Military officials hyped the possibility of space-based missile defense systems based on hypersonic rockets that can be deployed over the North Atlantic Ocean — a plan that could protect against threats from space-based weapons.
The three newly launched blimps tested the military’s ability to send hypersonic vehicles with payloads more than five times the speed of sound through space to reach hundreds of miles outside the atmosphere, a key step for building complex weapons that could penetrate complex defenses to deliver attack payloads.
The hypersonic test program, called DEXTRA-X, is part of the overall Joint Hypersonic Weapon Program, the military has said.
“The independent and persistent testing of hypersonic vehicle technology is critical to the assurance of readiness and to maintain deterrence against rogue states and others with nuclear and ballistic missile programs,” Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said in a statement.
The Defense Department’s Deputy Chief of Staff for Programs, Michael Griffin, said the aircraft flew at suborbital speeds to ensure it was working the way it should.
“Not everything is equal at very, very high speeds and very, very low speeds,” Griffin said at a Nov. 29 briefing. “How you deal with deviations that are inevitable in a flight is what you’re trying to answer.”
The blimps, which are guided and operated by pilots and mission controllers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, took off from the test launch site at Sierra Nevada Corp.’s Grass Valley, Calif., facility, flying in formation to test the various technologies.
“We really believe the test campaign we have here is an indication of how much progress we’ve made,” Griffin said Nov. 29.
Critics of such space-based missile defense systems argue that high-flying space weapons could disrupt Earth’s communications networks, GPS navigation and military communications and surveillance.
Under current policy, the U.S. military does not have any capabilities to launch hypersonic rockets and is prohibited from intercepting or weaponizing space-based systems. But critics contend that as space becomes more crowded with satellites — mostly for commercial and military telecommunications — and countries develop more advanced laser and particle weapons, military forces and the Defense Department must rethink the policy.
Defense Department officials have said that Washington is looking at space as a new “second front” in potential conflict and is in the development stages of a new missile defense strategy for space.