Amb. Henry F. Cooper, Chairman Lt. Gen. Daniel Graham, Founder
High Frontier . . Building Truly Effective Defenses . . . Reagan’s Vision Lives!
E-Mail Message 140605
Perceptions vs. Reality . . .
By Ambassador Henry F. Cooper
June 5, 2014
The most cost-effective way to counter the threat of proliferating ballistic missiles with improved offensive countermeasures is with space-based defenses that can intercept attacking ballistic missiles while their rockets are burning in their boost phase, before they can release their decoys that can overwhelm our current mid-course defenses that work in outer space. These space-based defense concepts remain controversial—and are falsely perceived to be too expensive and beyond our reach. Over two decades ago, the most advanced technology produced by the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was used to design a far more cost-effective system concept than any other basing alternative—before or since. We need to overcome this false perception and take full advantage of current technology to build a modern space-based defense system. And there are signs this is possible.
On this, the 10th anniversary of the death of President Ronald Reagan, I want to remember that among the Gipper’s many contributions Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher called the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) his most important.
And we should remember the centerpiece of his vision—and his refusal to trade it away at October 1986 Reykjavik summit when Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev demanded that research on space-based defenses be limited to the laboratory, as discussed in our March 18, 2013 email message that included the following record from the declassified U.S. memorandum of conversation just before the meeting broke on October 12, 1986.
A disappointed Reagan walked out, because he truly wanted other measures Gorbachev had offered. The good news was that U.S. negotiators pocketed the concessions made by Gorbachev, and included them in later treaties without concessions on SDI—at least during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. More on that for another day.
Many, perhaps most, today think our current Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems and associated research and development (R&D) are what Reagan refused to trade away—rather than R&D on space based defenses—especially demonstrations in space like the Delta 180 intercept in space the month before Reykjavik, demonstrating SDI efforts to prove the viability of space based interceptors. Today’s uninformed folks suffer from a major misperception.
The sad truth is that Acts of congress and subsequent administrations accomplished Gorbachev’s objectives—the cancelation and subsequent refusal to revive serious R&D on space-based defenses—which were the most important achievable BMD system concepts developed during the SDI era, from 1983-1993. After 1993, Pentagon BMD programs conducted under the directions of truncated, defunded and renamed SDI program offices produced the BMD systems available today, but without the heart of the SDI that was Reagan’s vision. That is the reality.
But the false perception is that today’s BMD capabilities are Reagan’s SDI vision, whereas developing effective boost-phase intercept capabilities was at the heart of his SDI efforts but is notably missing among the major funded programs today.
The reality is also that such a capability can be achieved by returning to Reagan’s priority vision, as quickly as possible.
Proceed Where Perception and Reality Match!
In my May 29th message (Click here.), I referenced an important May 17, 2014 article by Benjamin Sutherland in the internationally read and respected magazine, The Economist. His “Star Wars 2: Attack of the Drones” article discussed how the fully developed and deployed “Global Hawk” drone—or unpiloted aerial vehicle (UAV)—could be used to launch several interceptors to shoot down ballistic missiles as they rise from their launch pads.
Sutherland observed that such a Global Hawk boost-phase intercept capability could orbit aloft at 18 kilometers altitude for 30 hours, an important defensive capability that attacking offensive planners would find difficult to counter. And as discussed last week, such UAV efforts pioneered over two decades by the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), led to higher flying, longer-endurance designs and system architectures that were even more cost-effective “boost-phase intercept” capabilities.
Feedback from last week’s High Frontier email message has argued that there are now much more advanced system concepts than Raptor-Talon, which was pioneered on my watch as SDI Director. These concepts should be pursued to respond to the Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering’s strategic guidance (Click here.) that calls for cost-effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems to stay ahead of the predictable—and long-predicted (like, for over half a century)—offensive attacking missile developments.
On this I agree with the experts Sutherland quoted in claiming that it was time to look again at using high-altitude drones to launch boost phase interceptors. But I disagree with another of his observations.
Sutherland correctly observed that Ronald Reagan’s SDI program, which critics ridiculed with a fanciful “Star Wars” label, sought a boost-phase intercept capability from satellites capable of shooting down threatening missile as they rise from hostile nations’ launch pads.
But he got wrong the no doubt widely perceived claim that it “cost a packet, didn’t work and was scrapped in the 1990s.”
What to do????
Regroup Where Perception and Reality Mismatch . . .
First, we must set the record straight!
The fact is that the conclusion of the two living directors of the SDI program, Lt. General Jim Abrahamson and myself, believe that a particular space-based interceptor system concept (Brilliant Pebbles) was the most important development of the SDI era (1983-93), as we wrote in our joint article on the 30th anniversary of President Reagan’s speech that launched his SDI program. I believe that Lt. General George Monahan (the other SDI Director) would have agreed with us as it was on his watch that this important program became the first SDI defense concept to pass many critical reviews and enter a formal Defense Acquisition Board (DAB)-approved program in 1990.
By far, it was the most cost-effective defense concept produced by the SDI program—or since—and, if fully developed and deployed, it could shoot down ballistic missiles launched from anyplace on the earth launched to attack anyplace else more than a few hundred miles away. It was capable of intercepting ballistic missiles in their boost phase, above the earth’s atmosphere and even high in the earth’s atmosphere as they descend toward their targets.
Nevertheless, it was “scrapped” in the 1990s, as Sutherland wrote, after our watch and when then Defense Secretary Les Aspin renamed the SDI program and, as he said, “took the stars out of Star Wars.” This decision was for political and ideological, not technical or cost, reasons—by an administration and a majority in Congress who were wedded to the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty which prevented the development, testing and deployment of truly effective BMD systems of any basing mode.
Thus, the Clinton administration set U.S. BMD development programs on a track that was unresponsive to the inevitable threat of improved offensive ballistic missile countermeasures, setting the stage for the Undersecretary’s recent assessment that the evolving threat is rendering our BMD systems “no longer practical or cost effective.”
But President George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty, so this blockage is no more. Still, nothing has yet been done to rectify the perception fostered by ridicule heaped upon Ronald Reagan’s “Star Wars” dream—as perceived by many. For example see, Frances FitzGerald’s Way Out There in the Blue, widely acclaimed for its discussion of the perceptions of many luminaries but mostly off the mark regarding the actual potential that the SDI technologies actually demonstrated. Especially for space-based defenses.
And these misperceptions have abounded for the past two decades. A notable example occurred in 2000, close enough in time to the actual SDI era that you’d think informed people might remember. Former Maine Senator (with whom I worked closely in 1990-93) and Secretary of Defense Bill Cohen testified in 2000 to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) that the Bush administration had decided to build ground based defenses in 1991 as more mature and capable of more rapid development than space-based and sea-based alternatives.
Wrong! Wrong! Wrong!
I was the SDI Director and Acquisition Executive for all BMD systems in 1991, and I knew this claim was false—and was surprised by former Senator Cohen’s statement. A potential ground-based interceptor deployment site was being considered for Maine on my watch—and I had often discussed the issues with him when he served on the SASC. So I sought to set the record straight with Secretary Cohen and the leaders of the key Senate and House Committees.
Click here for my letter laying out the whole sorry history of how the truly most cost-effective space-based defenses were “scrapped” in favor of more expensive, less effective ground-based defenses. It is worth remembering today, as most, if not all, decision makers apparently still don’t recall how far we came, and apparently by their actions, how much better we can do with space-based defenses with today’s even more advanced technology. A few key summary points:
- Space-based defense would provide global defensive coverage for Americans at home and our overseas troops, allies and friends—comparable global coverage is prohibitively expensive if attempted by ground-based defenses alone.
- Space-based defenses can intercept ballistic missiles in their boost phase, in their mid-course phase above the earth’s atmosphere, and high in the earth’s atmosphere as they re-enter. No surface-based defensive system can make this claim.
- After a series of critical 1990 reviews—including by the Defense Science Board and the JASON, made up of influential academics not known for their missile defense advocacy, as well as several internal Defense Department reviews—the Brilliant Pebbles space-based interceptor program became the first SDI program to become a fully approved Major Defense Acquisition Program (MDAP) in 1991. The independent cost estimate for research, development and 20 years operation of 1000 Brilliant Pebbles (including one replacement each) was $11 billion in 1991 dollars. Two contractor teams (Martin Marietta and TRW-Hughes) were selected to compete during a fully approved concept demonstration phase.
- As an aside, our 2009 Independent Working Group (IWG) report (pages 26-31) accounted for inflation and translated these 1990 cost estimates to 2008 dollars, as follows:
- The following year (1992), congress directed that this program be removed from its well-earned MDAP status and cut the President’s associated budget request, but still appropriated “robust” funding (about $400 million) as a technology demonstration program. Congress directed that the SDI development programs be focused on the more expensive and less effective ground-based defense systems.
- Then with the change of administration in 1993, the Clinton administration gutted the SDI program. They cancelled all funding for space-based defenses (and all related technology), returned the proposals to build ground-based defenses to contractors unopened and cut related funding by 80-percent, and even cut the administration’s alleged top priority theater missile defense programs by 25-percent.
- Still, the key technology needed for the Brilliant Pebbles was space-qualified on the 1994 Clementine mission which returned to the Moon for the first time in 25 years, mapping its surface in over a million frames of data in 15 spectral bands, discovering water in the polar regions and winning awards for the Clementine team from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences. President Clinton used his transient line item veto authority to kill a follow-on mission advocated and funded by Congress because the technology could also be applied to space-based defenses—so imbedded was his administration’s animosity for the most cost-effective defenses.
Next Steps . . .
In summary, I concluded in 2000—and still today conclude—that the SDI program’s “history offers no support for the revisionist account” that technology for ground based defense was more mature than for space-based ballistic missile defense in the early 1990s. Indeed the historical truth is just the opposite.
And today’s technology is over two decades more advanced—if anything a more capable space-based defense should now cost less and be even more effective.
But the converse myth continues today—as illustrated by the recent Economist article—and that misperception needs to be rectified.
This is our challenge . . . and it could be aided by evidence, including that the Economist article, that suggests at least there is growing interest in moving in the right direction toward a return to a viable boost-phase defense capability.
The software on our Aegis BMD ships should be modified to give the Standard Missile-2 Block IV a near-term boost-phase intercept capability for ships near the coast of North Korea and Iran. This would counter a possible existential Electromagnetic pulse (EMP) attack on the U.S. via their existing fractional orbital bombardment system (FOBS) capability.
UAV-based boost phase defenses developed with the right light weight kinetic kill vehicle technology could aid a return to viable cost-effective space based defenses. This strategy would help meet the Undersecretary of Defense’s goal of defeating offensive countermeasures to our current BMD systems.
Hopefully, we can and will build the needed momentum to turn such possibilities into reality consistent with the world of political possibilities. Stay tuned.
Near Term High Frontier Plans.
We will do all we can to rectify the misperceptions discussed above.
We will also encourage “the powers that be” to “make the Navy’s Aegis BMD system all it can be” and to adopt the anti-FOBS strategy laid out in our recent email messages. We will also seek to revive a viable program to deploy Raptor-Talon and space-based defenses. (FOBS stands for fractional orbital bombardment system, basically a nuclear armed satellite that is launched over the South Polar region to attack the U.S. from the south—against which we currently have no defense.)
We will continue our efforts to inform state and local authorities about the EMP threat and expand our work with the National Guard to help them gain knowledge and workable plans to help harden the electric power grid and counter the EMP threat. This work should go hand in hand with the efforts to gain support from State legislators to expand on the excellent work in Maine and Virginia, who have passed legislation requiring serious studies of the EMP threat and the needed countermeasures to protect the electric power grid.
The most recent bill passed in record time without single negative vote in Virginia can be used as a ready pattern.
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 this serious threat. We will expand this effort to neighboring and other states.
We are informing SC state legislators and senators about the threat and what can be done to deal with it—and hopefully they will follow Maine and Virginia in seeking to harden the electric power grid. We also expect support from Cong. Jeff Duncan (R-SC) whose district includes my SC farm—and who is a member of the Congressional EMP Caucus seeking passage of the Shield Act and the Infrastructure Protection Act, as well as other SC representatives.
We will be working with members of the EMP Coalition and others who are 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 Virginia and the National Capital region.
What can you do?
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