Missile Defense Chief Wants Space-Based Missile-Tracking Sensors Now

Lt. Gen. Samuel A. Greaves, Missile Defense Agency commander, speaks at Osan Air Base, South Korea, in front of two Patriot launching stations, August 22, 2017. (U.S. Army/ Staff Sgt. Monik Phan)
Lt. Gen. Samuel A. Greaves, Missile Defense Agency commander, speaks at Osan Air Base, South Korea, in front of two Patriot launching stations, August 22, 2017. (U.S. Army/ Staff Sgt. Monik Phan)

If the United States wants to be serious about its missile defense strategy in order to protect from future threats, the time for space-based sensors -- an enhanced way to adequately track and respond to missle attacks from space -- is now, the Pentagon's top missile defense director said Tuesday.

Quoting a member of his staff, Lt Gen Samuel Greaves, director of the Missile Defense Agency, said, "If you can't see it, you can't shoot it." He acknowledged that currently there are global gaps in missile-tracking coverage.

"What we're looking for is to move the sensor architecture to space and use that advantage of space in coordination with our ground assets to relieve the gaps," he said.

Speaking at the annual "Defense Programs" conference hosted by defense consulting firm McAleese & Associates, Greaves said space-based sensors complement the Defense Department's abilities to accurately track an "enemy threat as it's coming your way," a reference to hypersonic missile threats.

Last week, Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed the country has developed "invincible" new nuclear weapons, including hypersonic missiles, that can penetrate U.S. defenses.

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When asked how DoD plans to proceed with funding or acquiring the technology, Greaves refuted the idea that space-based sensors can't be made a reality in the near future.

"The requirements are not 'unobtainium,'" he said. "Let's change the mission, the threat ...The question in my mind is not if we can do it. It's 6, 7 years from now, explaining to the American public why we didn't start yesterday."

The Pentagon for years has danced around the idea of using the technology, which would track a missile post re-entry and even after its burnout, but has always been stalled or sidetracked by other immediate budget needs.

Last week, Gen. John Hyten, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, said at an Association of the U.S. Army event that he plans in upcoming weeks to explore the possibility of a near-future solution for space sensors with Congress's help.

"I think time is ready, and we ought to move forward now," Hyten said, as reported by Defense News.

As a primary measure to address missile defense, lawmakers passed a $4 billion emergency supplemental bill in November. The bill acts as the downpayment for additional ground-based interceptors in Alaska, which would bring MDA's interceptor count to 64 by 2023, Greaves said Tuesday.

But while that's said and done, neither the fiscal 2018 nor 2019 budget requests have specifically addressed the space-based sensor gap.

Like Greaves, experts and analysts worry that time is running out to field space-based sensors at a time when threats from Russia and North Korea only continue to rise.

"Each of the last five administrations have had on paper some sort of space-based sensor layer for tracking and discrimination--but each has failed to deploy an operational constellation," a Feb. 28 Center for Strategic and International Studies missile defense report found.

"The 2019 budget request continues to kick the can on space sensors," said the report, authored by Thomas Karako, senior fellow for international security program and director of missile defense project at the Washington, D.C.-based think tank.

"Three lines within MDA's budget relate to a future space sensor layer, but none of them begin the development and deployment of such a capability," Karako said.

He added, "Although space sensor-related funding could in principle be hidden in MDA's classified Special Programs line, it seems unlikely that it would be more fully developed, let alone fielded, from within that line.

"The failure to more aggressively pursue more advanced capabilities is consistent with the 2019 request's overall choice to prioritize near-term capacity, but nevertheless represents a major shortcoming," Karako said.

-- Oriana Pawlyk can be reached at oriana.pawlyk@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @oriana0214.

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