The Financial Times reported last month that China had launched hypersonic missiles that could defeat most — if not all — U.S. Ballistic Missile Defense (BMD) systems and attack important U.S. targets.
China also has coupled this capability with a Fractional Orbital Bombardment System — "FOBS” — to launch attacking hypersonic missiles over the South Pole to approach the United States from our mostly undefended South.
“FOBS” is not a new idea — the Soviets pursued it during the Cold War. But we have not had to defend against it — that is, until now. And we long ago tested hypersonic missiles; we just chose not to develop that capability now being advanced by Russia and China — that is, until now.
Hypersonic missiles could attack U.S. ships at sea worldwide, as emphasized by Dr. Michael Griffin, who as Undersecretary of Defense for Research and Engineering (USDRE) was the Pentagon’s top Research and Development official between February 15, 2018 and June 23, 2020. He initiated our hypersonic efforts that he recently described, including how China is expanding its arsenal and influence.
He noted: “One can target airfields and aircraft carriers, within 15 or 20 minutes of flight time, literally thousands of kilometers away from the Chinese mainland.” China’s hypersonic missile capability, with or without a nuclear warhead, might strike U.S. ships anywhere on Earth — and “that is a really big deal!”
Even China’s existing shorter-range hypersonic weapons put the U.S. — which seeks to expand its Western Pacific military presence — and its allies at risk. Griffin argues we should develop and stockpile hypersonic missiles to counter China: “I’m not one to mince words — it is an arms race,” he says. “And critically, we didn’t start it.”
Earlier, while he was USDRE, he stated, “We are playing catch-up” with Russia and China — and subsequent U.S. hypersonic test failures make clear to the world that we are well behind.
And as a very pertinent aside, we would note that while North Korea and Iran are not yet reported to have hypersonic capabilities, their ballistic missile capabilities are growing — and they are both potentially capable of overwhelming our current and planned missile defenses.
Griffin did not advocate potentially better ways to defeat these growing threats — no doubt because space-based defenses are not currently “politically correct.”
However, he understands this potential, firsthand, as the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) Deputy Director for Technology and subsequently NASA Administrator.
And earlier, at Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, he led demonstrations proving we can intercept thrusting rockets in space — key to intercepting missiles in their “boost-phase” after they leave their launch pads, however based. This capability is ours for the taking.
But as USDRE he did not initiate a space-based interceptor program, no doubt reflecting prevailing opposition to building the most cost-effective systems to counter the hypersonic missile threat. He did initiate space-based sensor systems to help enable our missile defense systems, however based, while developing our hypersonic missile systems to seek to deter others who have those capabilities.
Understand that Dr. Griffin, while at APL, conceived and led the 1986 Delta 180 Vector Sum experiment that proved we can intercept boosting rockets, making clear that space-based interceptors can shoot down attacking ICBMs in their boost phase.
As members of the Nuclear and Space Talks delegation in Geneva — we saw that the Soviets well understood this potential — and they then could not match it. We invited then-SDI Director, USAF Lt. General James A. Abrahamson, to join us and make clear that demonstrations the Soviets could not match was no ruse.
More importantly, this set the stage for President Reagan’s insistence that his SDI would not be negotiated away at the Reykjavik Summit a few months later. Essentially, SDI gave us the negotiating leverage to complete the first nuclear arms control treaties in history actually to reduce nuclear arms.
As Britain’s Prime Minister told SDI members in her August 2, 1990 visit to the SDI National Test facility in Colorado Springs, “I firmly believe it was the determination to embark upon the SDI program and to continue with it that eventually convinced the Soviet Union that they could never, never, never achieve their aim by military might because they would never succeed.”
Indeed, many (including senior Soviet officials) thought SDI brought down the Soviet Union, and Russia’s first elected President, Boris Yeltsin, proposed in January 1991 at the United Nations that SDI take advantage of Russian technology and that we work together to build a joint global defense to protect the world community — the position we had by then been advocating for almost five years.
We made progress pursuing that objective — but that ended with the arrival of President Bill Clinton. His administration gutted the SDI program and disbursed the key SDI technical teams. As then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin said, Clinton “took the stars out or Star Wars.”
When he met with President Clinton in Vancouver for their first Summit, Yeltsin wanted to continue the negotiations on a joint global defense — but our side returned to the mutual assured destruction (MAD) deterrence policy that predated the Reagan-Bush-41 era. Mutual Vulnerability again became the “cornerstone of stability,” where things remain today.
Meanwhile, leaders in both of our political parties have failed to exploit technology we understood three decades ago — and we are having to play “catch-up” to the capabilities of Russia and China.
We again need to adopt the policies that worked so well for Ronald Reagan, and that we benefited from and helped execute in Geneva — his strategy of Peace through Strength coupled to a building truly effective defenses against ballistic missiles, especially in space.
Both authors served in several national security positions and were senior members of the Nuclear and Space Talks delegation under President Reagan. Cooper also was SDI Director under President G.W. Bush.
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. Read Ambassador Cooper's Reports — More Here.
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