking such verification, it would be imprudent for these potential adversaries to assume such capability does not exist, and therefore it is logical that they would develop measures to counter such a capability.

More critically, there is no way for any outside entity to independently verify that the US has or has not modified any of the operational SM-3 interceptors for ASAT capability.

Interestingly, this same argument could be applied to China’s SC-19 ballistic missile. Based on a modified version of the CSS-5 MRBM, the SC-19 was used as the booster for the anti-satellite kill vehicle that destroyed a Chinese weather satellite in 2007. Some reports (which have not been fully substantiated) have claimed that the SC-19 is actually part of a Chinese ABM system. Even if untrue, it is clear that the Chinese direct-ascent ASAT program and the US ground- and sea-based missile defense programs are two halves of the same capability, separated only by perspective and policy.


There are implications to this shift towards sea-based missile defense. First, it adds yet more incentive for potential adversaries to develop greater anti-ship capabilities, especially anti-ship ballistic missiles (ABSM). This is already a serious threat for which the US Navy currently has little answer. And during a potential crisis, this BMD capability may provide incentive for strikes against Aegis ships outside of normal naval engagements as a pre-emptive measure against them being used to take out space-based capabilities.

Additionally, the shift in emphasis towards sea-based missile defense comes without matching shift in either the Navy’s shipbuilding plan or budget. There are currently only two Aegis-BMD capable ships in the Atlantic fleet, with the other sixteen BMD-capable ships located in the Pacific. Funding is already in place to upgrade three more ships to Aegis-BMD capability which will be added to the Atlantic fleet. More ships will be necessary to support any level of BMD operations. Analysis of the effects these deployments will have on an already strained personnel and deployment schedule also need to be done.

The intertwining of certain missile defense and anti-satellite technologies and space weapons places the US in a conflicted diplomatic position.

The broader implication relates to any potential space arms control measures. The US currently has the overwhelming majority of active satellites in Earth orbit—about 425 out of almost 900 active payloads in orbit. Much of its military power is derived from these space capabilities, along with a portion of the global economy. As such, it is in the best interests of US national security to protect those space assets. Arms control of anti-satellite capabilities offers one possible way to accomplish this, in conjunction with unilateral measures such as increased space situational awareness, reducing satellite vulnerabilities, and increasing defensive counterspace capabilities.

Likewise, the proliferation of ballistic missiles as potential delivery vehicles for weapons of mass destruction and force projection creates a very real need for missile defense to protect deployed forces abroad, US citizens at home, and allies. And to date kinetic kill interceptors launched via ballistic missile are the predominant means of defeating ballistic missiles.

However, the intertwining of certain missile defense and anti-satellite technologies and space weapons places the US in a conflicted diplomatic position. If it wants to pursue a broad range of missile defense capabilities, it must obstruct or shape international negotiations on space arms control and certain ASAT capabilities. But in doing so it allows for continued development and proliferation of anti-satellite systems by potential adversaries, placing US satellites at greater risk, and undermines its long-stated policy on the peaceful uses of outer space.

The discussions and involvement of several US allies, including Japan, South Korea, Australia, and Spain, on Aegis and potentially Aegis BMD also adds to this undermining. If other states do indeed see Aegis BMD as a potential ASAT capability, then Aegis BMD sales could be seen as a proliferation problem, just as the US would have strong concerns over China looking to sell its SC-19 system to Iran or North Korea.

These implications should not be construed as a choice between missile defense and space security: both are crucial to US national security and global security. The challenge is to find a way to accomplish both, and solving this dichotomy is one of the most important national security problems facing the Obama Administration, and hopefully one that will be tackled soon.