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Space-based sensors needed to counter China’s hypersonic missiles

US expert likens maneuverability of China's new missiles to bomber aircraft

Artist's rendition of space-based satellite defense system. (Northrop Grumman photo)

Artist's rendition of space-based satellite defense system. (Northrop Grumman photo)

TAIPEI (Taiwan News) — Thomas Karako, senior fellow at Washington D.C.-based think tank Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), said the U.S. needs to deploy space-based sensors to counter the Chinese military’s new missiles.

The policy recommendation comes after news broke last month that China had conducted a hypersonic weapons test in pursuit of an Earth-orbiting system that defense experts said could evade U.S. missile defenses.

In a recent episode of the “What the Hell is Going On? Podcast” by the American Enterprise Institute, Karako discussed the strategic implications of China’s new hypersonic missiles. It is the maneuverability, combined with the speed and the lower atmospheric level on which it operates, that makes these weapons systems so dangerous, he said.

This is different from Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles (ICBM), which have highly predictable parabolic trajectories (a semicircular arc shape) making them easier to detect and intercept, he says. Karako said the new missiles will also glide through a portion of the atmosphere where U.S. air defenses are weaker.

“Beneath where our exo-atmospheric missile defense interceptors function, but also higher than aircraft and many of our lower-tier air defenses function,” he said. Their maneuverability is another factor.

“These things are kinda like bombers,” he said. “You don’t know where it's gonna turn from one minute to the next.”

It makes early detection and intercepting the missile harder, but Karako believes there is a solution for detection at least. He said the U.S. needs to deploy space-based sensors (as opposed to ground-based) to detect the missiles.

“(They) are the most critical function, the most critical capability that we need to get after,” he said.

Karako explained that the end of the Cold War caused consecutive U.S. administrations to push space-based sensors further down the priority list. The need for sensors was not as urgent at the time since the threat of a competition with a nuclear-armed superpower seemed to have passed.

All that has changed in the last couple of years, though, he said, with contracts for the tech being awarded and programs getting started.

Though space-based sensors hold the solution for detection, actually taking out the missiles will be much more difficult, he said. Karako believes the U.S. can find a way to counter the threat though, adding he is currently writing a research paper on the problem.

Karako said the hypersonic missile is just one piece of the larger puzzle of Beijing’s grand strategy.

“This is not about one particular hypersonic widget, it's about the full spectrum, from aircraft to ships to subsonic missiles to ballistics … and the imaginative combination that they can use to put all this stuff together and hold at risk forces in Taiwan, Japan, Guam and everywhere else,” he said.

Seen this way, the missiles are really about the role of the U.S. in the world, according to Karako. “It’s really about the ability of China ... to hold us at risk, push us back and alter the calculus of the U.S.,” he concludes.