Loren Thompson writes in his April 5 Forbes’ article “Hypersonic Weapons Are Coming
” that the Pentagon needs to spend more on defending against this growing threat from Russia and China. I could not agree more — moreover, considerably more spending is well justified.
Thompson reports that the Pentagon is spending a lot of money to develop U.S. hypersonic weapons that can fly at speeds up to 20-25 times the speed of sound. The proposed funding for 2020 is $2.6 billion — to catch-up with and surpass the growing threat, as Defense Under Secretary for Research and Engineering Michael Griffin has said is his top priority.
Meanwhile, Thompson reports that the administration proposes only $170 million to support efforts to defend against this growing threat — which Vladimir Putin claimed last year he already had mastered. He could have been exaggerating, but on the other hand…
Russia’s Avangard hypersonic weapon can be launched on one of many Soviet intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), “boosted” toward space and then released high in or above the atmosphere. It then could maneuver as it “glides” through the atmosphere at orbital velocities — 20-25 times the speed of sound — to evade intercept by any of our current ballistic missile defense (BMD) system interceptors.
It should be understood that hypersonics is not a new idea. Sandia National Laboratories was testing such a “boost-glide” system in 2012, based on decades of previous work. It could evade defenses to attack tactical systems, like important naval ships. Or it potentially could carry nuclear weapons to evade BMD systems, as Putin emphasized was Avangard’s objective.
It certainly is appropriate again to advance our understanding of such hypersonic missiles, and even to exceed Russian and Chinese capabilities. But, is it wise to invest much less than 10 percent as much on defending against this important, potentially existential, threat?
Moreover, we should remember that three decades ago we spent much more actively exploring defenses to defeat such a threat — we were successful and had an answer that especially now should be reconsidered.
President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) actively explored a space-based interceptor system, Brilliant Pebbles, that could defeat Russia’s Avangard hypersonic missile — had we not abandoned that effort in 1993 for purely political reasons.
The Brilliant Pebbles effort began at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratories (LLNL) as a classified program in the late 1980s — and was made public when President Reagan vetoed the 1989 National Defense Authorizations Act because it imposed a major cut to SDI spending on space-based interceptors. That no doubt made enemies of the powerful Chairman of the House Armed Services Committee (HASC) and his counterpart in the Senate.
Once Brilliant Pebbles was exposed, its development came under additional scrutiny. The second SDI Director formed a separate Task Force to manage the effort through a major series of technical reviews by the Defense Science Board, the JASON — a group of notable outside technology experts from academia, and the Pentagon’s acquisition authorities.
They found “no showstoppers,” and Brilliant Pebbles in 1990 was approved by the Pentagon’s top acquisition authority to enter a formal Demonstration and Validation (DemVal) program.
A competition between five contractor teams led to a down-selection to two, led by Martin Marietta and TRW-Hughes — both primes have since been subsumed in other companies and the original industrial teams have dispersed.
But back then, the expected costs for development, deployment and operations for 20 years was $10 billion in 1988 dollars — now inflated to about $20 billion. SDI Directors from that era (1983-93) consider Brilliant Pebbles to have been the SDI’s most cost-effective product.
But at the time, the SASC and HASC Chairmen continued to oppose Brilliant Pebbles and cut its funding requests causing major disruption and waste in SDI efforts. As SDI Director during this era, I am most familiar with this history that led to a major cut in the appropriations for Fiscal Year 1993 — to $300 million, now inflated to over $500 million.
But compare that level of appropriated funding for 1993 with the $170 million the Pentagon reportedly is now requesting for 2020 to study defenses against hypersonic missiles, according to Loren Thompson’s Forbes article. About three times as much.
Whatever, when Les Aspin became President Clinton’s Secretary of Defense, the former HASC Chairman “took the stars out of Star Wars” (as he said) — gutting the SDI program and completely dispersing the entire Brilliant Pebbles team.
It is long past time for reviving this most important Brilliant Pebbles space-based system concept, that should fit with the Trump administration’s efforts to exploit the private sector’s technology in building small satellites to accomplish other missions.
Those missions include tracking attacking ballistic missiles and providing that information to our ground-based interceptors, like THAAD as Thompson mentioned in his Forbes’ article.
Why not, as Brilliant Pebbles planned, also employ miniature thrusters on those small satellites to enable boost-phase intercept capabilities from space? It would beat the hypersonic threat.
A question perhaps in Thursday’s SASC Hearing on President Trump’s Space Force initiative, don’t you think?
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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