The Senate’s Nuclear Insurance

Space sensors would be a game-changer in missile defense.

Testing the Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD), May 30, 2017. Photo: U.S. Missile Defense Agency/European Pressphoto Agency
By The Editorial Board
June 10, 2018 4:12 p.m. ET


Whether or not President Trump strikes a nuclear deal at his summit with Kim Jong Un, the U.S. still needs to prepare for attacks on its homeland and abroad. China recently installed missile systems on artificial islands in the South China Sea, while economic backwaters like Russia and Iran invest heavily in missile tests and research. At least Congress is developing bipartisan support for missile defense.

The Senate this week is expected to vote on its version of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which the Armed Services Committee approved 25-2 in May. While missile defense can’t perfectly insulate the U.S. or its troops abroad, the new legislation includes notable improvements that would make America’s rivals think twice before striking.
The U.S. fields several missile-defense systems around the world, but each has its own radar. The Aegis Ballistic Missile Defense is deployed at sea and can bring down regional threats inside the atmosphere. The Ground-based Midcourse Defense (GMD) protects the U.S. homeland by targeting long-range missiles in space. But the systems don’t communicate and coordinate well.

One Senate NDAA provision calls for deploying space-based sensors, which will help integrate the systems so the U.S. doesn’t lose sight of a missile. Space-based sensors aren’t cheap, but the cost of putting them into orbit is falling as private companies make space deliveries more efficient. The legislation also eases the way for future appropriations to pay for the sensors.
Yet the Senate doesn’t set a concrete timeline for deployment. No one can predict the speed of innovation, but the military does better when given a specific goal. Asking the Defense Department to deploy a space-based sensor system by 2022 would set an aggressive but plausible target. It is also crucial, given Chinese and Russian advances in hypersonic weapons.
Hypersonic missiles can travel about one mile a second, faster than modern jet fighters. Air Force Gen. John Hyten, who leads U.S. Strategic Command, testified in March that the U.S. currently lacks a defense to “deny the employment of such a weapon.” While hypersonic missiles are vulnerable during slower phases of flight, the trouble is identifying them early enough. “The only way that I know to be able to, in my phrase, ‘see them coming’ is from space,” Pentagon technology chief Michael Griffin said in April.
The best way to improve the accuracy and precision of existing missile-defense systems is through increased testing—which the legislation encourages. As North Korea reminded the world, even “failed” tests move a missile program forward.
The U.S.-led international order is underpinned by America’s ability to deploy its forces around the world, and new missile technology is a growing threat. U.S. ships, aircraft and soldiers can become vulnerable to an attack from a lesser country like Russia. The Senate should keep the missile-defense provisions in its final NDAA and work with the House and White House to make sure they get funding.

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