For the most part, orbital defense isn’t nearly as sexy an endeavor as its made out to be by the media. Protecting America’s large constellation of defense, intelligence and commercial satellites relied on for everything from navigation to communications, is largely an effort that can be undertaken from a desk here on earth — including devising new ways to harden orbital systems against cyber attack and keeping a close eye on orbital traffic to identify threats ahead of time. However, while the vast majority of a Space Force’s orbital requirements would likely be of the pocket-protector variety, there has been an increasing buzz within the national defense community about bridging the gap between science fiction and national defense, prompted in no small part by another technology still in its infancy: hypersonic weapons platforms.
No one on the planet currently has a reliable means of defending against hypersonic missiles, which travel at speeds in excess of Mach 5 (3,836 miles per hour). These missiles, like China’s DF-21D or Russia’s Kinzhal, move too fast to be intercepted by traditional missile defense systems, wreaking havoc with longstanding U.S. war fighting doctrine. As a result, the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering, Michael Griffin, recently proposed the idea of placing missile platforms in orbit to intercept these hypersonic missiles at the apex, or highest point, in their flight path. Of course, not all hypersonic missiles rely on such an arced trajectory and even if they did, hitting one with a satellite based missile would be like using a remote controlled gun from thousands of miles away to shoot at a bullet traveling 5 times faster than the speed of sound fired from a different gun even further away… but assuming Griffin’s proposal has some basis in field-able technology (as he claims) a few hurdles still remain.
The first hurdle is admittedly a paper one, but as far as paper hurdles go, it comes with a fair amount of political baggage. The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 bans the placement of weapon systems in space as well as banning offensive military operations in the same environment. It does, however, offer a grey area: nations are allowed to place defensive assets in orbit, and the United States could feasibly argue that missiles used as interceptors are not offensive weapons. Of course, there’s little chance Russia or China would accept that sort of political chicanery. They would undoubtedly paint such an endeavor in the international community as an overt violation of the treaty — as opposed to their less publicized orbital warfare endeavors that include autonomous satellite drones purpose built for offensive operations against American satellites.
The second hurdle, of course, would be getting those weapons into space. America relies heavily on commercial space flight for all things orbital thanks to perpetual delays in the U.S. flagged Space Launch System program that was supposed to replace the Space Shuttle, and because no commercial space company has begun flying manned missions, American astronauts are forced to hitch rides aboard Soviet era Soyuz capsules to and from the International Space Station. If the U.S. wants to put missiles in space, it would need to find a rocket to strap them into — and chances are good, it would have to be a big one.
Lucky for the U.S., the company that currently boasts the most powerful operational rocket on the planet has already indicated that they’d be willing to help. At last week’s Air, Space and Cyber conference held by the Air Force Association, SpaceX President and Chief Operating Officer Gwynne Shotwell said in no uncertain terms that SpaceX would likely be willing to offer the platforms necessary to launch such an orbital defense initiative.
“Would SpaceX launch military weapons?” someone in the crowd asked Shotwell.
“I’ve never been asked that question,” She replied. “If it’s for the defense of this country, yes, I think we would.”
Mike Griffin estimated that launching a constellation of missile-armed satellites to serve as hypersonic platform interceptors would cost America around $20 billion, which is no small potatoes. According to recent Air Force estimates, standing up the Space Force (that would likely be tasked with managing this weapon system) would only run the nation about $13 billion — but then, in the grand scheme of things, even that massive price tag is not unheard of in terms of defense initiatives. The F-35 program will likely cost more than $1.5 trillion over its lifespan, for instance.
“In brief, we do not have systems today that give us globally, comprehensive, persistent, timely, multi-mode awareness of what is going on on earth, everywhere, all the time. We don’t have that,” Under Secretary Griffin said. “And the Chinese hypersonic threat is one that in today’s world, we cannot see coming until it’s too late. So it is up to us to defend that. And in order to defend that order we must now go to space … both for the sensory layer and the ability to project power.”