Over the past several years, I’ve complained about exaggerated cost estimates for building Space-Based-Interceptor (SBI) systems like the Brilliant Pebbles concept that I strongly supported during my watch as director of President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). Indeed, I again reacted to recent exaggerated claims in my last Newsmax article that emphasized once again that the "Price is Right!"
To reinforce the practicality of my claim, note that researchers at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute have devised a "smart," cheap, effective and tiny cube-satellite, called OSCaR to autonomously hunt down and de-orbit space junk.
They plan to demonstrate the power of these so-called "CubeSats" in the near future, potentially solving a growing problem because of the accumulating debris in space — like the major debris cloud from China’s anti-satellite (ASAT) test several years ago.
Why not build on these same relatively inexpensive concepts to shoot down threatening ballistic missiles?
For example, consider the important role of the arms control community.
If it were to support OSCaR’s objective — as seems plausible, that position could undermine its historical opposition to, and exaggerated cost claims for, using tiny satellites to shoot down attacking ballistic missiles.
No doubt, those claims were built on a concern that such defenses would "weaponize space." Never mind that space actually was weaponized during World War II with the German V-2 rockets, the forerunner of the modern SCUD missiles in particular.
Rather than defending against missile attack, the arms control community has generally supported the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) doctrine of the Cold War, which made a virtue of mutual vulnerability with the Soviet Union.
Now, such ballistic missiles threaten us from Russia, China, North Korea, Iran and others, and could carry through space nuclear weapons to attack America or our overseas troops, friends and allies.
Reliance on MAD is not a prudent strategy, if it ever was, and space clearly is not a sanctuary.
With this thought in mind, consider the importance of OSCaR’s constellation of tiny smart CubeSats. The same technology could be used to command and operate a constellation not of CubeSats but of "Brilliant Pebbles," as was the plan 30-years ago.
In 1989-90, the SDI advanced that concept through a major season of thorough technical and management reviews the led to the approval for Brilliant Pebbles to enter a formal Demonstration and Validation (DemVal) program.
Those reviews included the JASON — composed from the nation’s leading academic scientists and engineers) — now being saved from extinction by the Department of Energy.
Perhaps as one of their next challenges, they might dig up their 1990 report that indicated there were "no showstoppers" in the technical challenges to building Brilliant Pebbles with foreseeable technology.
From those reviews 30 years ago, Brilliant Pebbles was expected to cost $10-billion in 1988 dollars, about 20-billion today, and could have achieved over 95-percent kill probability against a submarine salvo attack employing 200 reentry vehicles.
No ballistic missile defense system that we now have, after spending orders-of-magnitude more, can come close to what we understood was possible 30 years ago — before President Clinton’s Defense Secretary Les Aspin "took the stars out of Star Wars" in early 1993 and gutted Ronald Reagan’s SDI program.
Important to the JASONs in 1990 were the sensors needed to overcome the most daunting challenges of offensive countermeasures and, particularly, the planned autonomous battle management concept deigned to control the Brilliant Pebbles constellation, including in executing against a major attack from the then thousands of Soviet nuclear weapons.
Indeed, the SDI planned that only a handful of Air Force officers would have been needed to manage the full constellation (actually of thousands of Brilliant Pebbles) in the case of such a major attack — primarily to authorize the Pebbles to manage themselves and to turn off the system if the subsequent battle needed.
That battle management architecture was contrary to the Air Force culture that wanted orders of magnitude more staff arming joysticks, essentially to manage each Brilliant Pebble.
Excessive costs, including to develop an new expensive satellite launch system, was another reason for firing the Air Force from leading the SBI development activities and forming a Brilliant Pebbles Task Force reporting directly to the SDI Director.
I would emphasize that Iridium employed the SDI command and control concepts in designing and managing (with a small staff) operations of its successful low-altitude satellite communication system — that has been regularly improved since its rocky start in 1998. Its original 77 satellites (Hence, the name Iridium, the element with an atomic number of 77.) were quite affordably rapidly launched and operated by a small staff.
Though better battle management algorithms would be required for the "brilliant" operations to counter modern offensive ballistic missile countermeasures, the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professors and research staff are no doubt following some of the same ideas for managing their tiny "smart" CubeSats.
Why not go full bore in reviving the Brilliant Pebbles concepts to protect America, and our overseas troops, friends and allies? Hopefully, Undersecretary for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin will be successful in his efforts with his Space Development Agency (SDA).
Since I know that Mike Griffin well understands the key technical issues and this past history, my main concern is that his efforts are being underfunded, as discussed a couple of weeks ago in my call for more funds to counter the hypersonic missile threat.
Reviving Brilliant Pebbles with today’s technology can contribute to an even less costly concept that could at the same time counter the earliest "boost-glide" hypersonic missile threats from Russia and China.
Hopefully, this challenge will be taken up as President Trump’s Space Force proceeds from the idea/proposal stage to be founded in fact.
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. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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