We, former Directors of President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), pioneered technologies and acquisition efforts for ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems protecting our homeland now and, or soon to be, operating around the world by U.S. troops and our allies, e.g., Israel, Japan, Romania, Poland, South Korea, and Guam. We welcome recognition of the growing threat and support all ongoing efforts to counter it, particularly from North Korea.
As our SDI efforts recognized, there are gaps in defending wide-areas with only such land- and sea-based BMD systems, in part because of potentially unavailable launch sites and cost-considerations.
Thus, space-based defenses were integral to President Reagan’s SDI vision and why he walked out of the 1986 Reykjavik Summit when Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev demanded that they be scuttled. Many believe his Reykjavik SDI commitment led to a major change in Soviet strategy and ultimately the breakup of the Soviet Union “without firing a shot,” as stated by Britain’s Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Space-based defenses should be front and center in President Trump’s announced plans to increase BMD funding. He should emphasize this initiative, given that many incorrectly believe the needed technology is not available, or that such defenses would be too expensive — as claimed by a recent National Defense News article indicating that a space based system might cost from $67 to $109 billion in constant 2017 dollars.
However, a much less expensive cost-effective system called, “Brilliant Pebbles,” was advancing on our watch thirty years ago. We recently reported in The Wall Street Journal that the Pentagon’s acquisition authorities estimated that system would cost $10 billion in 1988 dollars — now inflated to $20 billion — for full development, deployment, and 20-years operations. It was designed to intercept attacking 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 high in the atmosphere on re-entry.
No other BMD concept promises this global capability any time soon — especially at that cost, and it could have been operational today had it not been “politically incorrect” in 1993.
It was a classified program in 1988 — employing private sector “commercial-off-the-shelf” (COTS) technology. President Reagan made it public when he vetoed the 1989 National Defense Authorization Act, because it cut funding for space-based interceptors. Then Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee Les Aspin perhaps never forgot that rebuke — and as Secretary of Defense in 1993, he “Took the Stars out of Star Wars.”
Thus, the Clinton administration and its allies in Congress accomplished what the Soviets previously could not. See Donald Baucom’s “Rise and Fall of Brilliant Pebbles,” for a detailed review of this important history.
We can do even better today. Initiatives by Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos have impressively advanced the COTS possibilities, paving the way for major reductions in the costs of launching space systems — a significant cost consideration for space-based defenses. Taylor Dinerman’s “How to Beat the High Cost of Gravity” heralds these advances, which can reduce Brilliant Pebbles costs estimated in the early 1990s.
USAF General John E. Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command and former Commander of U.S. Space Command, echoed Dinerman’s point while arguing that we need to exploit our technological expertise, including in space, to counter the growing list of threats to the United States.
Space-based defenses using today’s technology can provide the most cost-effective BMD systems now possible, as recently argued by key officials associated with Brilliant Pebbles’ passage through the Pentagon’s gauntlet to become the first formally approved SDI-era BMD system, intended to provide a very high kill probability against limited attacks, e.g., 200 nuclear armed re-entry vehicles that might be launched by a single submarine commander. That important SDI concept should be revived.
The House of Representatives called for a study of space defenses in its version of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2018. If the House version prevails through the coming Senate-House NDAA gauntlet, then the “powers that be” should again consider Brilliant Pebbles, now with more advanced COTS technology than was available during our SDI watch.
For example, we can build on the “Tiny Satellites Ushering in the New Space Revolution” for commercial purposes, as discussed in the June 29 Bloomberg Businessweek report. And the Brilliant Pebbles’ streamlined operational concept was validated in the mid-1990s by the Iridium “66-satellite” communications system, manned by a handful of operators rather than the large corps of operators for the Air Force’s space systems.
Moreover, Russia recently launched 73 micro-satellites — including 62 U.S. nanosatellites — illustrating that the world is exploiting such small satellites for various purposes. Why not to defend the American people?
Indeed, the United States should get in this competition and exploit private sector innovation to reduce costs in protecting our nation — like Brilliant Pebbles and the Reagan vision did. Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, and others are not waiting for us, as they increasingly pose existential threats.
Lt. General James A. Abrahamson, USAF (ret.) was President Reagan’s NASA Associate Administrator and SDI Director. Ambassador Henry F. Cooper was President Ronald Reagan’s Chief Defense and Space Negotiator with the Soviet Union and President George H.W. Bush’s SDI Director.
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