Toward a cost-effective ballistic missile defense Why the price is right for space-based missile defenses
With North Korea’s and Iran’s nuclear missiles and Russia-China collusion, the United States needs a credible, practical, cost-effective ballistic missile defense (BMD). A space-based interceptor (SBI) system would best achieve this objective, though others say it is too expensive. The Pentagon’s top engineer Michael Griffin says he doesn’t understand why, since 1,000 SBIs would cost less than $20 billion — for a global defense capability.
Estimates by members of the National Academy of Sciences, the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Arms Control Community are much higher than the most valid, comprehensive cost estimates from President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), with which we — like Mike Griffin — witnessed being made.
Henry Cooper and the first SDI director, retired USAF Lt. Gen. James A. Abrahamson, in a July 21, 2017, letter to the editor disputed a June 26, 2017, Wall Street Journal editorial arguing that needed, more advanced BMD systems would be “no doubt expensive” and that “it’s difficult to score technologies still under development.”
SDI proved otherwise before Brilliant Pebbles (BP) was scuttled in 1993 for political reasons, even though it promised more than 90 percent probability of killing all of up to 200 attacking re-entry vehicles — the number then controlled by a Russian submarine commander. Its fully validated cost estimate was $10 billion in 1988 dollars (about $20 billion in 2018 dollars) for concept definition and validation, development, deployment and 20 years operation of 1,000 Brilliant Pebbles — consistent with Mr. Griffin’s assertion.
BP was designed to intercept ballistic missiles in their boost phase while their rockets still burn, before they can release their decoys and other countermeasures — and throughout their flight, including when re-entering the atmosphere. That’s better than anything we have today and could have been built for much less than we have spent on all basing modes other than in space.
USAF Lt. Gen. George Monahan, the second SDI director, led 1989-90 reviews enabling BP to become the first SDI system formally approved by the Pentagon’s acquisition authorities for concept definition and validation. In 1989, Roland Worrell, the BP Task Force program manager, shepherded BP through those technical and costing reviews.
The following summary is adapted from SDI historian Donald Baucom’s “The Rise and Fall of Brilliant Pebbles” in The Journal of Social, Political and Economic Studies, Volume 29, Number 2, Summer 2004, pp 143-190. His 1988-89 “season of studies” reviewed BP concepts and system components that Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL) physicists and engineers invented to exploit 1988-90 technology.Consider:
• Gen. Abrahamson’s 1989 end-of-tour report endorsed LNLL’s BP model as key to an effective, affordable SBI architecture. He concluded, “This concept should be tested within the next two years and, if aggressively pursued, could be ready for initial deployment within 5 years.”
• President George H.W. Bush’s June 1989 National Security Directive 14 concluded SDI goals remained “sound” and emphasized “promising concepts for effective boost-phase defenses, for example, ‘Brilliant Pebbles.’” Defense Secretary Dick Cheney commissioned Mr. Cooper to lead an independent review to assure NSD-14 goals were met — with input from several technical feasibility studies, Red/Blue Team evaluations to judge how BP would deal with potential offensive countermeasures, and “bottom-up” cost estimates.
• A 1989 study by JASON, including America’s top scientists advising government agencies, concluded BP had no technological “showstoppers” or fatal flaws; it could be produced using then current technology; its concept of autonomous interceptor operation might require no additional space sensors since “the extra constellation size needed … is likely to be less costly than the central battle manager” and avoids reliance on a few hard-to-defend essential components.
• A Defense Science Board Task Force met six times to review BP with various other groups, including JASON, identified areas for possible improvement, and found no fundamental flaws.
• Two Red-Blue Team interactive countermeasures exercises concluded BP faced no special problems. (BP sensors assuring additional survivability were “space-qualified” by the 1994 award-winning Clementine mission to theMoon, providing 1.8 million frames of data — more than the Apollo program — and discovering water in the polar regions.)
• Following Defense Acquisition Board reviews, the top Defense Acquisition executive approved the integrated SDI concept including BP. President Bush’s Jan. 29, 1991, State of the Union address noted SDI was refocused on providing protection from limited ballistic missile strikes — whatever their source, a to deal with “any future threat to the United States, to our forces overseas, and to our friends and allies.”
On Feb. 12, 1991, Assistant Secretary of Defense Steve Hadley and Henry Cooper briefed the press that BP was expected to cost $10 billion in 1988 dollars, including 20 years operations — about $20 billion today — as Mike Griffin said.
It promised more than 90 percent probability of killing all of up to 200 attacking re-entry vehicles — the number then controlled by a Russian submarine commander.
Henry F. Cooper was the U.S. ambassador to the Defense and Space Talks during the Reagan administration and director of the Strategic Defense Initiative during the George H.W. Bush administration. Rowland H. Worrell, a retired Air Force colonel, was Brilliant Pebbles Task Force director, National Test Facility director and USAF Space Warfare Center vice commander.