The Pentagon is developing a two-part replacement technology known as the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) High and Low. High satellites, which will operate in geosynchronous and highly elliptical orbits, will supplant the early-warning DSP spacecraft and give a clearer picture of where a missile is headed upon launch. Satellites in low Earth orbit will provide a closer view for precision tracking of individual warheads.
SBIRS High was supposed to be launched within the next few years but it is $2.2 billion over budget and may never be completed. "We redid the costs, redid the schedule," Undersecretary of Defense Edward Aldridge said at a May 2 press conference, "and the message to the prime contractors, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, is that they're in a spotlight. If we find that six months from now, the program is going south, I have no hesitation to pull the plug." The SBIRS Low program has also been restructured, and the first of its satellites won't be launched until 2006 at the earliest.
Meanwhile, the Pentagon is studying two types of weapons that might someday be used to intercept enemy missiles: kinetic energy weapons, including "kill vehicles" that would destroy missiles by colliding with them; and directed-energy weapons, such as space-based lasers that could also attack targets on the ground. These research activities are raising the hackles of critics who view them as aggressive behavior that will backfire on the United States. "Putting weapons in space is going to open the door for other nations to do the same," warns retired Army Col. Daniel Smith, chief of research at the Center for Defense Information, a military policy research organization in Washington.
That's a possibility that the military is preparing for. In January 2001, at Schriever Air Force Base in Colorado, the U.S. Air Force staged its first-ever space war game. Set in 2017, the mock conflict pitted a large, "near space-peer" nation, "Red," against "Brown," a small neighboring country. "Blue," a superpower, takes up the fight for "Brown" and a battle in space ensues-waged by spaceplanes, missile defenses, anti-satellite lasers, microsatellites, ground-based lasers, and advanced surveillance and communication satellites. As could have been predicted, military officials concluded that the United States would have to spend lots more money on space weaponry in the future to fend off the "Reds." "It opened a lot of people's eyes to the importance of space," says Maj. John Wagner, deputy chief of the Space Warfare Center's Wargaming and Simulation Branch at Schriever.
In an expanded simulation planned for February 2003, the players will be battling with even more ambitious equipment from the military's wish list, devices that may not be ready for 15 to 18 years-such as space-based radar, missile interceptors, and reusable launch systems that have yet to be designed. One goal for that weeklong game is to learn more about how all of the armed services can integrate space systems into their battle plans. "Our Cold War forces are evolving into leaner, faster, and more lethal forces," says Wagner. "Space is integral to all of those things."