August 30, 2016——”Déjà Vu All Over Again” . . . One More Time!

August 30, 2016——”Déjà Vu All Over Again” . . . One More Time!

“Those who do not learn from History are doomed to repeat it.”  Variously attributed to George Santayana,  Edmund Burke, Winston Churchill, . . .  Whoever,  inevitably true!

My article this week was prompted by Rebeccah Heinrichs’ August 16, 2016 Space News article (Click here.) that I referenced toward the end of my tribute last week to General Jack Vessey (Click here.), especially for his role in arranging for pivotally important support from the Joint Chiefs of Staff to including key language in President Ronald Reagan’s March 23, 1983 speech that launched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Ms. Heinrichs emphasized several key points:

  • The debate about whether “space is weaponized” is over — and adversaries are exploiting U.S. vulnerabilities.
  • Antisatellite (ASAT) systems, particularly direct ascent ASATs, threaten our space systems that are important to our military operations and critical civil infrastructure (e.g., the electric power grid, communications, transportation, etc.) — and those of our allies.
  • Hypersonic missiles being developed can defeat our existing ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems.
  • The list of adversaries and associated capabilities is growing (e.g., North Korea and Iran are gaining “greater ranges, mobility, increased accuracy and the technical ability to use more challenging counter-measures, all while amassing great numbers of missiles to enable salvo launches.” And both have successfully launched satellites into space.)
  • For many years such threatening space systems were both beyond the capability and reach of potential U.S. adversaries. No longer . . . and our adversaries recognize the asymmetric nature of U.S. space dominance together with space assets’ fragility and vulnerability to attack, and are taking advantage of this U.S. Achilles’ heel by developing weapons to target our space assets.
  • Our space defense posture is primarily passive and reactive, an anachronism of the Cold War era during which we had a single superpower adversary and the uneasy deterrence construct relying on the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine. The Pentagon has begun to build needed resiliency into our space architectures and is requesting funds from Congress provide to improve space situational awareness — but we cannot prevail in space merely by passively defending against hostile force; we must have active defenses as well.
  • The most effective, and currently missing, way to meet these needs is “to deploy a satellite constellation in space that provides sensor coverage as well as a kinetic kill capability.”
  • Notably, we know such a space-based interceptor (SBI) system is “affordable” and development efforts should begin immediately.

Ms. Heinrichs further elaborated these key points that I selected, which were derived from a Hudson Institute study and report she drafted (Click here.) with the critical participation, review and approval of an “all-star review group” of policy and technology experts with broad experience in government and the private sector:

  • The Honorable Eric Edelman, Under Secretary of Defense for Policy, 2005–2009
  • The Honorable Michael D. Griffin, Ph.D., NASA Administrator, 2005–2009
  • General Charles H. Jacoby, USA (ret), Commander, U.S. Norther n Command, 2011–2014
  • The Honorable Robert Joseph, Ph.D., Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, 2005–2007
  • The Honorable Jon Kyl, U.S. Senator , 1995–2013
  • Lieutenant General Henry A. “Trey” Obering, III, USAF (ret), Director, Missile Defense Agency, 2004–2008
  • Keith Payne, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Forces Policy, 2002–2003
  • General Gene Renuart, USAF (r et), Commander, U.S. Northern Command, 2007–2010
  • The Honorable Michael Rogers, U.S. Congressman 2001–2015/ Chairman, Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence
  • The Honorable William Schneider, Ph.D., Chairman, Defense Science Board, 2001–2009
  • Lieutenant General Mark D. Shackelford, USAF (ret.), Military Deputy, Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Air Force for Acquisition, 2008–2011
  • General William Shelton, USAF (ret), Commander, U.S. Air Force Space Command, 2011–2014
  • Brigadier General Kenneth Todorov, USAF (ret), Deputy Director, Missile Defense Agency, 2014–2015

In my opinion, the most important conclusion in her summary paper was the final point, as I paraphrased it above: “We know space-based interceptors defenses are ‘affordable’ and should begin development efforts immediately.”

To understand further what is meant by affordable, you must refer to page 22 of the Hudson Institute study and footnotes 48-50 — see below.

“According to a 2011 Institute for Defense Analyses (IDA) Study, ‘The technology maturity exists such that the space-based interceptor layer that was considered in this study could be developed within ten years.'[48] It went on to assess the cost for a limited constellation with a 20-year lifecycle, including a full constellation replacement at the 10-year point. IDA assesses a 24 satellite constellation would cost $26–$30 billion over its operational lifetime, depending on launch payload configuration. According to the IDA study ‘launch costs would be the dominant factor in the cost of a space-based interceptor system.’ It continued, ‘Plausible reductions of payload mass could reduce launch costs by as much as 25% relative to the baseline costing assumptions in this study.'[49] However, these numbers are likely high, and should be understood to represent a ceiling, rather than a floor.”[50]


“[48] Space Base Interceptor (SBI) Element of Ballistic Missile Defense: Review of 2011 SBI Report, Institute for Defense Analyses, Dr. James D. Thorne, February 29, 2016.

“[49] Ibid.

“[50] It is the assessment of members of the Senior Review Group that IDA’s analysis for the approximate cost is high and question some of the assumptions. For example, IDA assumes that launch cost would represent roughly half the cost of an SBI system, however, as a comparison, communications satellite industry is one in which the launch costs as much as the space vehicle but comsats are comparatively unsophisticated and must travel to geostationary orbit, which is roughly four times more challenging than traveling to low earth orbit. Most of the time, and especially for a fairly sophisticated payload (which the SBI would be) traveling to low earth orbit, the cost of launch is more like 20–25% of system cost and for a considerably lower cost.”

I dwell on this point because I know we can build a much more capable SBI system for less than was indicated by the 2011 IDA study.  SDI activities provided a quarter century ago, with much greater depth and intensity than the system definition and cost information that was provided by the IDA study.

Click here for a 2013 article I co-authored with the first SDI Director, USAF Lt. General James A. Abrahamson on the 30th anniversary of Reagan’s speech that launched the SDI. I’m certain that SDI’s second SDI Director, USAF Lt. General George Monahan, would have joined us in coauthoring this view that Brilliant Pebbles was the SDI’s most cost-effective concept were he still living. He was Director when Brilliant Pebbles became the first SDI system concept to pass critical reviews by a major cross section of the technical community — in and out of government — and the Pentagon’s formal acquisition process to become a Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) approved Demonstration and Validation (DemVal) program. Click here for the June 19, 1990 approval memorandum from the Pentagon’s top Defense Acquisition Executive, Under Secretary of Defense John Betti.

This approval 26 years ago occurred after a very detailed review referred to as the “season of studies” by SDI Historian Donald Baucom in his “Rise and Fall of Brilliant Pebbles.” Click here for this important history lesson and here (Rotate clockwise.) for the annotated 1991 press briefing that then Assistant Secretary of Defense Steven Hadley and I gave describing the program then approved by President George H.W. Bush.

Its purpose was precisely what is needed today — to provide global protection against ballistic missiles launched from anywhere on Earth against any other place more than a few hundred miles away. On my watch as SDI Director, we called the system of land-, sea- and space-based interceptors the  Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) system and designed it to have very high probability of kill against up to 200 attacking ballistic missiles launched from anywhere.  Click here for a still pertinent 1992 Report to Congress describing the impressive benefits of this GPALS system.

Note the Brilliant Pebbles component of GPALS was the only BMD system from the SDI era that promised to meet the Nitze Criteria, then the law of the land, that was a precondition for deploying any BMD system — namely that the defensive interceptor was required to cost less than the target it was supposed to shoot down. In other words, it had to be on the “right side of the cost curve,” which would rectify the criticism that key military and civilian leaders have recently made of our existing BMD systems. 

August 30, 2016——"Déjà Vu All Over Again" . . . One More Time!
Note that Brilliant Pebbles was then designed to be capable of intercepting attacking ballistic missiles in their boost phase — while their rockets still burned; throughout their midcourse phase above the atmosphere provided it could identify valid targets among the decoys; and into the Earth’s upper atmosphere during reentry when atmospheric drag shreds away light weight decoys. And we were considering how to give these interceptors an intercept capability against then anticipated hypervelocity missiles now being developed by adversaries — and against which our current BMD systems have no capability.

In fits and starts, we have haltingly deployed many of the components of the GPALS system we then briefed — on land and sea.  But we have not even pursued serious research on a SBI component, the most cost-effective system concept developed during the SDI era (1983 through 1992). The SBI component of GPALS consisted of 1000 Brilliant Pebbles and cost $10 billion in 1988 dollars, for research and development, deployment and operations for 20 years — assuming each Brilliant Pebbles would be replaced once.  This translates to about $20 billion in 2016 dollars. It would cost less today because key technology has continued to advance — while costs have reduced.

As discussed last week, this program was scuttled by one of the first acts of the Clinton administration in 1993. Since then, we have been able to re-institute the ground and sea-based components of the GPALS concept, but the SBI component — the most cost-effective concept produced by the SDI era — has remained off the table. And the resulting command and control system is more complex and costly than would  have been the case had the Brilliant Pebbles program continued.  In particular, no additional space-based sensor to aid other missile defense components would have been required because the Brilliant Pebbles sensor suite could have provided the needed tracking and discrimination information to fully empower the ground and sea-based interceptor systems.

I have dealt with these issues several times in some depth, most recently in my “trilogy” messages leading up to the 33rd anniversary of Reagan’s SDI speech—click here, here, and here for my March 8th, 15th and 22nd messages.  Hopefully, Ms. Heinrichs’ Space News article and associated Hudson Institute study can open the public debate and positively influence the policies of the next administration.

There are signs that such a debate is in the offing, e.g., click here for an August 17 article in The Daily Caller, “US in ‘Urgent Need’ for Space Policy, Experts Say,” which refers to a recent report of the National Academies of Science and Engineering. This elite scientific community often has not been supportive of building BMD systems of any sort and has exaggerated the cost estimates of those it has considered in some detail, so stay tuned. Indeed, with few exceptions, the elite scientific community opposed President Reagan’s SDI effort from its outset and was part of the reason why the Clinton administration “took the stars out of Star Wars” at its first opportunity in early 1993.

Nevertheless, as indicated by this message, we have been at this point before in considering effective space-based defenses — actually much, much beyond our current status.  To meet the likely opposition from this skeptical community and other critics, we should not try to reinvent the wheel — we should “Go back to the future!”

We should learn from History, not repeat it! 

This would be a welcome “Déjà Vu All Over Again,” to quote Yogi Berra, as he watched Roger Marris hit home run after home run . . .

What can you do?  

Join us in praying for our nation, and for a rebirth of the freedom sought, achieved and passed to us by those who came before us.

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