Missile & Space Technology
Today’s Strategic Defense Initiative or so-called “Son of Star Wars” program is far less ambitious in scale than the impenetrable shield envisioned by the Reagan administration that would have put defensive weapons in space. Rather, today’s Star Wars proponents see the program as a way to provide security against accidental launches, the actions of rogue nations, and an answer to the growing space capabilities of China.
Currently, plans calls for an early warning system of communication and detection technology acting in combination with satellites in space that will provide warnings of incoming missiles. These in turn will be destroyed by sophisticated interceptors and other missile technology based in the USA. In addition, a multinational defense system would be created that would cover as many countries who want to sign up. However, a bigger area to defend also creates a much bigger technical challenge to ensure that such a defense system will work. Hence, the missile technology developed for the system will need to incorporate new weapon technologies such as those being developed by the Army for Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) - a project to develop a system to shoot down short and medium-range missiles using hit-to-kill kinetic energy weapons that do not have warheads.
In February of 2008, Star Wars received a boost when the Pentagon performed a US$30 million successful Star Wars-style space interception when it used a SM-3 missile (developed as part of the “Son of Star Wars” program) to destroy a faulty 5,000 pound satellite roughly the size of a school bus that was falling out of control from space. The interception was considered a success and sent a clear message that the US intends to counter any new developments in space technologies by China.
Despite this successful interception, a comprehensive US missile defense program remain controversial with some lawmakers believing that missile defense funds would be better spent on securing the nation’s borders and infrastructure against another 9/11 style attack. Furthermore, with a new administration set to take office amidst an economic downturn, the future of so-called “Son of Star Wars” missile defense programs remain uncertain at this time.
Chinese Space & Defense Technologies
China’s military modernization and development of new space and defense technologies has given political ammunition to US military hawks and advocates of Star Wars type defense systems. For starters, its latest defense white papers have contained lofty military modernization goals and a particular focus on high-tech information warfare. Moreover, China’s development of the Jian-10 fighter-bomber jet (which is said to be superior to its Russian counterparts) has placed China at the cutting edge of military aviation.
Even more worrisome to defense planners is China’s development of new space technologies. In the summer of 2006, China demonstrated its space technology to be more powerful than suspected when it used a ground-based laser to paint a US Satellite. Then on January 11, 2007, China launched the first successful test of anti-satellite technology in 20 years by using a ground-based medium-range ballistic missile to destroy an aging weather satellite. The test made China one of only 3 countries (the USA and the former Soviet Union) to prove their abilities to shoot down objects in space - thus elevating it to the top ranks of space warfare technology.
Furthermore, the latest annual report on China's military power prepared in early 2008 by the Defense Department for Congress noted that China has developed a range of weapons technology and high powered lasers that have the potential of jamming and destroying satellites. The report also noted that China will be constructing a new launch complex on Hainan Island while the People's Liberation Army (PLA) was improving its own satellite capability to the point where China is expected to replace all foreign-produced satellites with Chinese made ones by 2010.
These developments have served as a wake-up call to US defense planners as they clearly show that the PLA, the world’s largest military with nearly 3 million members, is moving away from being a fighting force based on sheer size towards one based on quality with the capability to wage a high-tech, short-duration, and high-intensity conflict.
by John Udovich for Defense Ventures