The Missile Defense Agency (MDA) should pursue a combination of space-based and ground-based sensors to improve missile defense systems instead of favoring one or the other, according to an agency official.

“I constantly run into this: It’s either all space or all radar,” MDA C4ISR Program Executive Richard Ritter said Tuesday during a Capitol Hill forum hosted by the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance (MDAA). “The fact of the matter is we need a combination of both.”

Ground-Based Mid Course Defense (GMD) falls under the Missile Defense Agency's (MDA) umbrella. Photo: MDA.
Ground-Based Mid Course Defense (GMD) falls under the Missile Defense Agency’s (MDA) umbrella. Photo: MDA.

Thomas Karako, a senior fellow with the International Security Program and the director of the Missile Defense Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) think tank, said Thursday space-based systems sensors can provide early warning of missile launches. Sensors found on the Space-Based Infrared System (SBIRS) system provide this type of info. Karako also said space-based sensors can also provide vantage points of incoming objects that aren’t achievable from ground-based sensors.

Space-based sensors aren’t perfect, Karako said. They are expensive, he said, and they are vulnerable to jamming, blinding or anti-satellite (ASAT) weapons, especially sensors in low-earth orbit (LEO). On the other hand, with ground based sensors, Karako said there is somewhat greater confidence.

Ritter also said the Defense Department, in the near-term, needs to take advantage of data coming down from all space-based assets, whether it comes from DoD assets or intelligence community (IC) satellites, and resist the urge to focus on launching new spacecraft. Ritter said improving algorithms and processing would allow DoD to “squeeze every ounce” out of space assets.

Ritter said MDA currently has a bunch of “stovepipes,” a commonly-used term for not sharing information across agencies and instead sending information up and down the chain-of-command, for real time data usage. Ritter said MDA will field a capability that will exchange overhead persistent infrared (OPIR) “tracks” between the IC and MDA.