Pentagon Wants to Test A Space-Based Weapon in 2023

Jan 7, 2018
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https://www.defenseone.com/technology/2019/03/pentagon-wants-test-space-based-weapon-2023/155581/

Defense officials want to test a neutral particle-beam in orbit in fiscal 2023 as part of a ramped-up effort to explore various types of space-based weaponry. They’ve asked for $304 million in the 2020 budget to develop such beams, more powerful lasers, and other new tech for next-generation missile defense. Such weapons are needed, they say, to counter new missiles from China, Russia, North Korea and Iran. But just figuring out what might work is a difficult technical challenge.

So the Pentagon is undertaking two studies. The first is a $15 million exploration of whether satellites outfitted with lasers might be able to disable enemy missiles coming off the launch pad. Defense officials have said previously that these lasers would need to be in the megawatt class. They expect to finish the study within six months.

They’re also pouring money into a study of space-based neutral particle beams, a different form of directed energy that disrupts missiles with streams of subatomic particles traveling close to light speed — as opposed to lasers, whose photons travel at light speed.

On Wednesday, officials speaking to reporters at the Pentagon voiced guarded confidence that they would result in something that would in fact be deployable.

It’s not the first time that the Department has looked at such weapons. In 1989, the U.S. launched a neutral particle beam into space, as part of an experiment called BEAR, for Beam Accelerator Aboard a Rocket.

The experiment report ldescribed it as modestly successful: “The BEAR flight has demonstrated that accelerator technology can be adapted to a space environment. This first operation of an [neutral particle beam] accelerator in space uncovered no unexpected physics.”

But there’s a big difference between a successful experiment and an affordably deployable weapon. As part of the earlier effort, several companies produced prototype designs. The weapons they sketched were enormous. One was 72 feet long.

On Wednesday, Defense officials said that advances in technology have brought down the potential size and cost of space-based particle beams.


Officials, however, stress that the explorative studies do not necessarily mean that the Department will actually deploy a weapon. “I can’t say that it is going to be at a space and weight requirement that’s going to actually be feasible, but we’re pushing forward with the prototyping and demo,” said an official. The exploration, according to the official, “means we need to understand as a Department, the costs and what it would take to go do that. There’s a lot of folklore…that says it’s either crazy expensive or that it’s free. It needs to be a definitive study.”

The push to develop space-based weapons also reflects growing concern about advances in missile technologies from adversarial and so-called “competing” nations like China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.


Those new options are essential, say defense officials, to hit missiles during their boost phase, as they leave the launch pad and head straight up.

It’s also a controversial idea and not popular among arms control proponents. “The deployment of interceptors in space would be a disaster for strategic stability. To ensure the credibility of their nuclear deterrents, Russia and China would likely respond by building additional and new types of long-range ballistic missiles as well as missiles that fly on non-ballistic trajectories. Russia and China could also take steps to improve their ability to destroy such U.S. interceptors, thereby greatly increasing the threat to U.S.assets in space,” said Kingston Reif, who directs disarmament and threat reduction policy at the Arms Control Association.