The Senate Armed Services Committee voted behind closed doors on May 23 to require the Pentagon to start developing missile-killing interceptors for deployment in space — whether or not the Pentagon agrees.
The provision, by Texas Republican Ted Cruz, has become part of the defense authorization bill being debated now and into next week on the Senate floor.
If the language in the bill were to be enacted into law, it would be the first congressional mandate to develop a space weapon that has long sparked fierce debate, largely because it could cost scores of billions of dollars. And it’s unclear whether the military would even recommend it.
If the development effort were to begin, it would be the first such research effort since the Strategic Defense Initiative program launched by President Ronald Reagan in the 1980s, an effort often called “Star Wars” and that ended with the presidency of his successor George Bush. After that, the Pentagon focused mainly on developing and fielding interceptors deployed on land and at sea, though the idea of space interceptors briefly resurfaced, only to fail to gain traction, during the George W. Bush administration.
“This would be the only time Congress would actually be demanding development of space-based interceptors,” said Riki Ellison, founder and president of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance and a supporter of the provision.
John Isaacs, an expert on strategic weapons with the Council for a Livable World, an arms control group, said lawmakers who have previously tried to mandate development of space interceptors have seen their provisions diluted or deleted prior to enactment.
“This would be new, it would be significant and it would be a huge expense,” Isaacs said.
Dispensing with Pentagon advice
The committee’s markup was conducted in secret, but the amendment votes are printed in the report accompanying the panel’s bill, a document that was made public Thursday.
Last year’s defense authorization law required development of the space interceptors, but only “if consistent with the direction or recommendations of the Ballistic Missile Defense Review that commenced in 2017.”
That review is meant to take stock of the U.S. military’s gamut of antimissile initiatives and to propose a plan for such efforts in the years ahead.
The document’s release has been delayed several times. The most recent projection for a release date had been May. Johnny Michael, a Pentagon spokesman, said Thursday he has no new information on the review’s schedule.
It would “direct the Missile Defense Agency to commence a space-based intercept program notwithstanding the outcome of the Missile Defense Review,” according to the committee’s report.
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Price and practicality concerns
Space-based missile defenses have long been a favorite of Republicans, ever since Reagan first touted them as a possible way to shield the world from nuclear missiles. But the space network’s high cost and technical challenges have so far kept them from becoming reality.
“Past U.S. efforts to develop and deploy a space-based missile defense have known many names, including ‘Strategic Defense Initiative,’ ‘Brilliant Pebbles,’ and ‘Global Protection Against Limited Strikes,’” said Kingston Reif, an expert with the Arms Control Association. “And all have suffered the same fate: cancellation due to insurmountable financial, technical, and strategic obstacles. But like a zombie that can’t be killed, the idea keeps coming back.”
Cruz noted the provision in a May 25 press release on the authorization bill.
Space-based interceptors “can take out missiles when they are most vulnerable, during the boost phase,” he said.
His amendment, he said, “removes the legal hurdle to developing and eventually deploying this protection.”
A House GOP aide who supports the idea of deploying interceptors on satellites said the number required is much fewer than during the Cold War and the cost of satellites is less.
However, Todd Harrison, an expert on space and the defense budget with the Center for Strategic and International Studies, questioned the practicality of the proposed system. He said an unaffordable number of interceptors would have to be placed into low-earth orbit just to take out a few enemy missiles.
“The point is, it’s just not a good way to do missile defense,” he said.
A 2011 assessment by the Institute for Defense Analysis said a space antimissile network could cost between $26 billion and $200 billion. A 2012 National Academy of Sciences report said space interceptors would be 10 times as expensive as comparable systems on the ground.
“I have serious concerns about the technical feasibility of interceptors in space, and I have serious concerns about the long-term affordability of a program like that,” said Adm. James Syring, then the director of the Missile Defense Agency, at a House Armed Services hearing in 2016.