By Jon Dougherty
For decades since the Reagan administration envisioned a space-based missile defense shield nicknamed “Star Wars” by critics, innumerable foreign policy and military analysts have expressed concerns about ‘weaponizing’ space.
That included the U.S. Department of Defense. Now, however, as new threats like hypersonic missiles and anti-satellite systems are being developed and soon to be deployed, the Pentagon has had a change of heart.
The DoD is asking Congress for $304 million in funding into “space-based lasers, particle beams, and other new forms of missile defense next year,” Defense One reports.
Pentagon officials say they want to test a neural particle beam in orbit in 2023 as part of a stepped-up effort to develop next-gen missile defense weapons including more powerful lasers. Officials say the space system is needed in response to the development of hypersonic missiles by China and Russia, as well as North Korea and even Iran.
However, defense officials admit that figuring out what will work is going to be challenging.
Defense One notes further:
So the Pentagon is undertaking two studies. The first is a $15 million exploration of whether satellites outfitted with lasers might be able to disable enemy missiles coming off the launch pad. Defense officials have said previously that these lasers would need to be in the megawatt class. They expect to finish the study within six months.
They’re also pouring money into a study of space-based neutral particle beams, a different form of directed energy that disrupts missiles with streams of subatomic particles traveling close to light speed — as opposed to lasers, whose photons travel at light speed.
The Pentagon has been examining the feasibility of utilizing lasers in missile defense for years but only recently has begun to publicly discuss the development of a workable concept based in space.
“Waiting until an adversary is in midcourse [phase of flight] is giving the adversary a free pass to launch,” Michael Griffin, the undersecretary of defense for research and engineering, told reporters during a media roundtable at the Space and Missile Defense Symposium about a year ago.
“Until we’ve studied the problem, I don’t know what the best long-term solution is. … The best solution may be with directed energy,” he added. “It’s too soon to pick a winner.”
Specifically, DoD is studying ways to intercept ballistic missiles in their so-called “boost phase” — the portion of the flight of a ballistic missile or space vehicle during which the booster and sustainer engines operate until it reaches peak velocity. That generally takes about 3-4 minutes for a solid-fuel ICBM; shorter for a liquid-fueled rocket.
Such defenses have the advantage of being able to easily track their targets through the infrared signature of the rocket exhaust, and that boosters are generally much less robust than the warheads or bus. Destroying the booster also destroys all of the warheads and decoys, and even simply pushing it off its trajectory can make it impossible for its war load to reach its destination.
Pentagon planners and weapon systems designers have also considered adding boost phase interceptors to existing Air Force fighter planes including F-15s and F-35s. The concept involves stationing fighters armed with boost-phase interceptor missiles off the coast of an adversary, ready to intercept missiles as they are launched. But that’s an interim solution and, increasingly, an aging tactic for emerging technology.
Lasers offer more flexibility and options. In January, we reported:
The U.S. Air Force is expanding and accelerating its research and development of laser weapons for jet fighters, which it hopes to have operational by the early 2020s.
In addition, the service is also upgrading its combat strategy, tactics, and operational concepts in order to accommodate the rapidly emerging technology, Warrior Maven reported.
Lasers offer new capabilities that will change the nature of air combat, experts note.
Griffin said last year it makes sense to move interceptors to space where they can be on-station 24/7/365.
“If you deploy a space-based interceptor constellation, which is something we’ve studied in excess of 30 years, I think the effectivity is beyond doubt, it’s not technically hard to do,” he said. But “it does represent a substantial policy shift. It’s a new cost not presently in the budget, but we can do it, yeah, easy problem.”
As Defense One reported, however, DoD officials sounded a more cautious tone with reporters last week regarding the feasibility of a particle or laser beam interceptor system in space. Still:
In 1989, the U.S. launched a neutral particle beam into space, as part of an experiment called BEAR, for Beam Accelerator Aboard a Rocket.
The experiment report described it as modestly successful: “The BEAR flight has demonstrated that accelerator technology can be adapted to a space environment. This first operation of an [neutral particle beam] accelerator in space uncovered no unexpected physics.”
“We’ve come a long way in terms of the technology we use today to where a full, all-up system wouldn’t be the size of three of these conference rooms, right? We now believe we can get it down to a package that we can put on as part of a payload to be placed on orbit,” said a senior defense official, Defense One reported.
“Power generation, beam formation, the accelerometer that’s required to get there and what it takes to neutralize that beam, that capability has been matured and there are technologies that we can use today to miniaturize.”
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