The US's nuclear commander says the only way to defend the US from new Russian and Chinese missiles lies in space

  • Both Russia and China are enhancing their offensive missile capabilities through the development of new systems, including hypersonic strike platforms.
  • The key to a robust defence, according to the head of US Strategic Command, is space-based sensors.
  • “We have to be able to see that threat,” STRATCOM Commander General John Hyten explained at the Space and Missile Defence Symposium.

The key to defending the US homeland against Russian and Chinese missile threats, as well as emerging and potential threats from countries like North Korea and Iran, lies in space, according to the head of US Strategic Command.

“The most important thing to do in the missile defence business is make sure you can see and characterise the threat,” Gen. John Hyten said Tuesday at the Space and Missile Defence Symposium in Huntsville, Alabama, “If you can’t see and characterise the threat, I don’t care what kind of shooter you have, there is nothing you can do about it. We have to be able to see that threat.”

While the US has theatre ballistic missile defence systems – such as the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system, Aegis and Aegis Ashore, and Patriot batteries- set up in various locations around the world, the US mainland is guarded by the Ground-based Midcourse Defence system. Compared to some of the other US ballistic missile defence systems, the GMD system, which has never been activated in a real-life combat scenario, has a much lower success rate in tests.

The US is investing billions of dollars in missile defence projects, including increasing the total number of interceptors in the GMD system. GMD interceptors are operational at Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Hyten told his audience Tuesday that the interceptor system is essentially a “catcher’s mitt,” according to Defence News. To achieve boost-phase intercepts or successfully eliminate missiles through “left-of-launch” tactics, methods the general says could send a missile falling back down on the heads of the unit that fired it, the US needs an effective sensor layer to spot projectile threats early – but it can’t be built on Earth.

“There are not enough islands in the world to build radars on to see all the threats and be able to characterise the threats,” the general said. “You just can’t get there from here, so the only place to go and do that is a place where the U.S. is actually strongest and technology is there to do it and that is into space. We have to go into space.”

Hyten’s call comes just days after China successfully tested a hypersonic aircraft, a potential hypersonic strike platform that Chinese military experts claim could carry both conventional and nuclear payloads, as well as skirt any existing missile or air defence system.

Russia reportedly plans to have MiG-31K fighter jets armed with Kinzhal hypersonic missiles participate in an upcoming demonstration, and the country is expected to deploy its Avangard hypersonic boost-glide vehicle on the country’s Sarmat intercontinental ballistic missile within the next couple of years.

The growing threat posed by hypersonic missiles, weapons that can travel at speeds in excess of five times the speed of sound, is one that concerns missile defence planners. Hyten has repeatedly warned that the US currently does not possess the ability to defeat weapons with such capabilities.

Unlike traditional ballistic missiles, hypersonic missiles are dangerously unpredictable. Coupled with the high speeds, the unpredictability makes it almost impossible for existing missile defence systems to track.

“If you can’t see it, you can’t shoot it,” Missile Defence Agency director Lt. Gen. Samuel Greaves said in March. “We have globally deployed sensors today, but – just look at the globe – there are gaps. What we are looking towards is to move the sensor architecture to space and use that advantage of space, in coordination with our ground assets, to remove the gaps.”

“Why is that important?” he asked rhetorically, “The hypersonic threat.”

During his talk Tuesday, Hyten reminded his listeners that the US is once again locked in great power competition with rivals that are developing weapons that threaten US security.

“You can’t call them [Russia and China] our friends if they’re building weapons that can destroy the United States of America,” he explained, “Therefore, we have to develop the capability to respond.”

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