The future of war: Missiles and space as seen by the United States in 2019

Jessica West Conventional Weapons, Emerging Technologies, Ploughshares Monitor, Space Security

By Jessica West

Published in The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 40 Issue 1 Spring 2019

Two new policy documents released in the United States cast light on what future war could look like, especially the central and entwined roles of missiles and outer space.

The Missile Defense Review (MDR)

WHAT IT IS: MDR is a review of the status of U.S. missile defence capabilities, the perceived level of threat, and a roadmap for future investment priorities and technology development; an unclassified version was released to the public on January 17, 2019.

WHAT IS NEW: It reveals the U.S. government’s desire to expand the role, goals, and technical capabilities of its ballistic missile defence systems.

Expanded role: In addition to containing regional threats posed by North Korea and Iran, missile defence capabilities are also being developed to supplement traditional nuclear deterrence in response to the capabilities of strategic actors Russia and China.

Expanded goal: The review expands the focus of missile defence beyond ballistic missiles to cruise missiles and hypersonic glide vehicles.

Expanded capabilities: The review emphasizes the development of capabilities to intercept missiles at the early, boost-phase of flight and directs the Department of Defense to explore options to achieve this end, including:

  • The use of F-35 Lightning fighter planes armed with a kinetic interceptor;
  • A high-energy laser mounted on an unmanned drone; and
  • A study of the development and fielding of an intercept layer orbited in space.

Space is a recurring theme when the future of missile defence is discussed. The review prioritizes a space-based sensor layer to facilitate the interception and tracking of missile launches, including hypersonic weapons, from “birth to death.”

Space Policy Directive-4: Establishment of the United States Space Force

WHAT IT IS: Signed by President Trump on February 19, 2019, this directive calls on the Department of Defense to “marshal its space resources to deter and counter threats in space” and to propose legislation to establish a Space Force as a sixth branch of the U.S. military within the Department of the Air Force, as a “step toward a future military department for space.”

WHAT’S NEW: If approved by Congress, the Space Force is intended to ensure an unrestricted ability to access and operate in space, and to provide vital capabilities for the U.S. armed forces at all times, including “across the spectrum of conflict.”

The directive views outer space as an independent domain of warfare and not only as a site from which to provide support to military operations on Earth.

In response to perceived military threats, it suggests a more aggressive use of outer space, directing the new Space Force to engage in both combat and noncombat operations, which could be both offensive and defensive.


These two documents point to the emergence of a new U.S. security policy that anticipates less constrained warfare and strategic confrontation. President Trump has declared that U.S. capabilities will be aimed at destroying enemy missiles “anywhere, anytime, anyplace,” reflecting what the Union of Concerned Scientists labels a “missile defeat” policy.

Missiles clearly have a central role in this vision and in that of other states. While the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty between the United States and Russia was abrogated on February 1, 2019, missile capabilities and defence systems are being advanced in China, Iran, North Korea, India, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey.

This new arms race suggests that the era of arms-length nuclear deterrence is ending. The MDR signals more direct engagement with powerful forces such as Russia and China in local theatres of conflict. Such engagement invites escalation, which seems increasingly likely in outer space.

Developments by any space power on future missile defence interceptors in orbit would certainly provoke reaction from other powers. Plans for military confrontation in space threaten the continued existence of outer space as a domain for peaceful uses and the sustainability of the space environment. Strategic confrontation in space increases the odds of nuclear escalation on Earth.

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