Without saying so, Loren Thompson’s March 23, 2020 Forbes article implicitly described "the good, the bad and the ugly" of the Pentagon’s current ballistic missile defense (BMD) plans and programs.
His title emphasized that the theater high altitude area defense (THAAD) system can be important to protecting the U.S. homeland. Since I was the missile defense acquisition executive that launched THAAD in 1992, that was a gratifying assessment.
However, I never considered THAAD to be a homeland defense against intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs). Indeed, that capability was then banned by the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty with the Soviet Union.
THAAD was conceived to be a mobile Theater Missile Defense (TMD) system, capable of intercepting shorter- range theater ballistic missiles (TBMs) as they approached their targets—above and high in the atmosphere.
Using that "terminal defense" capability to defend against longer-range missiles is a welcome, but not that great an, extension of THAAD’s original goal. But it is good to employ THAAD that way.
Thompson also noted that the Aegis BMD system, based on many of our destroyers and cruisers—and also in an Aegis Ashore ground-based mode, can provide intercept long-range ballistic missiles above the atmosphere. Right!
In fact, this capability was demonstrated in the February 20,2008 Burnt Frost event, when it was the “system-of-choice” to execute President George W. Bush’s objective of shooting down of a threatening satellite that was flying faster than an ICBM.
Thompson’s complimentary reference to Aegis BMD also was gratifying, because then (and since retired) Vice Admiral J.D. Williams as the Deputy CNO for Naval Warfare in 1991 convinced then Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) Frank Kelso to take SDI money (that I recommended) to begin the Aegis BMD program.
Even though we recognized Aegis BMD system could have an ability to shoot down ICBMs, I insisted with CNO Admiral Frank Kelso that the Navy only develop it as a TMD system—otherwise arms control advocates would have blocked it because Article V of the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty banned the development, testing and deployment of space-based, sea-based and mobile-land-based ABM systems.
Limiting Aegis BMD to be a TMD system was justifiable for such “political reasons” while the ABM Treaty existed, but President George W. Bush withdrew from it in 2002—and ADM Williams and I have argued to no avail ever since for the full exploitation of the Aegis BMD inherent capability to help defend the U.S. homeland. Thompson’s observation that such an application is a “no brainer” is most welcome.
Note the ABM Treaty Article V constraint also blocked giving THAAD an ABM capability—a constraint that has prevailed since 2002—some 18 years.
That we are finally considering sea-based and mobile land-based defenses to defend the U.S. homeland is most welcome. That’s “the good.”
Next, I’d observe that Thompson correctly indicated these developments to help complement our current ground-based homeland defense would be helpful because “overwhelming” our current ground-based homeland defense “wouldn’t be hard today.”
Given that condition, it is unclear why Thompson seems to support investing a lot of money in “improving” that inadequate capability and building a new very expensive ground-based interceptor (GBI). How would such interceptors at our current GBI sites defend the entire U.S. homeland?
As SDI Director, I also included an expensive GBI system in my architecture. It was the only homeland defense system concept permitted by the ABM Treaty to develop, test and deploy to protect the American homeland.
In those days, the political debate focused on where a single GBI site might be deployed, via an amended Treaty. Or possibly more than a single GBI site. Our architecture considered that several—up to six as I recall—sites would be required to defend the continental United States.
So . . . are we prepared to build such an expensive multi-site GBI homeland defense today? I think not.
Even though we have been free of the ABM Treaty for eighteen (18) years, we still seem blind to the fact that there are more cost-effective ways to defend the American people.
That’s "the bad."
These land-based and sea-based BMD systems were included in President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), but still missing is the most important product of the SDI era—1984-93, which was launched by Reagan’s famous speech 37 years ago, last Monday.
I am most familiar with that important history, since I defended those SDI efforts in our negotiations with the Soviet Union for five years, and subsequently managed them until the Clinton administration ended Reagan’s vision and scuttled the most important SDI efforts in early 1993.
Among those abandoned SDI concepts were its most cost-effective products—e.g., a space-based BMD system called "Brilliant Pebbles" that employed what was then quite advanced technology—at the cutting edge of state-of-the-art computation, sensing and propulsion capabilities. Those concepts remained abandoned through subsequent administrations, to the best of my knowledge also within the Trump administration.
Meanwhile, the technology is being exploited by the private sector and others. Our adversaries have imported (stolen?) our best SDI technology and are employing it in their space systems today. And we are not even playing "catch-up" while China in particular exploits that technology and chants, with accompanying “crocodile tears” that we not deploy "weapons in space."
The arms control community echoes that feigned statement of alarm.
And that’s "the ugly."
So far, the Trump administration has not given sway to the arms control siren call. President Trump also should direct his administration to revive the best of the SDI era technology — as the surviving SDI Directors recommended three years ago. We could have not only more effective defenses, it would also save a lot of money.
Stay tuned to see whether he or congress pays any serious attention to this important matter.
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, Science Adviser to the Air Force Weapons Laboratory and a USAF Reserve Captain. 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. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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