Declaring that space is the new warfighting domain, President Donald Trump on Thursday vowed the US will develop an unrivalled missile defence system to protect against advanced hypersonic and cruise missile threats from competitors and adversaries.
Mr Trump said in a Pentagon speech that the US will do what it takes “to ensure that we can detect and destroy any missile launched against the United States anywhere, any time, any place.”
Mr Trump did not mention Russia, China or North Korea in his roughly 20-minute speech.
But the Pentagon’s new strategy makes clear that its plan for a more aggressive space-based missile defence system is aimed at protecting against existing threats from North Korea and Iran and countering advanced weapon systems being developed by Russia and China.
The new review is the first since 2010, and it concludes that to adequately protect America, the Pentagon must expand defence technologies in space and use those systems to more quickly detect, track and ultimately defeat incoming missiles.
Acting Defence Secretary Pat Shanahan, who also spoke, said competitors such as Russia and China are aggressively pursuing new missiles that are harder to see, harder to track and harder to defeat.
Specifically, the US is looking at putting a layer of sensors in space to more quickly detect enemy missiles when they are launched, according to a senior administration official, who briefed reporters.
The US sees space as a critical area for advanced, next-generation capabilities to stay ahead of the threats, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose details of the review before it was released.
The administration also plans to study the idea of basing interceptors in space, so the US can strike incoming enemy missiles during the first minutes of flight when the booster engines are still burning.
Recognising the potential concerns surrounding any perceived weaponisation of space, the strategy pushes for studies. No testing is mandated, and no final decisions have been made.
Congress, which ordered this review, already has directed the Pentagon to push harder on this “boost-phase” approach, but officials want to study the feasibility of the idea and explore ways it could be done.
Russian President Vladimir Putin unveiled new strategic weapons he claims can’t be intercepted. One is a hypersonic glide vehicle, which could fly 20 times faster than the speed of sound and make sharp manoeuvres to avoid being detected by missile defence systems.
“Developments in hypersonic propulsion will revolutionise warfare by providing the ability to strike targets more quickly, at greater distances, and with greater firepower,” Lt. Gen. Robert Ashley, director of the Defence Intelligence Agency, told Congress last year. “China is also developing increasingly sophisticated ballistic missile warheads and hypersonic glide vehicles in an attempt to counter ballistic missile defence systems.”
Current US missile defence weapons are based on land and aboard ships.
Mr Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have both emphasised space-based capabilities as the next step of missile defence.
Any expansion of the scope and cost of missile defences would compete with other defence priorities, including the billions of extra dollars the Trump administration has committed to spending on a new generation of nuclear weapons.
An expansion also would have important implications for American diplomacy, given longstanding Russian hostility to even the most rudimentary US missile defences and China’s worry that longer-range US missile defences in Asia could undermine Chinese national security.