Unlike the theater defense systems currently used for BPI (e.g. Aegis), which must be deployed close to enemy territory, space-based laser platforms can operate at altitudes that, as discussed above, are well beyond the ability of the targeted country to shoot down or deactivate prior to a launch. As more countries and “rogue states” acquire the means to deliver long-range—and possibly nuclear—ballistic missiles, interest in SBL interceptors, and the willingness to fund such costly programs, will likely grow. However, challenges remain in developing chemical megawatt-laser systems for orbiters.
2. Hypersonic Cruise Missiles and ‘Prompt Global Strike’
Had hypersonic cruise missiles existed in the mid-1990s, the U.S. might have rid itself of Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden much earlier than it did, and would have accomplished the feat in Afghanistan rather than in Pakistan.
With their ability to accurately deliver warheads over long distances, cruise missiles have had an extraordinary impact on modern warfare. But in an age where minutes can make a difference between defeat and victory, they tend to be too slow. It took eighty minutes for land-attack cruise missiles (LACM) launched from U.S. ships in the Arabian Sea to reach Al Qaeda training camps in Afghanistan in 1998 following the terrorist attacks against U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania. Using hypersonic missiles cruising at speeds of Mach 5+, the same targets would have been reached within as little as 12 minutes, short enough to act on intelligence which had placed the terrorist mastermind at the location.
The desire to be able to strike anywhere, and to do so quickly, has led to the creation of a program known as “prompt global strike,” which the U.S. military initiated in 2001. Efforts have centered on the X-51A hypersonic cruise vehicle (HCV) under a consortium involving the U.S. Air Force, Boeing, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the National Aeronautic and Space Administration, Pratt & Whitney Rocketdyne, and the USAF Research Laboratory’s Propulsion Directorate. Russia, China and India have made strides in developing the technology to achieve similar feats using conventional warheads, leading some defense analysts to warn of a looming global strike arms race.
The U.S. Navy is now reportedly exploring the possibility of developing submarine-launched hypersonic missiles.
As the 1998 example shows, global strike can serve multiple purposes, from decapitation attacks against heads of state, command-and-control systems and other high-value targets to surgical attacks against mobile terrorist groups under short timeframes offered by on-the-ground actionable intelligence. The extraordinary speeds achieved by hypersonic cruise missiles and the terrain-hugging nature of cruise missiles, meanwhile, will pose additional challenges in efforts to intercept them using existing air-defense systems, thus giving them an extra advantage in conventional-warfare scenarios.
1. ‘Sentient’ Unmanned Vehicles
Perhaps the single-most important development in the defense industry in the past decade is the emergence of unmanned vehicles. As the technology evolves, drones, as they are often called, are quickly taking over duties that have traditionally been the remit of human beings. Such has been their rise that some commentators have argued that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) could one day render human pilots obsolete.
But today’s drones, from bomb-removal buggies to undersea mini-subs, from ship-based surveillance helicopters to high-altitude assassination platforms, remain dumb and for the most part require a modicum of human intervention. Not only are most platforms piloted remotely by human beings (though with increasing automation), but key mission elements, such as target acquisition and the decision to fire a Hellfire missile at a target, continue to necessitate human supervision.
This could soon change as scientists push the boundaries of artificial intelligence, which could one day open the door to drones that make independent “decisions” that have life and death implications. Of course, unmanned vehicles, or robots in general, are not intelligent in the human sense of the word, nor can they be said to be sentient. But advances in computing power are giving machines greater situational awareness and adaptability. As those capabilities continue to improve, drones could one day become “fire-and-forget” weapons, with much greater attention spans and durability than human beings, capable of lingering over a target for several hours and making split-second decisions to strike when an opportunity occurs. Moreover, the incentives for giving combat roles to machines and endowing them with life-and-death decisions will continue to increase as the costs associated with training and retaining soldiers continue to rise (another disadvantage of using soldiers: they have grieving families and loved ones).
Giving robots license to kill is only the logical next step in the increasingly videogame-like nature of warfare. Their deployment adds yet another a layer of distance between the perpetrator of violence and the victim, which lowers the psychological threshold for using force. Once the decision is made to give drones combat duty, the incentive will be to make them as “free” as possible, as the side that acts the quickest, with the least decision chokepoints and human input, will likely prevail in a confrontation.
J. Michael Cole is a Taipei-based journalist, a Senior Fellow at the China Policy Institute University of Nottingham, a graduate in War Studies from the Royal Military College of Canada and a former analyst at the Canadian Security Intelligence Service.