How Chinese hypersonic missile advances are inspiring the US to dust off ‘Star Wars’, as the ‘great power competition’ resumes
- Hypersonic missiles developed by China and Russia are being used to justify the reprise of space-based missile defence systems by the Pentagon
- The US is particularly concerned about super-fast guided missiles under development in China that could put US ships and bases at risk in Asia
More than three decades ago, Michael Griffin was at the centre of the military’s “Star Wars” initiative, working to realise US president Ronald Reagan’s dream of shielding the United States from Soviet missiles like “a roof protects a family from rain”.
Now the 69-year-old scientist is back at the Pentagon as its top technology official, looking to revive some of the same missile defence concepts that proponents credited with helping end the cold war and detractors ridiculed as the excesses of a hawkish Hollywood president.
It is not only Griffin who has returned to the Pentagon. So, too, has the zeal of a great-power arms race reminiscent of the rivalry with the Soviet Union.
Drawing on robust defence funding from Congress, Defence Secretary James Mattis is embarking on a vast overhaul of the US military to take aim at threats from Russia and China.
As part of the overhaul, Vice-President Mike Pence is leading President Donald Trump’s push for a new Space Force. Though critics say the initiative risks an arms race in space, Pence has argued that space has been militarised since the launch of Sputnik and that the US armed forces must move faster than Russia and China to dominate the domain. The same outlook extends to missile defence.
“We have renewed great power competition,” Griffin said in an interview. “Well, great powers regrettably aim missiles at one another.”
In the 1980s, Reagan and his close advisers largely took the lead in advancing the Strategic Defence Initiative, which critics later dubbed “Star Wars” for its science fiction timbre and epic budget.
More recently, Congress has been leading the charge. The latest defence policy bill, which Trump signed into law in August, requires the Pentagon to work on plans to detect and possibly one day shoot down missiles from space, and find ways to intercept missiles shortly after they are launched.
Other legislation has pushed investment in high-power lasers to blunt multiple missiles one after the other, which Griffin wants to prioritise.
Whether any of the efforts come to fruition depends partly on the Trump administration’s willingness to refocus the nation’s missile defence program, which since the end of the cold war has concentrated on combating accidental launches or limited attacks from North Korea and Iran.
“For smaller-scale attacks, we hope to be able to deflect those entirely,” Griffin said. “For larger-scale attacks, we hope to confound the enemy’s planning to such a degree that they cannot be certain of an assured first strike. That’s fundamentally what we are trying to do with missile defence.”
Top officials in the administration sent a draft of the Defence Department’s new missile defence policy back to the drawing board early this year after arguing that the strategy didn’t sufficiently address burgeoning threats from Russia and China.
More than half a year later, the policy hasn’t been released. Deputy Defence Secretary Patrick Shanahan has told reporters that the strategy is finished, even though the administration hasn’t made it public.
The Trump administration’s next budget request, due out sometime in February, is likely to indicate how much the Pentagon wants to reorient missile defence.
While missile defence has received substantive funding in recent years, to a tune of about US$12 billion a year, much of the money has gone to increasing the number of existing systems rather than introducing new technologies.
Now that the Democrats have taken control of the House, they could seek to scale back any push for weaponised missile defences in space, as the ballooning deficit forces harder choices on spending and critics raise doubts about the technology.
He still speaks with passion about the possibilities for missile defence more than three decades after he ran the launch team at the Strategic Defence Initiative for what he described as the first space intercept of a target being powered in flight.
As the rocket debris trailed down over Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific, Griffin understood that the purpose of his achievement was not only to demonstrate a rudimentary proof of concept but also to show Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, ahead of the high-stakes 1986 summit in Reykjavik, Iceland, that missile defence was something Moscow would struggle to counter.
“The test was, if you will, techno-political,” Griffin recalled.
The former Nasa administrator hoped the missile defence projects he was working on during the Reagan era would blossom into operational systems but expresses little surprise many of them didn’t.
Even today, his engineer’s enthusiasm for missile defences in space belies a recognition, as he put it, that “this stuff is going to be done by my successor’s successor’s successor.”
Griffin supports the Pentagon’s effort to study interceptors in space that could take down ballistic missiles on ascent in their “boost phase.” He also backs the push to invest heavily in lasers.
But first and foremost, he said, the United States must put a network of satellite surveillance sensors in space to detect missile threats in real time at every location in the world.
The Pentagon is particularly concerned about super-fast and agile precision-guided missiles under development in China that could put US ships and bases at risk during a conflict in Asia.
Griffin characterised plans for a sensor network in space as a necessary response to Russia and China’s pursuit of hypersonic missiles, or manoeuvrable missiles faster than the speed of sound that could hit any target in the world in an hour or two and easily pierce existing defences.
“You’re never going to hit a target you don’t know is coming,” Griffin said.
The idea is for the Pentagon to use a couple hundred satellites – as few as 120 or as many as 300, according to Griffin – with advanced sensors to track missiles from the moment they launch and relay their movements almost immediately.
The missile trackers would talk to one another and to installations on the ground in an “Internet protocol-like fashion,” Griffin said.
“I need persistent, global, timely awareness of what’s going on,” he said. “If the Chinese, for example, in a conflict in the western Pacific, choose to launch hypersonic threats at our forward bases or carriers, we want to know where those are coming from. It’s not our purpose to let them have an infinite number of free shots.”
The Defence Department could build the satellites or essentially rent capacity on satellite platforms that private space industry firms are planning to launch into orbit for other purposes.
“Many companies have offered up plans that would feature the deployment of hundreds or even thousands of low-altitude satellites for communications or Earth observations,” Griffin said. “One of our ideas is to order an extra 200 buses from them, put our own sensors on it and deploy it in that fashion.”
Griffin said the United States could have such a surveillance constellation “in play” by 2022 or 2023 “if we were really serious and concerned the way we have been about some things in the past”.
As for the cost, he estimated the sensor constellation could be completed for several billion dollars. If the Pentagon produces its own satellites, the project could cost closer to US$10 billion, he said.
Any effort to go beyond sensors and put weapons into space that can intercept missiles is far more fraught and uncertain. At the direction of Congress, the Missile Defence Agency is studying the possibility.
So far, the interceptors would only be capable of going after ballistic missiles rather than hypersonic missiles. In any case, Griffin said, the space sensor network for missiles should come first.
The Pentagon’s missile defence policy, if it is released, and February budget request could indicate whether the administration intends to advance an effort to put interceptors in space beyond the study stage.
Washington’s withdrawal in 2002 from the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with Moscow gives the United States more leeway to develop those technologies.
A move in that direction would prompt intense criticism from disarmament advocates, who say such an installation would be overly costly, vulnerable to attack and questionably effective, and possibly provoke a war with Russia and China in a domain that so far has been conflict-free.
“We haven’t really crossed that, where countries have decided to station destructive weapons in space. We just haven’t for lots of good reasons,” said Laura Grego, senior scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists. “That’s a useful and important restraint. It does keep the US more safe.”
Others see the evolution of space into a war-fighting domain as inevitable.
“We are already in an arms race,” said Henry “Trey” Obering III, a retired US Air Force lieutenant general and former director of the Missile Defence Agency, who now works on high-energy lasers at the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton.
Laser weaponry, the technology perhaps most evocative of the Reagan era, is still a ways away from being able to take down missiles for the US military, particularly from space.
According to Griffin, the Pentagon is again giving serious consideration to neutral particle beams, sometimes called ray guns, which officials explored during the Star Wars era to down missiles from space.
Not all of the missile defence concepts the Pentagon is considering are reminiscent of that era or focused on Russia and China.
In one idea gaining traction, a patrol of high altitude drones or F-35 fighter jets would fly above the waters around North Korea, ready to shoot down any missiles Pyongyang decides to fire in their boost phase or immediately after.
Should the US military proceed with the concept, Griffin said cost would drive the decision between a drone and a fighter jet as the “basing mode,” and the military would then arm whichever platform it chooses with an air-to-air missile rather than a laser.
He declined to say how far the military has gone in developing the idea.
“I will leave it that airborne boost-phase defence is of great interest to us at this point,” Griffin said. “It is technically feasible. We can do it. There are several basing modes. We’d pick the best value for the buck.”