Skip to content

Under Trump, GOP to Give Space Weapons Close Look

Programs to account for a significant share of defense budget boost

Arizona Rep. Trent Franks said the GOP’s newly strengthened hand in Washington means a big payday is coming for programs aimed at developing space-based weapons. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Arizona Rep. Trent Franks said the GOP’s newly strengthened hand in Washington means a big payday is coming for programs aimed at developing space-based weapons. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Missile defense and military space programs are likely to get a substantial funding boost under the incoming Republican-dominated government, lawmakers and analysts say.

Coming soon are a greater number of more capable anti-missile interceptors and radars deployed around the globe — on land, at sea and possibly in space, say these legislators and experts, several of whom have consulted with President-elect Donald Trump’s advisers. More government money will be directed at protecting U.S. satellites from attack — potentially including systems that can ram into or otherwise disable another country’s satellites. And senior Republicans who oversee Pentagon spending said in interviews this week that they support considering all such systems.

“I believe we need lots of platforms for every eventuality, including those,” said Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen, the New Jersey Republican who is expected to chair the House Appropriations Committee in the next Congress.

Trump’s thoughts on missile defense and military space programs have gotten next to no attention, as compared to the president-elect’s other defense proposals, such as growing the Army and building more warships. As a candidate, Trump said little on the subject. But experts expect such programs to account for a significant share of what is likely to be a defense budget boost, potentially amounting to $500 billion or more in the coming decade.

Rep. Trent Franks, an Arizona Republican on House Armed Services, said the GOP’s newly strengthened hand in Washington means a big payday is coming for programs aimed at developing weapons that can be deployed in space.

“It was a Democrat mindset that caused us to step back from space-based defense assets to ostensibly not ‘weaponize space,’ while our enemies proceeded to do just that, and now, we find ourselves in a grave deficit,” Franks said. “In every area of warfare, within the Geneva Conventions, America should be second to none. That includes satellite warfare, if it’s necessary. We cannot be victims of our own decency here.”

[More Potential Picks for Trump’s Cabinet]

One of Trump’s only mentions of missile defense came in a September speech on national security in Philadelphia. The GOP nominee promised more missile defense systems to protect against North Korea and Iran, including ships in an expanded Navy.

“We propose to rebuild the key tools of missile defense, starting with the Navy cruisers that are the foundation of our missile defense capabilities in Europe, Asia and the Middle East,” Trump said. “As we expand our Navy toward the goal of 350 ships, we will also procure additional modern destroyers that are designed to handle the missile defense mission in the coming years.”

Riki Ellison, chairman and founder of the Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, a nonprofit group that promotes anti-missile systems, said his organization responded to a request from the Trump campaign for a briefing earlier this year and has had extensive consultations. Ellison believes the Pentagon programs coming down the line include not only those mentioned by Trump and his attorney general nominee, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions, but also a new battery of anti-missile interceptors on the East Coast of the United States, plus lasers and weapons capable of being launched either from or into space.

The concept of a space-based anti-missile shield has long been a favorite of many Republicans, dating back to the administrations of Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush.

This year, the House-passed defense authorization bill contains a provision, written by Franks, that would require the Pentagon to start a research program for space-based anti-missile systems. The final version of that bill is being written by a House-Senate conference and may get a vote in one or both chambers by the end of November.

[Not Your Father’s GOP:  The Deficit Debate Has Disappeared]

Experts at the conservative Heritage Foundation, which is expected to have the ear of Republicans in Congress and the new administration, have long been on record advocating space-based missile defenses. Michaela Dodge, a Heritage analyst, recommended in a September report that Congress should “demand that the next administration develop and deploy a space-based missile defense interceptor layer.”

Other aides and experts, who requested anonymity and who may have a role in — or influence on — the next administration, believe that research into space weapons is all but a given in the next administration, though procurement and deployment would be a separate debate and, in any event, would not occur for years. The multibillion-dollar cost of such systems will be a key element of the debate.

The Pentagon has sought $7.5 billion for the Missile Defense Agency in fiscal 2017, down from the agency’s high-water mark of $9.4 billion in fiscal 2007, during the George W. Bush administration.

“I think and hope they will get more of a priority, said Rep. Doug Lamborn, a Colorado Republican who serves on House Armed Services, referring to anti-missile programs in the new administration.

If Pentagon spending rises in the years ahead, “it’s fair to assume that national security space would definitely benefit from this,” said Kevin Cook, vice president of marketing and communications at the Space Foundation, a nonprofit advocacy group for the space industry.

Anti-satellite weapons, known as ASAT, are arguably a harder sell than anti-missile satellites. Rather than destroying an enemy missile in flight, they would obliterate or disable an adversary’s satellite in orbit.

U.S. military and commercial satellites perform missions from surveillance to communications to navigation to weather. They form the linchpin of U.S. military prowess. But U.S. officials say Russia and China are increasingly focused on developing weapons that can neutralize this U.S. advantage — from anti-satellite missiles to jamming of frequencies to cyberattacks to miniature killer satellites.

[Chambers Split on East Coast Missile Defense Site]

“I’d like to see the new administration really redouble the focus on space security issues and on what type of space capabilities we are going to buy,” said Todd Harrison, an analyst with the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

The Obama administration added about $1 billion a year to its budgets in order to improve efforts to protect U.S. satellites. The Defense Department now considers this a war-fighting mission and has begun to adjust its organizations and procedures accordingly.

Almost all the solutions are defensive — including shifting to a larger number of satellites, hardening them against jamming, protecting their cyberlinks and improving surveillance of what is happening in space. Such efforts are likely to continue and perhaps expand under Trump, experts said.

“We’re certainly not seeking a competition on the offensive side,” said Winston Beauchamp, the Air Force’s deputy under secretary for space, at a Washington conference on Thursday. “But we will do whatever is necessary to make sure our assets can continue to operate through such a conflict, if it were to occur, which I think is no one’s best interest. … And if something happens in space, our response wouldn’t necessarily be in space.”

The Pentagon has, starting in the Cold War, spent money developing weapons that could destroy or disable an enemy’s satellites. The programs, including a kinetic energy ASAT weapon that was in planning stages in the 1990s, have come and gone. Some experts believe such initiatives still exist in classified form.

Referring to anti-satellite and anti-missile weapons in space, Lamborn of Armed Services said: “Some of the technical issues around those concepts need to be researched, but there’s a lot of exciting options.”

The Trump administration may also consider exploring ways to launch weapons from space to hit targets on Earth.

“The future military necessity of using smaller force projection into hostile arenas will demand the speed and agility that only space-based assets can supply,” wrote Robert Walker and Peter Navarro, two space advisers to Trump, in a Space News op-ed in October. Walker, a lobbyist, is a Pennsylvania Republican who served two decades in the House and chaired the Science Committee. Navarro is a business professor at the University of California, Irvine.

Recent Stories

Stopgap funding bills hung up in both chambers

Who are the House Republicans who opposed the stopgap budget bill?

Taking it to the limit — Congressional Hits and Misses

Feinstein broke glass ceilings during decades of Judiciary Committee work

Colleagues honor Feinstein as death leaves Senate vacancy

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a life in photos