Thanks to the John S. McCain National Defense Authorization Act for 2019 (NDAA-2019), the Secretary of Defense is now directed to give Congress a plan for building space-based interceptors (SBIs).
While it is primarily intended to build a space based ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, this initiative also would help counter the top priority hypersonic threats posed by Russia and China.
A precursor to this directive was successfully proposed last year by then Arizona Representative Trent Franks (former Chair of the House Missile Defense Caucus), but the NDAA-2018 directive was contingent on recommendations from the Missile Defense Review, which is still underway.
Thanks to Senator Ted Cruz as previously discussed, it is now supported by both the House and Senate and removes that NDAA-2018 contingency. Assuming the Senate approves the “Big Four” Conference report next Tuesday, planning to build a SBI system will become the law of the land!
Moreover, lest the current planners and critics forget, we knew how to build such a system 30 years ago as a primary effort in President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI). And we should be able to repeat that effort quickly and with today’s technology for a lot less money.
As I wrote last May 11, the first four directors of what is now the Missile Defense Agency thought we knew how to build such a cost-effective SBI system 30 years ago. Moreover, the SBI system, "Brilliant Pebbles," became the first product of President Ronald Reagan’s SDI to enter a formal Demonstration and Validation (DemVal) program, approved in 1990 by the Pentagon’s top acquisition executive.
The independent cost-estimate associated with the two competing DemVal contractors was that it would cost $10 billion in 1988 dollars (inflated to $20 billion today) to develop, deploy, and operate for 20 years a constellation of 1,000 "Brilliant Pebbles." That system could defend America and our overseas troops, friends, and allies against a substantial threat — much larger than can be defeated by today’s less-capable BMD systems that have cost many times that amount.
With today’s technology, the cost of "Brilliant Pebbles" would be less — and the resulting global defense would be far more effective than what the current BMD programs will produce. And it could help counter the growing hypersonic threat.
Three of us former SDI Directors (the fourth was deceased) and the Program Manager of the "Brilliant Pebbles" Task Force that led that important effort wrote on November 29, 2016, that President Trump could revive "Brilliant Pebbles" to fulfill President Reagan’s SDI Vision. Hear! Hear!
Indeed, had Congress permitted "Brilliant Pebbles" to continue during my watch and in the Democrat and Republican administrations after my watch as SDI Director (ending on January 20, 1993), we would long ago have demonstrated the viability of a much more capable missile defense capability than all that we have today, and for much less money than we have spent on our ground-based homeland defense alone.
But the Democrat-controlled congress vetoed our approved DemVal program that within another couple of years could have proven the viability of "Brilliant Pebbles" — consistent with President Reagan’s SDI vision.
The Clinton administration completely scuttled essentially all cutting-edge SDI technology programs. Then Defense Secretary Les Aspin memorably said he “took the stars out of Star Wars.”
Indeed he did, and no administration since has revived such an effort. Now with congressional prodding, President Trump can “Go back to the future!”
Furthermore, we set the stage for demonstrating the technology to do this in 1992.
After anticipating the then continuing congressional resistance even if President Bush were reelected, we initiated the “Clementine” mission that returned to the Moon for the first time in a quarter century, mapped its surface, and then executed a “sling-shot” return back by Earth into deep space and to be “lost and gone forever.” It was thus named after that ballad, “Oh My Darling, Clementine.”
With NASA cooperation, especially from then NASA Administrator Dan Goldin (who led the TRW "Brilliant Pebbles" DemVal effort), the Clementine payload was launched into space and it exceeded my hopes in “space-qualifying” all key "Brilliant Pebbles" sensor and operating command systems — and recording about 1.5 million frames of data in 13 spectral bands.
At a cost of about $80 million, Clementine achieved more information on the Moon’s surface than the entire Apollo program and discovered water in its polar regions. The small Clementine team received awards from NASA and the National Academy of Sciences, and a replica hangs in the Smithsonian next to NASA’s Lunar Lander.
Most importantly, it demonstrated the technology for a viable SBI system a quarter century ago.
A follow-on mission was supported by Congress, but President Clinton vetoed that legislation because of its exploitation of SDI technology, as a senior member of the president’s staff told the press. Such was the abiding hostility to Ronald Reagan’s key initiative that among other things is credited with a major role in “ending the Cold War without firing a shot.”
There should be no question that with today’s technology we can meet the NDAA-2019 challenge. We also should be beyond political inhibitions, but they will no doubt continue, including in congress. Such resistance is exacerbated because so few remember the lessons from 30 years ago.
On the other hand, Defense Undersecretary for Research and Engineering, Mike Griffin, is an accomplished aerospace engineer and a former NASA Administrator. He also was my first SDI Deputy for Technology, after serving under SDI’s first two directors and leading some of SDI’s early space experiments that made "Brilliant Pebbles" possible.
Now Mike’s announced top priority is countering hypersonic threats; and a modern "Brilliant Pebbles" can help meet that challenge!
Stay tuned for the Pentagon’s Missile Defense Review, due shortly!
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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