The crisis Kim Jong-un’s regime has created worsens with each intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) it launches and every nuclear weapon it detonates. The North Koreans are neither begging for war, as U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley said, nor are they trying to extort money from America. This is something different.
From the behavior of the Kim regime, it’s reasonable to conclude that it has convinced itself that with a force of nuclear-armed ICBMs capable of reaching America, it can deter us from intervening in wars of conquest against South Korea or even Japan. They may believe that faced with the choice of trading the incineration of Chicago for the safety of Seoul, an American president would not fight.
The only way to ensure the failure of such a strategy is to significantly strengthen our missile defenses.
Earlier this month the deputy director of our Missile Defense Agency, Rear Adm. Jon Hill, said that if our children ask about North Korea, we should tell them that we have the “strongest possible defense” to that threat right now. Well, no.
The best possible missile defense would improve on the fast launch detection we already have and match it with defensive weapons unlimited by ground-based deployments.
Sensors, such as our Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) satellites already give us near-instantaneous detection, but our ground- and sea-based defenses cover only limited areas. Moreover, they react slowly, sometimes having to go through layers of command to authorize a defensive missile launch. Worse still, even in tests under ideal conditions, they sometimes miss, as an Aegis SM-3 missile did in a test last month.
President Trump has promised that we’d spend billions more on missile defenses, but on which ones? Congress will, correctly, pass some small increase in missile defense funding directed at current systems. But there appears to be no serious intention to fund space-based systems.
The way a missile is launched and flies to its target or targets shows us why a space-based system is essential to defend against threats such as that posed by North Korea.
If North Korea launched a missile today, its engines would expel gases burning at about 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit, roughly double the temperature natural gas burns on your kitchen stove. The burn would last about four minutes to propel the missile beyond Earth’s atmosphere. From space, the heat generated during that period is pretty easy to detect, and it would be.
Six SBIRS satellites are either in geosynchronous orbit (racing through space at the same speed the Earth turns to keep them “hovering” over a particular area) or in high elliptical orbits to cover the entire planet. SBIRS would detect the launch almost instantly.
The SBIRS birds would begin to track the missile and, with other satellites and ground-based sensors, quickly resolve its trajectory. Satellite operators would, within seconds, inform U.S. Strategic Command and alert missile defenses. SBIRS and other sensors quickly establish a track showing where the missile is going.
But that’s where the existing defenses can come up short. A decision to launch a defensive missile may not be made in time for it to be within range of the North Korean missile. The military is loath to delegate such responsibilities, so the decision may have to go through layers of military commanders and even to the president before the defensive shot is launched. The same is true for the long-range Ground Based Interceptor.
Those disadvantages can be overcome by an autonomous space-based system similar to the “Brilliant Pebbles” concept from 1992. It would give us the widest area of coverage, longer response time and the greatest number of shots against enemy warheads.
The Brilliant Pebbles concept envisioned using then-available technology to ring the Earth with hundreds of independent, small, kinetic kill weapons that could destroy enemy ICBMs in space before they could deliver their weapons. It failed to get off the ground because it could have violated the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty with the Soviet Union. That barrier was removed in 2001 when President George W. Bush announced termination of the ABM Treaty.
A modernized version of Brilliant Pebbles would have enormous advantages over ground-based defenses. Guided by SBIRS and its own sensors, Pebbles fired from orbit would have the greatest time window to reach their targets.
The 1992 concept would have made the Pebbles autonomous. A 2017 version would take its guidance from sensors such as SBIRS and automatically destroy only missiles launched on a trajectory to hit the United States or an ally. The recent North Korean missile shot over Japan wouldn’t be targeted.
The liberal communities here and abroad will immediately reach a manic stage of opposition proclaiming that we are beginning an arms race in space and that artificial intelligence will inevitably destroy humankind.
But even as originally conceived, Pebbles wouldn’t be controlled by artificial intelligence. A modern version of Pebbles would contain no artificial intelligence. It would be automated only in the sense that it would destroy only missiles on one of a set of trajectories.
As North Korea’s continued aggression proves, it is long past time for us to build the space-based missile defenses our nation needs.
• Jed Babbin was deputy undersecretary of defense in the George H.W. Bush administration. He is a senior fellow of the London Center for Policy Research and the author of “In the Words of Our Enemies.”
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