We need improved ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems to counter North Korea’s nuclear-armed ballistic missile threat to America and our overseas troops, friends, and allies. Iran’s threat is not much, if any, behind North Korea’s.
Congress is increasing funding to improve our current BMD systems — and has directed Defense Secretary Mattis to recommend how best to do so, hopefully including “boost phase interceptors” (BPIs).
Our current BMD systems can intercept threatening ballistic missiles after they have been boosted into space and are coasting toward their intended targets. All are potentially vulnerable to possible decoys and/or other countermeasures, dispersed to cloak those threatening nuclear warheads. Our enemies will develop such capabilities if they haven’t already.
North Korea can overwhelm our defenses with many rockets from multiple locations — only some of which are nuclear armed. Our interceptors cost more than the attacking rockets; we may not be able to tell which are nuclear armed and try to intercept them all. On April 7, 2015, commander of our national missile defenses Admiral William Gortney warned, “Our current approach has us on the wrong side of the cost curve.”
Improved discrimination methods should improve this cost exchange ratio. Even more important is developing BPIs to shoot down threatening missiles while moving slowly in their “boost phase” from bright burning rockets, before either their warheads and/or associated countermeasures are released.
BPIs were inherent in space defense systems considered by President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) — so important to his vision that he walked out of the 1986 Reykjavik summit when Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev demanded they be restricted to the laboratory.
“Brilliant Pebbles,” was the most cost-effective system of the SDI era and entered the Pentagon’s formal demonstration and validation phase in 1992. It was designed to kill essentially all of 200 attacking warheads cloaked by very impressive countermeasures, launched from anywhere on earth toward targets more than a few hundred miles away.
Independent Pentagon authorities estimated costs of $10 billion in 1988 dollars — or $20 billion in today’s dollars — to develop, deploy, and operate a thousand Brilliant Pebbles for 20 years, all capable of intercepting threat ballistic missiles in their boost phase, as they “coast” above the atmosphere and as they begin descending into the atmosphere.
But the Clinton administration scuttled that SDI program (and most others) in 1993, and made the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty its “cornerstone of strategic stability” rather than defending the American people. It has remained dormant, though President George W. Bush withdrew from the ABM Treaty that banned building such systems.
We should build modern “Brilliant Pebbles” (employing today’s commercially available technology) to address the growing vulnerability of our current BMD systems. Today’s costs should be much less than 30-years ago because technology has advanced.
That development would take several years. We should quickly build another SDI BPI system, abandoned in 1995. As an interim “gap filler,” Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) could have provided — and still can provide — a BPI capability before a space based system, for considerably less money.
Defense Secretary Mattis should assure a modern version of the SDI “Raptor Talon” BPI system is revived. (Raptor was a high-altitude long endurance (HALE) UAV; Talon was the interceptor.)
It began in 1991 as a near term-quick reaction capability to protect our troops against Scud missiles, expecting that a much higher altitude extreme endurance solar powered “Helios” UAV might replace it later.
When Raptor Talon ended in 1995, residual assets were transferred to NASA for further development. On August 13, 2001, Helios set the world altitude record in Hawaii at 96,803 feet. Progress with rechargeable fuel cells then suggested that unlimited endurance was possible at 65,000 ft. altitude.
The fastest way to deploy a Raptor-Talon concept today is to use already battle-tested heavy payload HALE UAV systems — like Global Hawk, Predator or Avenger — that for years have found and attacked surface targets while orbiting at high altitudes for many hours.
Needed are on-board interceptors to be launched against attacking missiles in their boost phase and, of course, an appropriate command and control system. According to reports from a recent Hudson Institute conference in San Diego, such interceptors could be developed within a year—perhaps in only months — for a small percentage of buying another terminal high altitude area defense (THAAD) site. No wonder Japan is reported to be interested in this idea!
Such interceptors could also be launched from nearby fighter aircraft — the Hudson conference reported this capability has been demonstrated. Such operations in a “pinch” could put pilots at risk and cost more than for a modern Raptor Talon picket-fence operating off shore at 50,000 ft. altitude or so in international air space.
In any case, Defense Secretary Mattis should include in his upcoming response to Congress such concepts from the SDI era employing today’s technology — a modern Raptor Talon and Brilliant Pebbles.
Ambassador Henry F. (Hank) Cooper, Chairman of High Frontier and an acknowledged expert on strategic and space national security issues, was President Ronald Reagan's Chief Negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union and Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Director during the George H.W. Bush administration. Previously, he served as the Assistant Director of the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Deputy Assistant USAF Secretary and Science Advisor to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory. In the private sector he was Chairman of Applied Research Associates, a high technology company; member of the technical staff of Jaycor, R&D Associates and Bell Telephone Laboratories; a Senior Associate of the National Institute for Public Policy; and Visiting Fellow at the Heritage Foundation. He received B.S. and M.S. degrees from Clemson and a PhD from New York University, all in Mechanical Engineering.
Dale E. Tietz is a leading aerospace and strategic defense expert as well as an international business developer. While in the Pentagon, he wrote and coordinated for the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff the first Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) operational requirements and then later served as the SDI program manager for Raptor Talon and Directed Energy programs. In these capacities, he interfaced with many U.S. government and international organizations at high levels to include the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP), the National Security Council, the National Space Council, Congress, Department of State, Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Department of Defense, CIA and NASA. He graduated from the U.S. Air Force Academy in 1971, served as a command pilot in many aircraft and retired from active duty in 1995. Since then he has become CEO of two companies: Shackleton Energy Company and New Vistas International in Austin, Texas.
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