Current plans for the new U..S Space Force and its implied underpinning strategy reveal a key deficiency — an ability to defend against the growing offensive intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) threat, particularly those that employ hypersonic capabilities.
In effect, the Trump administration's funding priorities display an apparent strategy to play "catch-up" with the growing Russian and Chinese hypersonic threat capabilities — and to rely totally on the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) strategy of the Cold War.
Do we really want a new Cold War, now involving a multilateral offensive nuclear arms race?
Ronald Reagan had a very different idea based on a vital role for truly effective ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems that could defeat such threatening ballistic missiles.
In President Reagan's administration, that idea led to his Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) that emphasized space-based defenses. I was privileged to serve as his chief Defense and Space Talks negotiator defending his perspective with the Soviet Union — and later to serve as SDI Director during the George H.W. Bush administration.
Space-based defenses always had a central role during the SDI era — 1983 until early 1993 when Defense Secretary Les Aspin "took the stars out of Star Wars," ending Ronald Reagan's vision and heralding a return to the MAD doctrine of strengthening the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty "as the cornerstone of strategic stability," as became the oft-stated claim of the Clinton administration.
And even though the George W. Bush administration withdrew from the ABM Treaty in 2002, nothing was done to revive the central role of the most cost-effective product of the SDI era — the Brilliant Pebbles space-based interceptor system.
And my March 27, 2020 Newsmax article, "The Good Bad and Ugly," notes that this is still the case in the current Trump administration, which continues to spend most of the missile defense funds on the least effective, most expensive BMD systems.
How many times must we learn the faults of this MAD lesson?
I vividly recall the promises made when the ABM Treaty was signed in 1972 and we sought reduced offensive nuclear weapons by "leading the way" and stopping the deployment of our Minuteman ICBMs. But as Secretary of Defense Harold Brown, who had been involved in the SALT negotiations, memorably said in the late 1970s — "We build, they build. We stop, they build."
That was the world that President Reagan inherited — and he pursued a Strategic Modernization program to get back into that strategic offensive systems game; and initiated the SDI program with an emphasis on space-based defenses.
That emphasis gave us great negotiating leverage with the Soviets, who did their best to get the president to give up on his priority for space-based defenses that could defeat especially their Mirved ICBMs — most notably the SS-18 that carried 10 reentry vehicles (RVs) — and had the inherent capability to carry many more.
Then President Reagan refused to give up that interest at the October 11-12, 1986 Reykjavik Summit when Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev made a number of concessions and then demanded in return that we restrict our development of space based systems to the laboratory — thereby eliminating our demonstrations of, and associated future for, the important capabilities of space-based defenses.
That refusal changed the game. Many have observed that Reagan at Reykjavik caused a major change in our negotiations. We managed to "pocket" the Soviet concessions without further inhibiting SDI — and we achieved the first arms control treaties ever to reduce nuclear weapons, eventually leading to a ban on all Mirved ICBMs.
Notably, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher observed, "SDI ended the Cold War without firing a shot." And she noted on August 3, 1990 in my presence at the Space Warfare Center in Colorado Springs that "We must always keep our defenses sharp, and we must always keep our technology well ahead."
So, where are we now? Obviously, we've failed to follow her advice.
The Democrats accomplished what the Soviets could not by gutting the SDI program, and especially ended the most cost-effective product of the SDI era — the Brilliant Pebbles space-based interceptor system. If developed and deployed, it could shoot down attacking missiles beginning in their "boost phase," while their rockets still burn and before they release their warheads.
Since then, no administration — Democrat or Republican — has reversed this situation.
And now we are concerned about Russia's Sarmat, a modernized Mirved SS-18 that can deliver hypersonic weapons to evade our existing and planned BMD systems. A boost-phase defense would defeat such as system.
If we had continued the Brilliant Pebbles efforts, we long ago could have deployed the system begun in the latter days of SDI era, and the Russians probably would not have deployed such a vulnerable Sarmat system — or probably most, if not all, of the rest of their other ballistic missile systems planned to deliver nuclear weapons.
And so, what are we doing?
Apparently, undertaking another MAD offensive arms race, now involving hypersonic nuclear weapons.
By the way, we pursued such hypersonic weapons developments decades ago and gave them up. Maybe that activity is more fun now.
But I believe we would be wiser to follow Ronald Reagan's intuitive advocacy of space-based defenses — using technology that is the decades advanced beyond the Brilliant Pebbles era that could have defeated the hypersonic weapons we are now seeking to race.
Based on what we did on my SDI watch three decades ago — and the comprehensive reviews then by the most senior Pentagon acquisition authorities, I believe we could develop, deploy and operate a system of 1,000 Brilliant Pebbles for $20 billion. And it should begin operations within five years after its adequate initial and continued funding.
So, pray tell, why is U.S. Space Command not pursuing this capability?
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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