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North Korean threat leads to flurry of missile defense proposals — including space interceptors

  • North Korea's intercontinental ballistic missile threat is adding support for spending more on homeland missile defense systems, including a space-based intercept layer.
  • The missile defense upgrade plan in the Senate has at least 27 co-sponsors and potentially could double the size of the current ground-based missile interceptor system and add a space-based sensor layer.
  • Texas GOP Sen. Ted Cruz has a proposal to add a space-based interceptor system, as well.
  • Funding remains a hurdle as space-based plans are estimated to cost as much as $300 billion.

Amid the rising threat from North Korea, support from politicians is building for more spending on U.S. missile defense — and not just ground systems but adding a space-based intercept layer.

"You have both lawmakers and the Pentagon taking a hard look at the issue," said Cowen defense analyst Roman Schweizer.

A measure in the Senate has more than two dozen co-sponsors and would upgrade the current ground-based interceptor system used to protect the homeland and also order concept work on a space-based sensor layer that can track missile threats.

Another plan, by Republican Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, calls for a space-based interceptor system to defeat the nuclear threat from North Korea.

On Friday, North Korea tested an intercontinental ballistic missile that some experts believe could put half, if not most, of the continental U.S. at risk. And there have been reports this week the regime may be close to conducting its sixth nuclear test.

Experts believe Iran could have an ICBM capability similar to North Korea within a few years, as just last week it demonstrated a capability to successfully launch missiles as well as satellite-carrying rockets that some see as a precursor to long-range ballistic missile weapon capability.

"You can't help but read the newspaper and see what North Korea is doing ... and ask are we postured well enough and will we remain sufficiently defended into the coming years should North Korea enter into serial production of these things," said Thomas Karako, senior fellow with the International Security Program and director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

The Senate version of the 2018 National Defense Authorization Act, a bill setting policy and a roadmap for defense spending for the next fiscal year, does include a recommendation that the Pentagon increase the homeland-focused Ground-based Midcourse Defense system.

"Congress could decide to act more forcefully over the next few weeks or months as we head into the fall," said Schweizer.

A $696 billion NDAA passed by the full House last month requires the Pentagon to start developing "a space-based sensor layer for ballistic missile defense." The full Senate has yet to vote on the NDAA.

A major hurdle still remains: how to fund some of the next-generation missile defense plans, particularly space-based sensors or space-based interceptor carrier satellites. A report from the National Academy of Sciences in 2012 forecast the cost of a space-based missile defense could approach a whopping $300 billion, or about 10 times as much as other alternatives.

On the Senate side, Republican Dan Sullivan of Alaska, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is leading the bipartisan effort to potentially more than double the number of anti-ballistic missile interceptors in the nation's current GMD system.

Sullivan's measure, known as the Advancing America's Missile Defense Act, would authorize development of improved kill vehicles that intercept the warheads in space and order concept work on a space-based sensor layer that can track threats. Also, it requires evaluation and cost analysis of a transportable ground-based interceptor and the identification of sites, including in the eastern U.S., as well as an accelerated pace of missile defense testing.

The Sullivan legislation has at least 27 Senate co-sponsors, according to the senator's office.

The U.S. hopes to have a fleet of 44 ground-based interceptors on the GMD by the end of the calendar year (most in Alaska but a handful in California). That's up from 36 interceptors today, and Sullivan's plan would add 28 more interceptors and stockpile another 14 more. That would require the military to plan to have up to 100 interceptors spread across the U.S.

The ground-based interceptor missiles are believed to run $70 million to $100 million apiece, meaning if the Pentagon does end up doubling the size of the program and expanding it beyond California and Alaska, it could provide a meaningful boost to the bottom line of Boeing, the prime contractor on the GMD. Also, it would be good news for Raytheon, maker of the "kill vehicle" and two other major GMD program contractors, Northrop Grumman and Orbital ATK.

The development and sustainment contract on the current Boeing-led GMD program is scheduled to end in December 2018. That said, Lt. Gen. Sam Greaves, director of the U.S. Missile Defense Agency, told CNBC the agency plans "to extend key portions of the contract" that will allow completion of a redesigned kill vehicle and integration of the radar.

The extension of the GMD program means Boeing will continue doing work as prime contractor through around the mid-2020s, but then MDA wants three smaller competitions to eventually move into one contract for system engineering and testing, another for maintenance and sustainment of the existing fleet, and a third contract for what the agency calls an "all up round," or new ground-based interceptor development and production.

Greaves said splitting up the contracts on the follow-on GMD "allows for the flexible development of the next-generation of homeland missile defense capabilities."

At the same time, Cruz, the former GOP presidential hopeful, wrote in an op-ed in Tuesday's Washington Post that the U.S. needs a space-based interceptor system to defeat the nuclear threat from North Korea. In 2009, the Bush administration advocated a space "test bed" of interceptors as a defensive layer but it ultimately was rejected.

During the mid-1980s under President Ronald Reagan, there was a Strategic Defense Initiative commonly referred to as "Star Wars." It was eventually abandoned, but not before the U.S. spent more than $30 billion. Clearly, the program would still have a significant cost but there's much more knowledge today that could potentially reduce the risk that the system won't provide sufficient protection.

"We must take missile defense into space," wrote Cruz. "Only with a serious space-based capability can we target missiles in their boost phase and maximize discrimination of decoys during midcourse flight."

North Korea is expected to ramp up its ICBM development program, including incorporating the use of "decoys and other penetration aids to defeat missile defense," according to a blog posting Tuesday by John Schilling, a missile expert at 38 North, a program of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.

Playing out in the background of these proposals, though, is the recognition that we may be in the early days of a race centered around space-based ballistic missile defenses.

"While ground-based radars will remain a critical part of the missile defense architecture, we're going to have to go to space," said Karako. "This has been a refrain for a long time — and this is frankly the time to do it. The last five administrations have had a space-based sensor layer as a critical part of our long-range missile defense architecture on paper. But none of them have actually fielded it."

Advanced space-based sensors could provide defense not only against ballistic missiles but against other weapons such as long-range hypersonic strike vehicles now in development by the Russians and Chinese. Russia's Tass News agency quoted a defense ministry official recently as saying the country hopes to have hypersonic weapons in its arsenal as early as 2020.

Demonstration satellites have revealed in tests the "extraordinary capability" of space-based sensors, according to Karako.

"The technology has evolved, the threat has evolved, and the utility of space has always been there, but it is even more acute now," he said.