June 23, 2015—Better Defenses: Part Way Back to the Future?

June 23, 2015—Better Defenses: Part Way Back to the Future?

America’s current missile defense strategy is “not sustainable,” according to Missile Defense Agency (MDA) Deputy Director USAF Brig. Gen. Kenneth Todorov. As reported by Sydney J. Freedberg in June 18’s Breaking Defense, he correctly emphasized that we can’t keep buying multi-million-dollar interceptors to shoot down adversaries’ ever-growing arsenals of much cheaper offensive missiles; we have to find a better way involving fewer Ground-Based Interceptors (GBIs) and more investment in R&D.  

General Todorov’s comments resonate with my March 24th message and associated recommendation that today’s “powers that be” relearn lessons that were understood over two decades ago. In celebrating the 32nd anniversary of President Ronald Reagan’s March 23, 1983 speech (~11780 days ago today) that launched his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), I recounted the SDI era (March 23, 1983-January 20, 1993) contributions and the technological detour we have been on ever since. 

The above truth may be a bitter pill for some to swallow.  But it should have been a well-known expectation given the important role during the SDI era played by the so-called Nitze criteria, which as the law of the land required that missile defenses we deployed had to be cost-effective at the margin—i.e., be less expensive that the offense they were intended to counter.  This condition was imposed to satisfy SDI opponents who agreed to conduct research on defenses but figured it would prevent deployment of any defense.  Later when it served their purposes, they ignored this condition to build the most-costly, least-effective ground-based Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems to defend the American homeland. Time to pay the price . . . and return to more cost-effective defenses.  Let me elaborate with a bit of background and in summary form.

Summary Key Highlights of the Past 32 Years:

  • Many, including yours truly, believe SDI and Reagan’s persistent demand that SDI be free to pursue technology to build truly effective BMD systems hastened the end of the Cold War. For five years as his Negotiator with the Soviet Union, I saw its impact first hand in bringing the Soviets to the negotiating table and getting them to negotiate seriously toward and actually achieving the first treaties in history actually to reduce nuclear arms.
  • The Soviets were most concerned about the potential of space-based defenses, the centerpiece of the SDI effort because they offer the greatest promise of achieving Reagan’s objective of building truly effective BMD systems—as has been known since the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) studies of the 1960s. The only question has always been whether available technology could support the conceptual objectives. In the 1960s, the technological requirements were well understood and defined, but could not be met. Reagan’s challenge to the SDI program was to determine whether modern U.S. technology—and that of our allies—could meet them.
  • By the end of the SDI era on January 20, 1993 at the end of the George H.W. Bush administration and my watch as SDI Director, the answer was known—and it was an emphatic yes. Indeed we were pursuing a comprehensive effort to develop and build a global defense against limited strikes (GPALS) to protect Americans at home and our overseas troops, friends and allies—potentially including the states of the former Soviet Union. Positive high level negotiations with Russia were considering how they might share the benefits of such a global defense. The technology was rapidly maturing and we had initiated major programs headed toward acquiring key GPALS elements.
  • As Lt. General James Abrahamson and I wrote on the 30th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s March 23, 1983 speech that launched the SDI, the most effective missile defense concept to come from the SDI era 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 “congressional powers” in 1992.
  • Some very influential Democrat senators and congressmen opposed our efforts—and my recommended GPALS architecture and related programs ended abruptly at the beginning of the Clinton administration. Former Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and then Defense Secretary Les Aspin unforgettably “took the stars out of Star Wars,” as he said while scuttling all SDI efforts except ground- and sea-based defenses intended as Theater Missile Defense (TMD) systems to protect our troops and allies abroad. And none of the continuing efforts exploited Brilliant Pebbles technology—indeed that cutting edge technology was purged from subsequent BMD development efforts.
  • A new BMD Organization (BMDO), which has since morphed into the current Missile Defense Agency (MDA), canceled all efforts to build BMD systems for the American people, focused only on building TMD systems, again emphasized the so-called “strategic stability” provided by the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty and its Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine, and abruptly ended the talks with Russia on building a joint global defense. Toward the end of the Clinton administration, congress insisted that a serious program be reinitiated to defend the American people, but it only used ground-based interceptor technology—a situation that still applies today. Brilliant Pebbles technology and its associated innovative architecture are nowhere to be found today—at least among publicly acknowledged U.S. programs.
  • The most complete and copiously referenced record of these facts is provided by professional historian Don Baucom’s “The Rise and Fall of Brilliant Pebbles” published by the Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies in 2004. (It is a reprint of a paper Baucom first presented at the 23 October 2001 International Flight Symposium sponsored by the North Carolina First Flight Centennial Commission—so it actually reflects the situation in the first year of the George W. Bush administration. This is a pertinent observation, given Baucom’s final footnote which implied that the Bush-43 administration intended to exploit the Brilliant Pebbles technology—it never happened. Distracted by 9/11?
  • Among many other things, Baucom records that the powerful Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee made clear in 1992 hearings his intention to kill SDI technology development for the most cost-effective missile defense concept I was pursuing, the space-based Brilliant Pebbles program. My SDI team and I immediately initiated a program to demonstrate in space the Brilliant Pebbles technology in a “politically correct” way—and it succeeded beyond my wildest dreams when the Clementine space probe employing Brilliant Pebbles technology returned to the Moon for the first time in 25 years, mapped its entire surface providing more frames (1.8 million as I recall) of high quality data than achieved by NASA’s entire Apollo program and discovered water in the polar regions. A replica of this award winning Clementine satellite that space-qualified most Brilliant Pebbles hardware and software now hangs in an honored place in the Smithsonian.
  • Cost estimates for Brilliant Pebbles were 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 to build and operate each Brilliant Pebble for 20 years. This “season of studies,” discussed in some detail by Baucom, was far more comprehensive than any subsequent study touted by various critics. The “season of reviews” 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). The DoD Inspector General’s April 14, 1994 critical review of the Brilliant Pebbles Program found that the program had been managed “efficiently and cost-effectively within the development and funding constraints imposed by congress.” So the cancellation of this most cost-effective effort of the SDI era was entirely political.
  • Key to making Brilliant Pebbles 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. 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 as discussed below.
  • The Obama MDA inherited the efforts of the George W. Bush administration which withdrew from the ABM Treaty, continued the TMD efforts and restored a vigorous effort to build ground based defenses for the American people, but did nothing to revive efforts to develop and build the most cost-effective BMD systems—those based in space. To my knowledge, that is still where we stand today.

So, Go Back to the Future!

As indicated by my initial comments concurring with General Todorov’s perspective, my March 24, 2015 message observed that folks are waking up to what we well understood during the SDI era—cost-effective defenses are needed to be responsive to inevitable offensive countermeasures.  (Actually, this has been well known since the ARPA studies of the 1960s, as Don Baucom’s comprehensive article makes clear.) But our BMD development programs have invested most of our BMD resources in the least cost-effective defense concepts—ground-based defenses—while, since January 20, 1993, completely ignoring the most cost-effective concepts—space-based defenses.

My March 24th message referred to Mr. R. Daniel McMichael’s illustrations of how politics has so distorted the technical possibilities. He conceived in our Independent Working Group (IWG) deliberations two informative annotated figures in his well documented Fourth Chapter of the linked IWG report—“Historical Analysis of the Politics Against Missile Defense,” which I again urge all to read—pages 52-72.

A not entirely rhetorical question for us today is “Have we learned anything from Les Aspin’s errors and the wasted 23-years since he “took the stars out of Star Wars?”

Surely the technology has advanced, even without BMDO-MDA efforts to exploit key advances, and some nations have taken advantage of those advances—most notably the Chinese who actually imported SDI technology scuttled by the Clinton administration in 1993 and have been using it to their advantage in developing their space systems.

After all, Brilliant Pebbles, easily the most cost-effective BMD system concept developed during the SDI era, was based on exploiting “off-the-shelf” technology from the private/commercial sector.  And that technology has continued to advance according to Moore’s Law,

So, why not “Go back to the Future” and repeat that cost-effective approach today? 

Part Way Back to the Future?

Continuing political resistance to space-based defenses could—probably would—still block such a revival at this time.  The “powers that be,” who are beginning to understand the problems of their current approaches, might be more inclined to consider a middle ground, at least for the present.  That middle ground could include making the Navy’s Aegis BMD system all it can be by exploiting the Brilliant Pebbles technology! 

The Navy is already on that evolutionary track—so this approach would be in keeping with its past impressive “Build a little, test a little, learn a lot” track record. It’s most recent example was the successful test of its Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) Block IIA—employing a 21-inch diameter stack of rocket stages

This test finally realizes one of the objectives that now retired Vice Admiral J.D. Williams and I had in mind when we originated the Navy BMD program some 23 years ago—an interceptor that fully exploits the widely deployed Vertical Launch System (VLS) on our cruisers and destroyers.  We believe a focused program could have produced this result much sooner than with the approach that improved the SM-3 in stages—first the Block IA then the Block IB and finally the Block IIA.


However, it’s hard to argue with the Navy’s success achieved by its Aegis BMD program—29 successful intercepts in 35 tries. And the Block IA was the system of choice in shooting down a satellite in 2008 and later that year intercepted a target in a scenario only recently (six years later) matched by the much more expensive Ground- based Missile Defense (GMD) system interceptor.  And that sea-based BMD capability is now deployed around the world on at least 33 Aegis ships. 

So, VADM Williams and I are very happy with this progress—and the enabling role played by the Japanese, without which the Aegis BMD effort would have stalled years ago.  We only wish to see the Aegis BMD system’s inherent potential fully exploited for homeland and theater missile defense applications.

Only one more thing is needed to reach our 23-year old goal of a much greater burnout velocity of the SM-3 Block IIA interceptor than is being built for deployment in Poland—and elsewhere

We need a lighter more capable kinetic kill vehicle, based on modern Brilliant Pebbles technology to enable a higher burnout velocity and therefore greater defensive coverage. This would enable cost savings because fewer launch platforms would be needed to provide a given area coverage.  That defensive area coverage increases approximately as the square of the burnout velocity.

Such a lightweight kill vehicle was possible and proposed by the Brilliant Pebbles team over a decade ago—and ignored by the George W. Bush administration. Again, see Baucom’s final footnote (number 99) in his important history, first presented in 2001 and copied below:

“Advanced Interceptor Technology Program, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, National Nuclear Security Administration, “Genius Sand: A Miniature Kinetic Vehicle Technology Demonstration for Midcourse Counter-Countermeasures and Submunition Kills,” Prepared for the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization and the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command Space and Missile Defense Technical Center, 5 November 2001, pp. 4-5.”

So . . . why not go at least part way back to the future?  Make Aegis BMD all it can be!

We say to the powers that be, “Try it, you’ll like it!

Then maybe we can go all the way back to the future and revive a Brilliant Pebbles program using today’s even more advanced technology.

Time’s a’ wasting . . .

Near Term High Frontier Plans.

While continuing High Frontier’s longstanding efforts to realize Ronald Reagan’s SDI vision and build truly effective ballistic missile defense systems, we will continue working with South Carolinians to build a coalition to engage constructively with private citizens and their local and state representatives and other authorities to work with the SC National Guard in understanding and responding to the existential threats to the electric power grid. We are expanding this effort to neighboring and other states. We expect support from Cong. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) whose district includes my SC farm. He is a member of the Congressional EMP Caucus seeking legislation to counter the EMP threat.

Of great importance is my future efforts with South Carolina’s Adjutant General, Major General Robert E. Livingston, Jr. and the state’s National Guard to understand and deal with the threats to the electric grid. In future plans with him and others in the state, I will be emphasizing efforts to assure a viable role of the nuclear power reactors that produce 60-percent of South Carolina’s electricity.

We are working with others seeking to take our message across the country—especially with Bob Newman, a former Adjutant General of Virginia to help us link our SC plans more broadly and especially into the National Capital region. In July, I will be traveling to New Hampshire to take part in a National Security Conference, like those in South Carolina and Iowa.

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.

Help us to spread our message to the grass roots and to encourage all “powers that be” to provide for the common defense as they are sworn to do.

Begin by passing this message to your friends and suggest they visit our webpage www.highfrontier.org, for more information. Also, please encourage your sphere of influence to sign up for our weekly e-newsletter.

Encourage them to review our past email messages, posted on www.highfrontier.org, to learn about many details related to the existential manmade and natural EMP threats and how we can protect America against them. I hope you will help us with our urgently needed efforts, which I will be discussing in future messages.

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E-Mail Message 150623


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