March 8, 2016—Star Wars, Back to the Future?

March 8, 2016—Star Wars, Back to the Future?

“We need to innovate. We need to do it — do it together for the future because that’s the way to make sure that we have the finest fighting force in the world tomorrow, 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now . . .” ~ Defense Secretary Ashton Carter speaking to technology leaders in Seattle, March 3, 2016

In another 15 Days, on March 23rd, many of us Reaganites will fondly recall 33 years ago when President Ronald Reagan gave his memorable speech that led to his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Recall that British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, among many others, credited SDI with ending the Cold War “without firing a shot.”

Click here for President Reagan’s telephone conversation recalling that day with High Frontier’s founder Lt. General Danny Graham on High Frontier’s 10th anniversary. Danny had been a key advisor in the genesis of Reagan’s SDI.

At the time, President Reagan was widely criticized for his visionary initiative, which challenged the scientific community to develop effective defenses against ballistic missiles — derisively labeled as Star Wars by his critics to emphasize their view that his idea was a fantasy like the then-popular movie. (Note the recent re-birth of a new Star Wars movie breaking records.) No one today thinks his initiative was a fantasy — as many around the world now seek truly cost-effective defenses against the ballistic missiles that more and more threaten all they hold dear.

What many forget is that the centerpiece of Reagan’s vision was space-based defenses — and that fact is what really got the attention of the Soviet Union’s military and political leaders. They appreciated more than did most U.S. leaders the important potential role of space based systems, including weapons that could hold at risk all lower level terrestrial systems from the “high ground” of space. They feared that they could not compete with U.S. technology.

This advocacy for space-based defenses matched the vision that Gen. Danny Graham shared with President Reagan and was the origin of the name of our organization: “High Frontier.” We wanted truly effective defenses — and still do. And the most effective defenses will be based in space.

I know this Soviet apprehension of U.S. technological prowess to be a fact, because for five years I was President Reagan’s negotiator defending his SDI against the Soviets who wanted it stopped. That fact was the source of our negotiating leverage in our talks with the Soviet Union that yielded 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 his vision 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 then 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.

This priority for demonstrating the effectiveness of space based defenses prevailed through my watch as SDI Director during the George H.W. Bush administration. During that time, our SDI efforts had produced the most-effective missile defense concept of what I refer to as the SDI era — the decade between Reagan’s historic speech and early 1993, when former Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee and then Defense Secretary Les Aspin “took the stars out of Star Wars,” as he said at the time.

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 — 20-years ago. Notably — and a point to which I shall return, the current Defense Secretary, Ashton Carter, who was then Aspin’s Assistant Secretary for International Security Policy, has an opportunity to rectify this error and pick up where we left off.

In 1993, they gutted the SDI program I left behind, focusing only on theater missile defenses (at a reduced budget) and reasserting their allegiance to the ABM Treaty as the “cornerstone of strategic stability.” They completely scuttled the “Brilliant Pebbles” space-based interceptor (SBI) program and purged the renamed SDI offices even of its supporting documentation, which demonstrated that it was the most important product of the $30 billion investment during the SDI era. (And its cost was actually a pittance compared to that $30 billion sum.)

After the “Season of Studies” in “The Rise and fall of Brilliant Pebbles” by Historian Don Baucom, then Assistant 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.

Click here for a defense for my assertion that Brilliant Pebbles was the best of the SDI era. I co-authored this article with the first SDI Director, USAF Lt. General James A. Abrahamson on the 30th anniversary of Reagan’s SDI speech. I’m certain that SDI’s second SDI Director, USAF Lt. General George Monahan, would have joined us in coauthoring this view were he still living. He was the director when Brilliant Pebbles became the first SDI system concept to pass critical reviews by a major cross section of the technical community and the Pentagon’s formal acquisition process to become a Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) approved Demonstration and Validation program. 

I recall the three of us briefing former President Reagan in his Los Angeles office on our progress in 1992. He was pleased of course — especially since Russian 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 the Russians well understood. I gave then former President Reagan a framed copy of the Washington Post article on that story.

Yeltsin’s proposal sounded like Reagan’s position that we had long defended with the Soviets — and later the Russians, and Yeltsin essentially said yes! What a missed opportunity that was!

With the advent of the Clinton administration the door closed, and has remained closed for a couple of decades! Even after its most welcome withdrawal from the ABM treaty, the George W. Bush administration did nothing to revive this important program or its key underlying technology.

But as General Abrahamson and I wrote, at least we are no longer arguing about whether we should be building effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems — the only controversy is about which ones should we build?

So, is it not time to review the potential role of space-based defenses — the heart of Reagan’s SDI program?

Congress has offered a welcome vehicle for doing precisely that in Section 1685 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2016 (NDAA-2016) — see the below charge to the Missile Defense Agency, the U.S. Air Force and the Defense Advanced Projects Agency.

March 8, 2016—Star Wars, Back to the Future?While this congressional initiative is a very welcome development, it should be understood that it is not sufficient to assure that the MDA, the USAF and DARPA will revive the most cost-effective space-based BMD system to emerge from the SDI era. In fact, History with which I am most familiar suggests the contrary is likely to be the case.

Consider that it is hard to imagine a more welcome environment for innovative ideas than that provided by President Reagan’s top SDI priority and the institutional Defense establishment’s best efforts to develop space-based defenses. Nevertheless, the advent of Brilliant Pebbles came by exception to the norm — through exceptional individual efforts, including by President Reagan.

I recall my pleasure in seeing a framed napkin in Dr. Jack Hammond’s office — on which were a few scribbles and schematics that he said were the genesis of the Brilliant Pebbles program.  Jack then led SDI’s Directed Energy programs and with the concurrence of SDI Director Jim Abrahamson spent a relatively small portion of his budget to begin a Special Access Program (SAP) to flesh out the ideas of exploiting cutting edge “commercial off the shelf” (COTS) technology to build a novel “hit-to-kill” space based interceptor (SBI) system.  This Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) initiative — under the leadership of Dr. Lowell Wood — became the first SDI initiative to become a fully Defense Acquisition Board (DAB) approved concept development and validation (DemVal) program within the next year or so.

March 8, 2016—Star Wars, Back to the Future?The basic idea was to exploit the then cutting edge computational power of small handheld computers (and miniaturized sensors) — now several generations more mature — to enable a large constellation of small on-orbit satellites to perform the primary elements of battle management to maneuver into the path of ballistic missiles beginning in their boost-phase and continuing throughout their trajectory in space until sometime after they began to re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere.

The idea so excited Dr. Edward Teller that he became an impassioned advocate spreading the idea near and wide in 1988.  I was privileged to be among those with whom he shared his idea of the first — and to my knowledge still only — BMD system that could satisfy the so-called Nitze criteria: One that could be “survivable against direct defense suppression attacks and cost-effective at the margin” in shooting down nuclear armed ballistic missiles. 

(Sorry for the jargon. This basic idea was that it must cost less to shoot down an attacking missile than to build and deliver that missile — a condition for building a defense written into law by congressional leaders, and since abandoned by both the Executive and Legislative branches as far less effective defenses have been built.)

Dr. Teller explained this “Brilliant Pebbles” concept to me in Geneva in 1988, and he invited me to come to Livermore to see for myself what was then being demonstrated in the laboratory. I accepted, was most impressed — and immediately flew to Los Angeles to meet with the Air Force System Program Office leadership responsible managing the SBI programs.  They were not impressed, were more concerned with pursuing their own far less effective SBI concepts, and uninterested even in visiting Livermore to see LLNL’s cutting edge technology.

Concurrently, congressional leaders were seeking to kill the SDI program, especially all efforts to continue President Reagan’s top priority programs considering space-based defenses — from which we in Geneva derived our greatest leverage in our negotiations. As noted above, the Soviets understood the importance of space-based defense even if our leadership did not.  Thus, I joined with others in seeking to head off the congressional initiative that would undercut our negotiations seeking deep reductions in offensive nuclear forces in meeting with and in writing cables from Geneva to key leaders of the Executive Branch. 

But congress worked its will in the National Defense Authorization Act of 1989, limiting research on Space Based Interceptors. In the final analysis, Drs. Teller and Wood met with President Reagan and his key advisors — and in an unprecedented act for a Republican President, President Reagan vetoed the Defense Authorization Act. See below.

March 8, 2016—Star Wars, Back to the Future?Moreover, SDI Director Lt. General George Monahan, at the recommendation of others including yours truly from my post in Geneva, formed a Brilliant Pebbles Task Force reporting directly to him to manage the redirected program to assure that its innovative aspects would not be compromised by the usual acquisition processes followed by the services — in this case by the U.S. Air Force.  Air Force Secretary Donald Rice was not happy with this decision — but it was backed by Defense Secretary Dick Cheney. There is a lesson here to be remembered in reviving a sound space-based interceptor program.

Personally, I believe that Senator Sam Nunn and Representative Les Aspin (Chairmen of the Authorization Committees) never forgave us for this offense of vetoing the NDAA-1989 — ultimately leading to the demise of the Brilliant Pebbles program in the early days of the Clinton administration, when then Defense Secretary Aspin “took the stars out or Star Wars.” No regrets for our actions—but just saying . . .

Whatever, now fast forward to today … and the challenge laid out in the welcome NDAA 2016 presented above. Whence cometh the innovation today?  Will the Government institutions (MDA, the USAF, and DARPA) be up to the task? If not, who will assure that the needed innovation occurs?

Defense Secretary Ashton Carter  is on the right track by seeking innovative help from the private sector. Click here for the transcript for his recent meeting to challenge leading technologists at Microsoft in Seattle. 

Perhaps he will find the right place to make up for his role in killing Brilliant Pebbles in 1993 by assuring a meaningful challenge for the private sector to “Go back to the Future” in building truly effective BMD systems.

Stay tuned.

 Key resource material on these important issues can be obtained by clicking on:

Nancy Reagan: Rest in Peace. 

May Nancy and her Ronnie find everlasting peace. We owe them so much, too much to summarize in a few words.  Would that our nation would be so blessed again.

Near-Term High Frontier Plans.

We will continue to inform our readers of the looming threats we confront — and where appropriate urge them to engage in countering those threats.  We will press for building the most cost-effective ballistic missile defenses possible and working with South Carolina folks 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 especially focused on the nuclear power reactors that produce 60-percent of SC electricity—and more generally 20-percent of the nation’s electricity. If it can be assured that they “operate through” a major blackout of the electric power grid — and I believe it can, then these reactors can play a very important role for resurrecting the grid over an extended time and supporting the general public’s survival in the meantime.

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, 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, 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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