“There is no upper bound to the cost of a program the sponsor doesn’t want to do and doesn’t know how to do.” ~ Dr. William R. Graham, Director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy under President Ronald Reagan
Bill Graham is a dear friend and a long-time (over a half-century) colleague in battles with the bureaucracy to overcome this tendency to drive up the cost estimates of systems the “powers that be” don’t like and, as a corollary that I would add, to reject the most sensible and cost-effective technical solutions in favor of adhering to alternatives they like even though they are much more expensive and sometimes unworkable.
For example, the picture below recalls an important 1989 White House Situation Room meeting with President Reagan that launched the most important ballistic missile defense (BMD) system concept of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Bill, then serving as President Reagan’s Science Advisor, is at the right end of the table. Under the cloak on the table was a full scale model of a Brilliant Pebble, then the highly classified product of creative thinking of a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) team led by Dr. Lowell Wood (leaning up to the Table on the left — next to Dr. Edward Teller) under the sponsorship of USAF Lt. General James A. Abrahamson — on the right next to Bill.
This came after Congress — led by Senator Sam Nunn (D-GA), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), and Representative Les Aspin (D-WI), Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) — passed legislation sharply cutting SDI funding for space-based interceptors. Based on this briefing, President Reagan vetoed the National Defense Authorization Act for 1989 — and Brilliant Pebbles was made public.
I think Chairmen Nunn and Aspin never forgave this rebuke — and ultimately imposed their will to gut the program, about four years later.
I participated in urging President Reagan’s veto from Geneva, where I was approaching the end of my five years as President Reagan’s Ambassador and Chief Negotiator at the Defense and Space Talks. I strongly supported his veto because space-based defenses provided the greatest leverage in our negotiations with the Soviet Union — that were achieving the first arms control agreements in history to actually reduce nuclear weapons, a top Reagan priority. Cutting this critical funding would have undercut his objectives for our talks.
Our negotiating leverage came especially from the SDI efforts to develop space-based defenses — against the Soviets who wanted them stopped. The resulting negotiating leverage played a major role in yielding the first treaties ever actually to reduce offensive nuclear armaments: The 1987 Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and the 1991 Strategic Arms Reductions Treaty (START).
Reagan’s personal commitment to space-based defenses had led him to walk out of his October 1986 Reykjavik meeting with Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev — because Gorbachev demanded that SDI research be restricted to the laboratory, which would have ended our experiments that were demonstrating in space the viability of space-based defenses. Gorbachev offered in exchange historic concessions in reductions in offensive nuclear forces that Reagan wanted — and we were able to “pocket” those concessions without compromising on our SDI efforts.
In late 1988, President Reagan again illustrated his commitment to supporting space-based defenses by overruling Congressional leaders (notably Chairmen Nunn and Aspin) who tried to cut support for this most important SDI effort in favor of more expensive, less effective defense system concepts — an example of Bill Graham’s observation and my corollary.
I also strongly supported from Geneva establishing a Brilliant Pebbles Task Force working directly for the SDI Director, rather that continuing Air Force management of all space-based interceptor R&D, because the Air Force was more interested in its own concepts than in actually building the most cost-effective space-based defenses, another example of Bill’s and my observations.
I had discovered this fact when I urged the AF program management to consider the Brilliant Pebbles concept following my visit to LLNL at Edward Teller’s invitation, to learn of their “special access program” efforts. The Air Force managers would not even visit LLNL from Los Angeles to review what had so impressed me. Thankfully, this management change was rapidly made — otherwise Brilliant Pebbles might have been undercut by the Air Force — Secretary Don Rice, whom I had known for many years, hated the decision but was a willing partner when I also rejoined the George H.W. Bush Administration as SDI Director less than a year later.
Shortly after President Reagan’s veto, George H.W. Bush had become President on January 20, 1989, visited LLNL and claimed Brilliant Pebbles as his own. After beginning the first round of Geneva talks in the Bush-41 administration and attending its first ministerial (September 22-23, 1989) in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, I passed my baton in Geneva to Ambassador David Smith and returned briefly to the private sector. (Click here for a New York Times summary of the Jackson Hole Ministerial, which illustrated the continuing pressure point at that stage provided by the SDI program — especially re. space-based defenses.)
General Abrahamson also passed his command to the second SDI Director, USAF Lt. General George Monahan, who instituted the Brilliant Pebbles Task Force under the leadership of USAF Colonel Rhip Worrell. Brilliant Pebbles in 1990 became the first SDI concept to pass fully the entire Defense Acquisition Board reviews, including several detailed costing analyses and an intense “Season of Studies” as labeled by SDI historian Don Baucom. These studies demanded plausible designs and technological innovation against a panoply of demanding offensive countermeasures, to enter a formal Demonstration and Validation (DemVal) Program.
No current BMD system can come close to meeting these challenges. Furthermore, Brilliant Pebbles could intercept threatening ballistic missiles from early in their launch phase — the “boost phase” while their rockets still burn, through the midcourse phase above the atmosphere and as their warhead reentry vehicles reenter the Earth’s atmosphere. Brilliant Pebbles would have a global intercept capability against ballistic missiles launched from anywhere toward targets anywhere else more than a few hundred miles away. No other BMD concept to date can match this anticipated capability.
Click here for Baucom’s “The Rise and Fall of Brilliant Pebbles. The fall began on my watch as the third SDI Director and was fully realized with the advent of the Clinton administration. But I’m getting ahead of my story.
In 1991, Assistant Secretary of Defense Steven Hadley and I briefed the press that the Pentagon’s Defense Acquisition Board (DAB)-approved cost-estimate for research, development, deployment of 1000 Pebbles and operations for 20 years was $10-billion in 1988 dollars (after inflation, $20-billion in 2016 dollars). Click here for our 1991 annotated briefing (rotate clockwise for easy reading) about President Bush’s approved program. Click here for a still pertinent 1992 Report to Congress describing the impressive benefits of this Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) system, including to our allies.
No current BMD system can come close to these anticipated capabilities from 1992. Yet, major studies — e.g., by the American Physical Society — have paid no attention to SDI and other efforts from that period and exaggerated the costs well beyond what had been anticipated by the Bush-41 administration’s Brilliant Pebbles program and its fully approved, authoritative cost estimates.
Click here for a defense of my assertion that Brilliant Pebbles was the best product of the SDI era. I co-authored this article with the first SDI Director, Lt. Gen. Abrahamson, on the 30th anniversary of Reagan’s SDI speech. (Click here for our earlier 1993 critique: “What Did We Get For Our $30 Billion Investment in SDI/BMD?”) I’m certain that SDI’s second SDI Director, USAF Lt. General George Monahan, would have joined us in coauthoring these views were he still living. I recall the three of us briefing former President Reagan in his Los Angeles office on our progress in 1992.
President Reagan was pleased of course — especially since Russia’s President Boris Yeltsin had recently proposed at the United Nations that SDI take advantage of Russian technology and that we together build a Joint Global Defense, in our view including space-based components as they well understood. Moreover, he concurrently proposed even deeper reductions in our offensive strategic nuclear weapons, as I had advocated for five years in Geneva. This reversed the longstanding Soviet-Russian position that effective defenses would make deep reductions impossible.
I gave then former President Reagan a framed copy of the Washington Post article on that story. And high level negotiations sought to exploit Yeltsin’s initiative for the remainder of the Bush-41 administration. Yeltsin’s proposal sounded like Reagan’s position that I had long defended with the Soviets — and later the Russians, and Yeltsin essentially said yes!
What a missed opportunity that with the advent of the Clinton administration that door closed, and it has now remained closed for almost a quarter century, while we have invested in BMD development and deployment several times what Brilliant Pebbles would have cost, but in less effective, far less capable BMD systems! But that is what the “powers that be” have wanted, irrespective of the actual technical merits and associated costs.
I was told that when Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin met in Vancouver in April 1993, Yeltsin wanted to continue the talks on his proposal, but we apparently had no one on our side of the table who even knew what talks Yeltsin wanted to continue.
Moreover, the Clinton administration had already abandoned the most cost-effective product of the SDI effort, Brilliant Pebbles, and sharply curtailed all R&D efforts of the SDI program, which was renamed the Ballistic Missile Defense program. As then Defense Secretary Les Aspin said, they “took the stars out of Star Wars.”
They also directed the Army to return unopened several contractor proposals for an approved Demonstration-Validation (DemVal) program to develop ground-based interceptors and focused only on theater missile defenses (with a 25-percent smaller budget than my SDI plans), while reasserting their allegiance to the ABM Treaty as the “cornerstone of strategic stability” — as had been argued by the Soviets and rejected during the Reagan-Bush-41 years until Yeltsin essentially agreed in January 1992.
The Clinton administration completely scuttled the “Brilliant Pebbles” program — the potential heart of the Joint Global Defense Yeltsin agreed to support — and purged the renamed SDI program even of its supporting technology development efforts, which had composed the most important products of the $30-billion investment during the SDI era. (And the Brilliant Pebbles estimated cost was actually a pittance compared to that $30-billion sum.)
So, it took Democrat congressional leaders and the Clinton administration to end Reagan’s SDI vision as a priority objective when they took control of our missile defense efforts in 1993 — almost a quarter century ago. And nothing has been done to reverse this travesty since — while we have spent much more on much less cost-effective BMD systems.
Even after his most welcome withdrawal from the ABM Treaty, President George W. Bush and his administration did nothing to revive this important program or its key underlying technology.
Nothing since has remotely competed with the promise of this most cost-effective BMD system concept from the SDI era. After two decades, it truly is time to “go back to the future” and “reverse the cost curve.”
Click here for my March 15, 2016 discussion urging that we get on the “Right Side of the Cost Curve,” as advocated by the then Commander of Northern Command, who commands our Homeland BMD system:
“. . . Many of our potential adversaries are pursuing advanced weapons development not seen in decades. Individually, they pose serious concerns to our national security and the international community. Collectively, they represent a vast spectrum of complex and volatile threats that I believe will only continue to grow and threaten the homeland if we hesitate to act decisively.”
ADM William E. Gortney
Specifically, ADM Gortney testified to the SASC that “We are on the wrong side of the cost curve.” In other words, a current defense interceptor costs so much more than its ballistic missile targets that we cannot afford to keep up if our adversaries just buy more ballistic missiles to attack us.
This current condition is contrary to the Nitze Criteria that the SDI program was bound by law to meet (bound by those in Congress who wanted to kill the SDI effort) — and of all the SDI concepts considered, only Brilliant Pebbles met that criteria.
But, as argued by the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense (Click here.), our spending on BMD efforts since the Clinton redirection has been exactly opposite to what makes the most sense — ground-based defenses are the least cost-effective concepts — and we have invested most of our money on them. Sea-based defenses are far more effective and we have invested much less on them. And we have spent essentially nothing on space-based defenses — judged a quarter century ago to be the most cost-effective — with the potential to meet the Nitze criteria.
It’s time, actually long past time, to reverse these decisions to spend so much money on less cost-effective defenses and return to the Brilliant Pebbles concept that long ago was responsive to ADM Gortney’s valid concern.
We need to get on the right side of the cost curve again by investing in the Brilliant Pebbles space-based interceptor program.
But can we overcome Bill Graham’s dictum that “There is no upper bound to the cost of a program the sponsor doesn’t want to do and doesn’t know how to do?” Or its corollary that “It doesn’t matter how little a system costs, no matter how effective it might be, if the sponsor really doesn’t want it.”
Stay tuned . . .
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