Time to Debate About Space Based Defense?

December 4, 2014— Time to Debate About Space Based Defense?

By High Frontier Posting on December 4, 2014 in Arms Control, Brilliant Pebbles, Henry F. Cooper, High Frontier, Raptor Talon, Space Based Defense
High Frontier

December 4, 2014

A recent National Defense Industrial Association (NDIA) publication raised a timely issue—that it is time to debate the utility of space based defenses against ballistic missiles, because of the growing threat. I could not agree more, and here provide additional reasons why and offer some counters to those who criticized aspects of this important paper.

As Lt. General James Abrahamson and I wrote on the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s March 23, 1983 speech that launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), the most effective missile defense concept to come from the SDI era (1884-93) was the Brilliant Pebbles space-based interceptor (SBI) system. “Abe” began the program as a special access program on his watch as SDI Director; Lt. General George Monahan carried the program through a “season of studies” to formal concept validation approval by the Pentagon’s defense acquisition authorities on his watch (and I believe that had he lived he would have joined in our 2013 assessment); and, on my watch, I carried the program through a congressional gauntlet until it was sharply curtailed by the “congressional powers that be” in 1992.

(Click here to read the ballistic missile defense (BMD) historian’s published account of this story, discussed in Don Baucom’s “The Rise and Fall of Brilliant Pebbles.”)

In early 1993, the Clinton administration sharply curtained the SDI program—even cutting by 80-percent a fully funded, congressionally mandated national missile defense (NMD) program to develop and deploy a ground-based homeland defense as soon as technologically feasible. The congressionally-approved Brilliant Pebbles technology demonstration program was totally scuttled even though congress had appropriated over $300 million for fiscal year 1993—Defense Secretary Les Aspin boasted he was “taking the stars out of Star Wars.”

The Clinton administration declared its allegiance to the anti-ballistic missile (ABM) Treaty as the “cornerstone of strategic stability,” and that Treaty blocked the testing and deployment of effective BMD systems if they could defend the U.S. homeland—especially space-based defenses.

All that survived these major cuts was a restrained theater missile defense (TMD) program to defend our overseas troops, friends and allies—and the TMD program I left was even cut by 25-percent. In my judgment, we would have no sea-based defense today, except that some key members of congress successfully insisted that a viable sea-based TMD program continue. Over 30 Aegis BMD ships are at sea today attesting to the importance of such congressional oversight. Some, including yours truly, believe that Aegis BMD is now our most effective BMD system—and its inherent ability to defend the U.S. homeland should be further developed.

After the Clinton years—as congressional concerns about the ballistic missile threat grew, the George W. Bush administration withdrew from the ABM Treaty and focused on building a homeland BMD system—but it did nothing to take advantage of that freedom to revive a space based interceptor (SBI) program, or even the key technology that made it affordable and effective. SBIs and related technology still remain dormant. Even the now operational Aegis BMD system has been restricted to a theater defense role, in spite of its demonstrated capabilities against longer range ballistic missiles—and even against satellites in earth orbit. Such is the continuing legacy of 30-years under the restraints of the ABM Treaty.

Against this background, the NDIA’s October National Defense Magazine included a welcome article, titled “Time to Revive Debate About Space Based Defense.” Click here for this article by Marvin Baker Schaffer, a member of the adjunct research staff of the RAND Corporation, and several exchanges that illustrate why his article and chosen title is so pertinent.

First, consider a few key points from Schaffer’s original article, with which I generally agree and will supplement with a few comments.

Schaffer Re. the Threat:

• Boost-phase missile defense is necessary to reliably and cost-effectively defeat the most advanced intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threats, particularly from Russia and China.

• Current BMD systems cannot effectively engage the most sophisticated Russian and Chinese threat configurations—particularly ICBMs carrying multiply independent reentry vehicles (MIRVs), extensive sophisticated decoys or maneuvering reentry vehicle capability—capabilities they are both modernizing and expanding. Russia also has hundreds of submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) and the Chinese may have dozens.

• Iran and North Korea may not now be as threatening, but may be within a decade. Other entities or non-state groups could acquire nuclear-tipped ballistic missile weapons as well if unimpeded. For example, Hezbollah in Lebanon, a client of Iran, fits this category. [So does the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).]

Schaffer Re. Proposed Solutions:

• An effective countermeasure would be 300 to 1,000 low earth orbit “Brilliant Pebbles,” costing roughly $1 billion, that could intercept attacking ICBMs in their boost phase to preempt use of MIRVs and other sophisticated countermeasure techniques.

• Standoff remotely piloted and recoverable aircraft, such as the Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper, also could fire air-to-air missiles at ICBMs while they are still in their boost phase—at a cost of at least 17 times that of Brilliant Pebbles, but without placing objects into space.

• High-energy solid-state lasers in low-Earth orbits would cost at least 100 times more to develop and deploy than Brilliant Pebbles.

• Nothing in the current land- and sea-based BMD program has global reach and nothing has the range for reliable boost-phase engagement.

• Experts contend that space-based missile defense has the potential for reliable boost-phase engagements at the least cost. The main drawback of the space option is the large number of objects placed permanently into low-Earth orbit, requiring a political judgment to balance against cost considerations and/or only partially negating the ICBM threat.

• Apparently, the need for reliable boost-phase defenses has not persuaded either Presidents Bush or Obama to revive consideration of such a threat. Since sophisticated ICBMs and SLBMs appear inevitable in coming decades, boost-phase missile defense research should be revived.

My Critical Review:

• Many of these points are correct as far as they go—as I have written before, most recently on last June 5th. And I certainly agree with Schaffer’s conclusion, as emphasized by the title to his article, which is consistent with my March 25, 2014 message urging that the powers that be to “Put the Stars back into Star Wars.” But I will raise some additional issues with his presentation and the comments on his article—which I believe could represent aspects of the debate that should occur.

• In the first place, we are now vulnerable to existing ballistic missile threats that could most effectively be countered by space based interceptors, without raising the valid concern about advanced ICBMs and SLBMs. Short and medium range ballistic missiles can be launched from ships off our undefended coasts—as pointed out by the 1998 congressionally mandated commission to evaluate the ballistic missile threat. Yet we remain vulnerable to this threat.

• Scuds can be purchased for a few million dollars each by almost anyone. If they get nuclear weapons and mate them to such Scuds, jihadi terrorists—notably willing to commit suicide to kill only a few “infidels”—can today launch devastating attacks on “Great Satan” America. Note: a nuclear weapon detonated at high altitude over the U.S. would be an existential threat to the Great Satan America.

• While Schaffer rightly argued that SBIs could intercept ICBMs while they are rising from their launch pads—in their boost phase, it should also be noted that appropriately designed SBIs also can intercept much shorter range ballistic missiles in their midcourse phase above the earth’s atmosphere. Indeed, the Brilliant Pebbles constellation then being considered would have been able to intercept every Scud that Iraq launched against Tel Aviv and Haifa during the 1991 Gulf War, including the Iraqi salvo Scud attacks—as the review of the space-based DSP tapes showed after the war.

• Schaffer correctly observed that unpiloted air vehicles, or drones, could be designed to launch interceptors to shoot down ballistic missiles in their boost phase, as I argued in my May 29, 2014 message. As noted there, we were pursuing such a program called Raptor Talon on my watch as SDI Director—an important concept that was also scuttled by the Clinton administration. I believe that concept would be far less expensive than the costs mentioned by Schaffer. I am less informed on the advances in directed energy missile defense systems over the past 20 years, but believe that associated research and development should be conducted, whatever the current cost estimates may be.

• Schaffer’s argument that a Brilliant Pebbles constellation would cost only a billion dollars is a substantial underestimate—unless he meant a million dollars to purchase each developed Brilliant Pebble to be deployed on orbit, which was about right in 1988 dollars. But the related arguments of those who commented on his article are also ill founded on the high side. I certainly welcome being grouped with my friends Lowell Wood, Greg Canavan and Edward Teller. But my view of costs is based on the Pentagon’s extensive “season of reviews” in 1989—which led to the briefing then Assistant Defense Secretary Steve Hadley and I gave to the Press in January 1991, stating the cost of developing, deploying and operating for 20-years a constellation of 1000 Brilliant Pebbles was $10 billion in 1988 dollars—in other words $10 million per Brilliant Pebble. This “season of studies,” discussed in some detail by Baucom’s “Rise and Fall of Brilliant Pebbles,” was far more comprehensive than the National Academy study touted by Schaffer’s critics. Those studies included critical reviews by the Defense Science Board and the JASON, academic experts who were not known for their advocacy of missile defenses. And the cost estimates were provided by the Pentagon’s independent Cost Analysis Improvement Group (CAIG).

• Key to making Brilliant Pebbles so cost-effective were the light-weight system components that minimized the space launch requirements and associated costs. When the Clinton administration cancelled Brilliant Pebbles, it also cancelled the programs enabling that innovation—and to date comparable efforts remain dormant. I don’t believe the above referenced National Academy and other studies have taken these potential advances into account—so complete and effective was the purge of technology at the outset of the Clinton administration. Advancing related technology over the past two decades should enable us to do even better now—and there would be spin-off advances for our BMD systems of other basing modes. Indeed, spinoff light-weight kill vehicles for ground- and sea-based BMD systems would be a benefit of “Putting the Stars back into Star Wars.”

• Schaffer is correct in noting that space-based defenses would be far less expensive in providing a global defense capability than any other basing mode. Indeed, the effect of 30-years under the constraint of the ABM Treaty completely warped the technological understanding of how to build truly cost–effective BMD systems. The purpose of the ABM Treaty was to make such cost-effective defenses politically impossible—and it succeeded more thoroughly than its original sponsors may have envisioned. These issues are thoroughly discussed in the reports of the Independent Working Group on Ballistic Missile Defense. As observed there, we are spending the most money on the least effective defense concepts (ground-based defenses) and the least (actually nothing) on the most effective defenses (space-based defenses).

• I can’t resist concluding with an observation that my background for leading SDI and commenting on the associated technological issues was a bit more than “managing the political program” as argued by one of the commenters. I hold a PHD in engineering and began working on missile defenses at Bell Laboratories in the early 1960s—on a program called Nike Zeus. I spent the subsequent 25 years of my professional career working on related national security-related technical and defense acquisition issues, which included helping to set criteria for the Safeguard system that was briefly operational in the 1970s, serving on Defense Science Boards and Air Force Scientific Advisory Boards during the 1970s that critically reviewed the Army’s missile defense programs (among other things), and as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Air Force, overseeing (among other things) the development of the F-15 anti-satellite system that used then cutting edge technology, which was a forerunner to the Brilliant Pebbles technology, to shoot down a satellite in 1985.

I can tell you that event caught the Soviets attention in Geneva where I led our negotiations on SDI-related matters between 1985 and 1990, especially the SDI efforts to build space-based defenses. The Soviets certainly understood the potential effectiveness of the programs we were pursuing even if many of our alleged experts did not—and apparently still do not.

Bottom Line:

Space-based defenses would be by far the most cost-effective way to provide a global defense against ballistic missiles of all but very short range ballistic missiles. The development of such systems has been ignored deliberately for over two decades—and the technology that enabled the SDI plans of the late 1980s and early 1990s has been ignored. This mistake should be rectified as soon as possible, if we want truly cost effective BMD systems.

That’s my view. Let the debate begin!

Near Term High Frontier Plans.

High Frontier will continue to advocate the most cost effective BMD systems that the powers that be will permit.

In particular, we will press the powers that be to provide technology to enable light weight kinetic kill vehicles for the Aegis BMD system—to give the existing Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) higher burnout velocities and greater intercept range capability—whether at sea or in an Aegis Ashore configuration.

And we will urge the powers that be to revive a serious program to develop and deploy an effective space-based interceptor program.

As time may be running out for effective U.S. action, we will continue to inform all who will listen about the existential EMP threat and how to counter it.

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