What’s Missing in the 2019 Missile Defense Review
The most important argument in the 2019 Missile Defense Review (MDR) is that missile defenses stabilize nuclear deterrence because they can obviate retaliatory or offensive nuclear strikes. To this end, the MDR recognizes that space-based defenses offer the best chance of destroying missiles in their vulnerable boost phase. The MDR goes on to recognize that laser technology possesses the potential to destroy missiles at the earliest moment of boost phase. Despite this, there is no mention of an intent to field laser defenses in space, only on airborne platforms. The reason for this incongruity is clear: the MDR fails to address space nuclear power.
Space nuclear power is the only technology capable of providing the megawatts of power necessary to make space-based laser defenses practical. However, the MDR’s authors have apparently concluded that space nuclear power is too scary or politically challenging even to mention. That is unfortunate because reactors are safer than the plutonium-powered radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs) used by NASA today. RTGs are highly radioactive from the moment they are assembled, but reactors only become radioactive after they are safely powered-up in space. And megawatt-class space nuclear reactor technology has been extensively investigated and shown to be viable, so the absence of any discussion of them cannot be justified based on technology limitations.
Aircraft-mounted laser weapons for strategic missile defense is a dead-end. This was made clear after decades of hard work on the Airborne Laser, which was finally canceled in 2011. To reduce the attenuation caused by the atmosphere between the laser and its target, manned or unmanned aircraft must operate at high altitude where the air is thin, and patrol relatively close to their targets, making them vulnerable to surface- or air-to-air missiles. Space-based platforms don’t face these restrictions.
The inherent stability of an orbital platform means that pointing and tracking is also much easier to accomplish in space than on airborne platforms. NASA’s Laser Communication Relay Demonstration (LCRD) will prove this in 2019. LCRD also highlights another advantage of space-based lasers not mentioned in the MDR: “dual use.” Space-based lasers have several potential dual military-civilian uses, including high bandwidth secure communications, active sensing and tracking, and orbital debris cleanup. Considering that the current technologic era is dominated by defense technologies that were made available to and grown by the private sector (e.g., GPS and the Internet), laser defense technologies would have a much better chance of succeeding for the same reason. Missile defense based on exoatmospheric kill vehicles (EKVs) or explosive warheads offer no such advantage.
EKVs and warheads could also be misidentified as nuclear munitions. Their presence alone will be destabilizing to nuclear deterrence. Lasers, on the other hand, do not create radar or infrared signatures that can be misidentified as nuclear munitions. Furthermore, nuclear reactors give space-based laser defenses a “deep magazine” allowing for continuous and prolonged engagement of many targets. And while it will be expensive to develop and field these systems initially, “life-cycle cost will go down dramatically because we’ll be taking out multiple missiles with a single laser system.”
Space-based laser defenses will better stabilize nuclear deterrence, and their dual-uses will help ensure success. Basing laser weapons on aircraft may have tactical value, but it is not a strategic solution. The Administration should reconsider space nuclear power and space-based laser defenses because together they are a strategic and disruptive technology perfectly suited to the new U.S. Space Force and one that can’t be matched by our adversaries.
Dr. Vaughn Standley is the Department of Energy (DOE) Faculty Chair at the National Defense University’s College of Information and Cyberspace. Previously he was DOE’s manager of the Space-based Nuclear Detonation Detection Program, a United Nations nuclear inspector, and a U.S. Air Force officer specializing in space nuclear power technology.
The opinions, conclusions, and recommendations expressed or implied are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Defense or any other agency of the Federal Government, or any other organization.