Thirty years after Ronald Reagan first articulated a vision of space-based defense against ballistic-missile attack, Washington still can’t seem to get serious about the mission. In the same month that the Stalinist government of North Korea threatened a nuclear strike against the American homeland, the Obama Administration disclosed plans to terminate a vital link in any system capable of dealing with such aggression. Called the Precision Tracking Space System, or PTSS, the proposed constellation would have provided continuous tracking of enemy warheads through the midcourse of their trajectories, enabling early engagement by interceptors based on the ground and at sea.
This is a sad end for a program that the head of the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Agency last year told Congress was “the greatest future enhancement for both homeland and regional defense in the next ten years,” because it would have permitted birth-to-death tracking of hostile warheads. The Missile Defense Agency has long contended that a layered defense is needed to assure more than one shot at attackers, but without a way of continuously tracking warheads in midcourse, there might not be enough time for surface interceptors to shoot twice. Even the best surface sensors can’t see around the curvature of the Earth, so being able to look down from above is the only practical way of providing maximum time for employment of interceptors.
The good news is that after long delays, the Air Force is orbiting a constellation of new missile-warning satellites that will be more sensitive and versatile than their Cold War predecessors. These geosynchronous spacecraft can take over some of the sensing functions needed to track ballistic missiles when they launch. But the early-warning satellites are deployed 22,000 miles above the Earth’s surface, so once boosters burn out and fall away, there isn’t much their infrared sensors can do to track warheads as they coast through space. They might be able to provide a good preliminary calculation of warhead trajectories, but that’s not the same thing as supplying precise targeting coordinates. After all, U.S. interceptors rely mainly on hit-to-kill technology rather than explosive kill mechanisms, so they need very precise and timely information to hit that incoming bullet with their own bullet (to use a common metaphor).
As Amy Butler of Aviation Week reported this week, the PTSS program would have relied on the geosynchronous warning satellites for initial “target acquisition” of hostile warheads as a way of saving money over previous approaches. But apparently the savings weren’t great enough to make the challenging program viable in the current fiscal environment. If you talk to government insiders, they’ll tell you that PTSS and its various precursors have been on life support for a long time, so the termination proposal is no shock. Nonetheless, this latest setback to U.S. missile defense plans reflects a lack of clarity in official Washington about future threats. A country that spends hundreds of billions of dollars trying to transform the political cultures of Iraq and Afghanistan devotes barely two-percent of its defense budget to addressing the biggest threat to national security — ballistic missiles armed with nuclear warheads.
The day will come when both political parties look back with regret on all the missed opportunities in missile defense since the Reagan years. The money we saved by not deploying better defenses will pale compared with the cost of being unprepared. People who think that we can rely on offensively-based deterrence to dissuade countries like North Korea and Iran from attacking us haven’t been paying attention to what the leaders of those countries are saying and doing. Deterrence only works when enemies are rational and not prone to making mistakes. Active defense is a more reliable way of securing our future.
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