Missile Defence and the Weaponization of Space

The Canadian government "boosted" its proposed policy of participating in the American ballistic missile defence system for over a year - under the radar, so to speak. The public was only recently been made aware of these plans. We were warned, as we were warned before the Iraq War, that grave consequences would ensue if we do not join the US in their latest foreign policy misadventure. This is nonsense. Even US Ambassador to Canada Paul Cellucci, a man who never tires of telling Canadians how to behave, recently admitted, "It would be a good thing if Canada supported missile defence, but it's certainly not a deal-breaker." [1] Then, just last week, after over a year of flirting with the idea, Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin announced that Canada would not be participating in the Missile Defence program after all.

Missile Defence supporters are wondering why on earth Canada decided not to participate in a program that would defend us from missile attacks. It's a very good question, and without knowing the answer, Martin's decision (and, for that matter, Canadians' widespread opposition to the plan) doesn't seem to make sense. What, after all, could be wrong with protecting oneself? The answer is that missile defence has little to do with America protecting itself and everything to do with projecting power abroad.

A closer look at missile defence shows clearly that, while the program itself is unlikely to perform its intended function, it does accomplish one of America's biggest long-term military goals: it gives America an early and commanding presence in space. This essay will explore missile defence through the following areas: the history of ballistic missiles and defence, current and projected missile defence technology, and America's policy toward space.

History of Missile Defence

All missiles follow a ballistic trajectory in three phases: a boost phase, a midcourse or ballistic phase, and a terminal or re-entry phase. During the boost phase after a missile is launched, rockets fire to accelerate it past the pull of gravity. By its midcourse phase, the missile is moving under its own momentum and the pull of gravity, essentially freefalling on a curving path toward its target. During the midcourse phase, the missile will open deploy re-entry vehicles armed with warheads. In the terminal phase, the missile and its contents re-enter the atmosphere and accelerate toward their target(s).

The concept of a missile defence shield was first proposed during the V-2 rocket attacks against Britain in World War II. Citizens and planners were terrified that Hitler could launch rockets at England all the way from Germany, and nothing could be done to stop them. However, early trials concluded that the technology to intercept rockets simply didn't exist. Further investigation through the 1960s determined that a widespread missile defence program was unlikely ever to work, but would almost certainly trigger an arms race in the meantime.

The problem with any defence shield, even a theoretical one, is that it must necessarily have a limited capacity to intercept missiles. Penetrating the defence shield becomes a straightforward numbers game: the attacker needs only to calculate how many missiles the shield can intercept (in total and/or simultaneously), and then manufacture enough missiles and launchers to overwhelm it - hence the inevitable arms race.

Further, the technology to launch a missile toward another country need not be as precise as the the technology to intercept that missile. A nuclear weapon, after all, is aiming for a target that measures in kilometres, whereas an interceptor must aim for a target that measures only in metres. As a result of this, the balance of an arms race would tilt relentlessly towards the attacker as the total number of offensive and defensive components increased. The sheer logistics involved in stopping an ever-increasing array of targets starts to grow exponentially.

US President Richard Nixon and Soviet General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev signed the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty in 1972[2], which severely restricts testing and development (but not research) of a missile defence system. They both recognized the strategic folly of a program that could not work, diverted resources from more useful projects, and encouraged the other to escalate its arms production. In a missile defence environment, both countries would be less safe.

When Ronald Reagan swept into the 1981 Presidency amid Republican claims (subsequently discredited) that the Soviet Union was expanding its nuclear arsenal, he played on this fear to start a new missile defence program, famously tagged as "Star Wars" by its detractors. Research continued in various forms under President George H. W. Bush and President Bill Clinton. Both presidents tried but failed to renegotiate the ABM Treaty, which was widely regarded as "the cornerstone of strategic stability"[3] and "a cornerstone of our security"[4] with Russia. As a result, they were forced to conduct only limited research under the Treaty's auspices.

Missile Defence Today

In 2001, President George W. Bush provided a new impetus to missile defence, vastly increasing its budget. After the September 11 terrorist attacks, he withdraw the United States from the ABM Treaty, claiming it "hinders our government's ability to develop ways to protect our people from future terrorist or rogue-state missile attacks."[5] In its present incarnation, the Ballistic Missile Defense System (BMDS) is coordinated through the Missile Defense Agency (MDA).

Lieutenant General Ronald T. Kadish, MDA Director, acknowledges that the ABM Treaty "successfully did what it was intended to do. It severely restricted missile defense development and fielding options." Since it is no longer constrained by the Treaty, the MDA can now "begin to develop and test aggressively the full range of missile defense technologies and pursue capabilities that make the most sense from the standpoints of technology, operations, and cost."[6]

The BMDS is pursuing a 'layered' defence system that can intercept missiles in all three phases of flight - boost, midcourse, and terminal. The operation itself comprises two distinct activities: tracking and interception. The tracking system identifies the incoming missile's location and trajectory and feeds that information to the interception system, which then deploys kinetic energy weapons, lasers, or "kill vehicles" to stop the missile.

The best time to stop a missile is during the boost phase, since it is traveling slowly against gravity, cannot manoeuvre to avoid a counterattack, presents a larger target with an attached rocket accelerator, and is easier to spot by its heat signature and visible plume. As US Air Force Colonel William McCasland observes, "There's something very lucrative about hitting the missile on its way up rather than the warhead on its way down."[7] This, of course, would require the ability to see missiles as they are launched and respond almost instantly, since the boost phase is very brief (particularly for missiles with newer solid-fuel booster rockets).

The MDA has adopted an evolutionary model for developing BMDS, deploying technologies as they mature and building the entire system by a kind of scheduled accretion. The first rollout of BMD will comprise land- and sea-based tracking systems and interceptors for the Midcourse Defense Segment of its layered defense. However, a planned future phase encompasses space-based tracking and interception, for the obvious reason that a space-based system can monitor the entire planet from what the US Air Force calls "the ultimate high ground."[8]

Tracking and Interception: Seeking High Ground

The MDA has organized its development of BMDS into two-year blocks with plans and budgetary requests for each block. According to the MDA Fiscal 2005 budget plans, block 2006-7 will add "interceptors and networked, forward-deployed ground-, sea-, and space-based sensors [emphasis added]", while block 2012-13 "includes the development of a space based interceptor test bed [emphasis added]."[9]

The Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS) will use low-orbiting satellites to track missiles through their entire flight. As the MDA explains, "STSS will become part of a constellation of land-, sea-, air-, and space-based BMDS sensors [emphasis added]."[10] In addition to the STSS, the Space-Based Infrared System-high (SBIRS-high) will comprise four satellites in geosynchronous orbit (orbiting at 35,000 kilometres in the direction of Earth's rotation so they always appear over the same part of the earth) to provide early warning.

Naturally, the benefits of tracking missiles from space also apply to the task of intercepting missiles, especially during the boost phase when those missiles could originate from anywhere on Earth. Toward this end, the MDA plans to deploy a Space-Based Laser (SBL) as part of the Boost Defense Segment of its layered BMDS. This "could provide ... a highly reliable missile defense and space superiority weapon. If deployed, SBL would provide a substantial capability affording the nation continuous global presence and precision engagement at the speed of light [emphasis added]."[11]

Midcourse Defence

Since the missile is no longer burning fuel during its midcourse phase, it becomes much harder to detect. Usually, the missile will deploy one or more re-entry vehicles that contain warheads. Further complicating matters, the missile will be surrounded by booster debris, may deploy multiple, independently targeted re-entry vehicles, and may also deploy multiple decoys that look and behave just like re-entry vehicles in the vacuum of space. The multiple re-entry vehicles of advanced ICBMs are independently deployed and contain motors for manoeuvring and course correction - hence independent targeting. Add in designs that minimize radar signature and the presence of chaff and decoys, and it becomes very hard to predict where those re-entry vehicles will go until it's too late to stop them.[12]

In 1996, the US government launched the Midcourse Space Experiment (MSX), a satellite that monitored "ballistic missile signatures"[13] across a wide spectrum of wavelengths (from infrared to ultraviolet) to help develop algorithms for midcourse detection systems. However, neither the present nor any proposed tracking systems have any way to distinguish between re-entry vehicles and decoys during the midcourse phase.

Since it's much easier to develop a decoy than it is to develop a nuclear warhead, any country that possesses a ballistic missile will also possess decoys. In fact, it is likely that any serious missile attack against the United States would contain many more decoys than actual warheads, since these would also increase the load on the BMDS at much lower cost. Lacking the means to distinguish among warheads and decoys, the defence system would have to squander kill vehicles and laser strikes on dummy targets. With enough targets in total, or else a high enough volume of simultaneous targets, the intercept system would be overwhelmed and re-entry vehicles would slip through. Therefore, the Midcourse Defense Segment - the main component of the BMDS - is effectively worthless as a defensive shield. As ballistic missile technology continues to evolve and proliferate, the pressures against a BMDS will only escalate; that is, more technology will only further establish its fundamental worthlessness as a defensive system.

As a contiguous observation, the only countries presently capable of launching ballistic missiles against the United States can do so with the overwhelming force of hundreds or thousands of missiles, each deploying multiple re-entry vehicles and decoys. That is, the BMDS will be least effective against the countries most likely to launch ballistic missile attacks.

The MDA is also working on a Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system to catch tactical (short- and medium-range) missiles at the end of the midcourse phase and the early terminal phase. THAAD is a ground-based intercept rocket containing a "kill vehicle" that collides with the missile to destroy it. THAAD is also mobile, so it can be deployed anywhere the US military has a presence. However, it is not designed to defend against long-range missiles. In any case, once a missile has reached the terminal phase of its trajectory, its warheads are already armed and it is likely to be over, or close to, its destination. Even if a "terminal defense segment" interceptor was successful, the fallout might be devastating. All this is academic, however, as THAAD has not yet intercepted a single test missile in realistic conditions, and has even failed most of the highly controlled trials, in which the test missile contains no realistic decoys and actually broadcasts its course and trajectory from an embedded GPS device.

It's a MAD, MAD, MAD, MAD World

It is well understood among defence analysts that ballistic missiles are self-deterring. It is highly unlikely for a non-state actor to acquire a ballistic missile and launcher, and any state roguish enough to launch, or host the launch of, a ballistic missile at the United States would face swift annihilation in return. In fact, a credible argument can be made that ballistic missiles have no strategic purpose aside from deterrence, since their use is governed by the principle of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD). MAD can only be avoided if a state uses missiles against another state that does not possess the means to retaliate in kind.

It's certainly no stretch for the United States to dress its BMD plans in the rhetoric of protection against emergent threats, especially in the post-9/11 political climate. However, this administration has raised the dance of stated objectives and ulterior motives to something of an art form. The obvious and inherent inability of a BMDS to keep up with the missile technology against which it purports to defend, coupled with the inescapable logic of MAD, strongly suggests that its real purpose may lie elsewhere. In fact, unless we conclude that the senior decision-makers in Washington and the Pentagon are utterly incompetent (tempting but irresponsible), it is difficult to escape the conclusion that the BMDS is not actually intended as a realistic defence against ballistic missile attacks.

The Ultimate High Ground

The real purpose of the BMDS becomes clear when it is placed in the context of the Pentagon's long-term plans for transforming America's military system. The goal of transformation is to pursue military dominance of space (control of space for American use and denial of space to the use of adversaries), and to integrate its intelligence, offense, and defense - including missile defense - into a single unified system.

Space Superiority

I believe that weapons will go into space. It's a question of time. And we need to be at the forefront of that.
-- Pete Teets, undersecretary of the Air Force and director of the National Reconnaissance Office

Peter B. Teets, Undersecretary of the Air Force, explains the Air Force's first principle for space superiority, "the imperative to control the high ground. Controlling the high ground of space is not limited simply to protection of our own capabilities. It will also require us to think about denying the high ground to our adversaries. We are paving the road of 21st century warfare now. [emphasis added]"[14] This is not pie-in-the-sky wargaming but confirmed US military doctrine.

The United States regards space superiority as a right to be protected, not a privilege to be exploited. According to Department of Defense space policy, "Space is a medium like the land, sea, and air within which military activities shall be conducted to achieve US national security objectives. Ensuring the freedom of space and protecting US national security interests in the medium are priorities for space and space-related activities; Purposeful interference with US space systems will be viewed as an infringement on our sovereign rights. The US may take all appropriate self-defense measures, including the use of force, to respond to such an infringement on US rights."[15]

As the Quadrennial Defense Review Report explains, "Space and information operations have become the backbone of networked, highly distributed commercial civilian and military capabilities. This opens up the possibility that space control - the exploitation of space and the denial of the use of space to adversaries - will become a key objective in future military competition."[16] Elsewhere, the Report summarizes its goals, based on this observation: "A key objective for transformation [of the US Military], therefore, is not only to ensure the U.S. ability to exploit space for military purposes, but also as required to deny an adversary's ability to do so."[17]

The Transormation Study Report takes as its basis the premise that space capabilities are "inherently global, a source of direct access to all regions, unaffected by territorial boundaries and jurisdictional limitations, highly asymmetric in favor of the U.S., Potentially vulnerable to attacks."[18] The US Air Force Doctrinal Document Counterspace Operations draws the obvious conclusion from this premise: "Space superiority provides freedom to attack as well as freedom from attack. Space and air superiority are crucial first steps in any military operation. [original emphasis]"[19]

Military Integration

The ongoing transformation of the Air Force will enable the Joint Force Commander to ... integrate air, space, and land systems across all Services.
-- US Air Force Transformation Flight Plan

According to the Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, "The U.S. Government must work actively to make sure that the nation has the means necessary to advance its interests in space. To do so, it must direct its activities to: Transform U.S. military capabilities; Strengthen U.S. intelligence capabilities; Shape the international legal and regulatory environment that affects activities in space; Advance U.S. technological leadership related to space operations; [and] Create and sustain a cadre of space professionals."[20] In doing so, the United States intends to break with the rest of the world, which has called repeatedly and almost unanimously for a global agreement banning the weaponization of space. In 2004, for example, the United Nations General Assembly adopted a resolution banning an arms race in outer space with 178 votes in favour and four abstentions: Haiti, Israel, Palau, and the United States.[21] This is consistent with the long-standing position of the General Assembly.[22]

USAF Space Command plans to integrate Command and Control "for all the current and projected NORAD mission and USSTRATCOM [US Strategic Command] space operations and missile defense missions into a single functional system."[23] The Flight Plan explains that Air Force development must focus on: "(1) moving the Service's capabilities from a theater to a global focus; (2) integrating air, space, and information capabilities to take advantage of the synergy between these three domains; (3) rapidly projecting capability to anywhere on the Earth and into space while still retaining the ability to be expeditionary; (4) creating effects on demand anywhere, anytime."[24]

The Quadrennial Defense Review Report places control of space into the larger context of the US military's global operations: "[O]ne of the critical operational challenges of the future [is] developing the capability to continuously locate and track mobile targets at any range and rapidly attack them with precision. Overcoming this challenge will require enhanced intelligence capabilities, including space-based systems, additional human intelligence, and airborne systems that can locate and track moving targets and transmit that information to strike assets. It will require the ability to strike without warning from the air, from the sea, on the ground, and through space and cyber space. It will also require that these forces be networked to maximize their combined effects."[25]

Missile defence is an integral component in the transformed military, as the Quadrennial Defense Review Report explains. "[T]he United States is developing missile defenses as a matter of priority. Integrating missile defenses with other defensive as well as offensive means will safeguard the Nation's freedom of action, enhance deterrence by denial, and mitigate the effects of attack if deterrence fails. [emphasis added]"[26] We have already seen with the Space-Based Laser (SBL) that the US military recognizes the benefits of "a highly reliable missile defense and space superiority weapon. If deployed, SBL would provide a substantial capability affording the nation continuous global presence and precision engagement at the speed of light. [emphasis added]"[27]


No conceivable missile defence system can overcome the logic of proliferation: it is easier to build more weapons and more decoys than it is to build more defences. No one who understand the missile defence system well is prepared to accept that the Pentagon will ever get it to work properly. However, missile defence does provide an ethical cover for the US government's broader goal: to establish and maintain space superiority over the rest of the world.

Missile defence supporters who try to argue that Canada could somehow participate in the plan without being dragged into the weaponization of space are being credulous or disingenuous. Because the US military is integrating all of its land-, sea-, and space-based defensive and offensive systems under a single umbrella, it would quickly become impossible to draw a distinction between systems that shot down approaching missiles and systems that shot down other strategic targets - especially when they were the same systems.

Ryan McGreal
March 3, 2005


  1. Jeff Sallot, "Missile defence not a 'deal-breaker,' Cellucci says", The Globe and Mail, November 4, 2004, Page A6
  2. Treaty Between The United States Of America And The Union Of Soviet Socialist Republics On The Limitation Of Anti-Ballistic Missile Systems, October 3, 1972 http://www.fas.org/nuke/control/abmt/text/abm2.htm
  3. National Missile Defense: An Overview (1993-2000), MDA Historian's Office, Missile Defense Agency http://www.acq.osd.mil/mda/mdalink/html/nmdhist.html
  4. U.S. National Security Advisor Samuel Berger, quoted by Senator Jesse Helms, "Amend the ABM Treaty? No, Scrap It", The Wall Street Journal, 22 January, 1999, reproduced by the Council for a Livable World http://www.clw.org/pub/clw/coalition/helm0199.htm
  5. "America withdraws from ABM treaty", BBC News, 13 December, 2001 http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/world/americas/1707812.stm
  6. Lieutenant General Ronald T. Kadish, USAF, Director, Missile Defense Agency, Missile Defense Program and Fiscal Year 2004 Budget, Spring 2003 http://www.acq.osd.mil/mda/mdalink/pdf/spring03.pdf
  7. "Star Wars: Behind the U.S. Missile Plan", Pt. 2, The Toronto Star, March 25, 2001, reproduced by Global Security.org http://www.globalsecurity.org/org/news/2001/010325-ts.htm
  8. Strategic Master Plan FY06 and Beyond, US Air Force Space Command http://www.cdi.org/news/space-security/afspc-strategic-master-plan-06-beyond.pdf
  9. Fiscal Year (FY) 2005 Budget Estimates Press Release, Missile Defense Agency http://www.globalsecurity.org/space/library/budget/fy2005/budget05.pdf
  10. Fact Sheet: Space Tracking and Surveillance System (STSS)", Missile Defense Agency, http://www.acq.osd.mil/mda/mdalink/pdf/stss.pdf
  11. Fact Sheet: Space-Based Laser (SBL), Missile Defense Agency http://www.acq.osd.mil/mda/mdalink/pdf/sbl.pdf
  12. For more information, see Richard A. Hartunian, "Ballistic Missiles and Reentry Systems: The Critical Years", The Aerospace Corporation, http://www.aero.org/publications/crosslink/winter2003/02.html
  13. See, for example, the Statement of Lieutenant General Lester L. Lyles, USAF Director, Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, before the Subcommittee on Strategic Forces Committee on Armed Services, United States Senate, February 27, 1997 http://www.acq.osd.mil/mda/mdalink/html/lylestre.html
  14. Counterspace Operations, US Air Force Doctrinal Document, Aug. 2, 2004, p. viii http://www.dtic.mil/doctrine/jel/service_pubs/afdd2_2_1.pdf
  15. Quadrennial Defense Review Report, 30 September 2001 p. 7 http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/qdr2001.pdf
  16. Quadrennial Defense Review Report, September 30, 2001, p. 7 http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/qdr2001.pdf
  17. Quadrennial Defense Review Report, September 30, 2001, Ibid, p. 31 http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/qdr2001.pdf
  18. Transformation Study Report, April 27, 2001, p. 95 http://www.defenselink.mil/news/Jun2001/d20010621transrep.pdf
  19. Counterspace Operations, US Air Force Doctrinal Document, Aug. 2, 2004, p. 1 http://www.cdi.org/missile-defense/spaceweapons.cfm
  20. Report of the Commission to Assess United States National Security Space Management and Organization, January 11, 2001, p. 27 http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/spacechapter3.pdf
  21. "General Assembly Adopts 55 Texts Recommended By First Committee on a Wide Range of Disarmament, Security Matters", United Nations Press Release, March 12, 2004 http://www.un.org/News/Press/docs/2004/ga10310.doc.htm
  22. See, for example, the following resolutions passed by the General Assembly on the Prevention of an Arms Race in Outer Space: http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/44/a44r112.htm (December 1989), http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/47/a47r051.htm (December 1992), http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/48/a48r074.htm (December 1993), http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/49/a49r074.htm December 1994), http://www.un.org/documents/ga/res/51/a51r044.htm (December 1996), http://www.un.org/ga/documents/gares52/res5237.htm (December 1997)
  23. Quadrennial Defense Review Report, September 30, 2001, p. 42 http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/qdr2001.pdf
  24. US Air Force Transformation Flight Plan, November 2003, p. 79 http://www.af.mil/library/posture/AF_TRANS_FLIGHT_PLAN-2003.pdf
  25. Quadrennial Defense Review Report, September 30, 2001, Ibid, p. 34 http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/qdr2001.pdf
  26. Quadrennial Defense Review Report, September 30, 2001, Ibid, p. 42 http://www.defenselink.mil/pubs/qdr2001.pdf
  27. Fact Sheet: Space-Based Laser (SBL), Missile Defense Agency http://www.acq.osd.mil/mda/mdalink/pdf/sbl.pdf

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