TCS Daily


Why Not Space-Based Missile Defense?

By Henry Cooper - May 7, 2001 12:00 AM

Last week, President George W. Bush explained his plans for one of his key initiatives: building an effective ballistic missile defense at the earliest possible date. It was a fine speech, though missing an important element.

He was right to emphasize that we must "move beyond the constraints of the 30-year-old ABM Treaty" to pursue the most promising technology "to defend ourselves, our friends, and our allies." He also correctly identified sea-, air- and ground-based systems as key elements of a near-term "layered" defense.

But conspicuously missing was any mention of space-based defenses.

This is surprising because a space-based interceptor concept called Brilliant Pebbles was the most effective global-defense concept produced by the $30 billion Reagan-Bush Strategic Defense Initiative. Inherently a layered defense, thousands of small, highly maneuverable satellites were designed to provide multiple shots at attacking missiles in all phases of their flight -- from early in their boost phase when they rise into space, to when they re-enter the atmosphere and approach their targets.

Edward Teller first introduced me to this concept in 1988, and my subsequent all-day visit to Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory persuaded me of the potential of the hardware under development. Others also became excited about the first space-based interceptor concept that could more than match an attacker's reactive countermeasures -- a problem that plagues most of today's missile-defense concepts. So promising was the technology that Ronald Reagan used Brilliant Pebbles to justify his veto of the 1989 Defense Authorization Act, because it slashed funding for space-based interceptors.

Pebbles received favorable critical reviews from the Pentagon's Defense Science Board, by JASON (a group of physicists who regularly advise the Pentagon), and by other technical groups. These 1988-90 reviews also recommended that other defense concepts exploit Pebbles technology.

President Bush mandated an independent policy and technical review to recommend how SDI should respond to the new world disorder. I conducted that review, and my March 1990 report delivered to Defense Secretary Dick Cheney recommended SDI be redirected to build a global, layered defense against limited ballistic-missile attacks. Brilliant Pebbles was to play a key role, and I urged that its technology be incorporated into all ground-, air- and sea-defensive elements, as proposed by the outside reviews.

In March 1990, Brilliant Pebbles was also designated the "first to deploy" American strategic defense by my predecessor at SDI, Lt. Gen. George Monahan. During my watch, we narrowed the Pebbles contractor teams to two -- led by TRW-Hughes and by Martin Marietta. And in 1991, Brilliant Pebbles became the first SDI major defense acquisition program approved by the Pentagon's acquisition bureaucracy.

Had this program been allowed to continue, we expected 1,000 Pebbles to cost about $11 billion (in 1991 dollars). This included all the costs of building and launching the Pebbles, operating them for 20 years, and replacing each Pebble once over the two decades. If fully funded, and without the constraining ABM Treaty, I believe the first-generation Pebbles could have begun operating as early as 1996.

Compare the Brilliant Pebbles life-cycle cost estimate to the Pentagon's $43 billion cost estimate for the Clinton administration's first ground-based missile-defense site. The two programs involve comparable programmatic maturity, but obviously very different defensive capabilities. The Pebbles would have provided a world-wide defense against even moderately severe attacks.

For example, detailed computer simulations in 1991, using actual Gulf War missile-flight data from our geosynchronous satellite warning system, demonstrated that the Pebbles constellation could have shot down every SCUD launched by Iraq, including the salvo attack on Riyadh. Pebbles would be far more versatile than a ground-based site in Alaska focused on defending the U.S. from small-scale threats of much more limited geographic scope and sophistication.

The undeniable scientific fact is that the Pebbles technology was mature in 1991 -- as the Clementine mission to the moon so clearly demonstrated in 1994. We formulated this demonstration in my office immediately after a Senate floor debate in 1992 made abundantly clear congressional leaders were bent on destroying the Pebbles program, and not allowing its testing in Earth orbit.

Barely two years later, and for just $80 million, the Clementine deep-space probe successfully space-qualified nearly the entire suite of first-generation Brilliant Pebbles hardware (scavenged from the then-defunct Pebbles program, scuttled by the Clinton administration) and software.

The small Clementine team received NASA decorations for mapping the entire surface of the moon for the first time (1.7 million frames of data from 15 miniature sensors) and discovering water at its south pole. NASA Administrator Dan Golden, who had led the TRW Brilliant Pebbles team, premised the U.S. deep-space program on the "faster, cheaper, better" approach pioneered by Clementine.

Clementine didn't test the Pebbles propulsion system. But another wing of the Brilliant Pebbles team launched the Astrid rocket system in February 1994 and demonstrated the miniaturized rocket propulsion technology that would enable the extraordinary performance of the Pebbles spacecraft. In the end, all first-generation Pebbles technologies were proven in 1994.

Space defense technology has continued to mature without help from the Pentagon's missile-defense programs. For example, industry has demonstrated the wide set of skills necessary to economically produce, deploy and operate large numbers of low-altitude Earth satellites. The $5 billion Iridium satellite telephony system was built upon Brilliant Pebbles technology. It was a financial disaster for its investors, but a fine technical achievement that is now being exploited at low costs by the Pentagon for world-wide communications -- with operating costs comparable to those predicted for the defensive Pebbles constellation.

The Clinton administration deliberately destroyed a program that by now could have built a highly capable space defense with global coverage -- for less than one-third of the $30 billion Mr. Clinton spent on missile defense (producing no operational U.S. system beyond the Patriot used in the Gulf War). The Clinton administration also limited the effectiveness of air-, sea- and ground-based defenses by not exploiting the more mature technologies developed for space defenses.

It would be a travesty for President Bush to fail to revive this important program. To do so would be to implicitly endorse the Clinton administration's reckless, ideologically-driven cancellation [of] his father's bellwether missile-defense program, a program that President Reagan fought passionately for in its early days.

For just $5 billion to $7 billion over five years, a highly competent, streamlined Pentagon management team -- as in Bush I -- could use proven technology and begin operations of this most effective defensive system. It would be the best way for Mr. Bush to fulfill his promise last week to protect Americans at home, as well as our troops, friends and allies throughout the entire world.

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