Growing terrorist attacks, accelerating nuclear-weapon/ballistic-missile threats, and atrophying U.S. military capabilities — President-elect Donald Trump faces a dangerous, complex world.
To get a sense of just how dangerous that world is, consider this: Rogue states and even terrorists have or could soon have the ability to knock out the American electric grid, using a nuclear weapon detonated high above the United States.
Today, North Korea can execute such an attack. Iran will develop it, if it does not possess it already. Even terrorists could acquire nuclear weapons, mate them to easily purchased ballistic missiles from an existing black market, and launch an EMP strike from vessels cruising near our coasts (especially from the Gulf of Mexico).
These existential threats are exacerbated by aspiring superpower competitors. Russia is ramping up its nuclear and missile modernization programs, first-use nuclear strategy, and belligerent actions in East Europe and elsewhere. China is modernizing its nuclear and space systems and upping its aggression in the South China Sea.
For over 20 years, our homeland ballistic-missile-defense (BMD) efforts have focused on countering only “limited” attacks from North Korea and Iran — that is, from at most a few ballistic missiles. We have only 40 ground-based interceptors in Alaska and four in California, and additional interceptors cost much more than the missiles they are intended to shoot down.
U.S. military leaders readily admit our current missile-defense programs, both deployed and in development, make little sense against these rapidly evolving threats. In fact, our current defenses can be overwhelmed by missiles costing much less than our existing defenses. As former commander of our homeland defenses Admiral William Gortney said over a year ago, “We are on the wrong side of the cost curve.”
We need to place a high priority, therefore, on building more cost-effective, ballistic-missile-defense systems. Thankfully, we have a foundation to build on: The same idea was foreseen by President Ronald Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), which was abandoned for purely political reasons by the Clinton administration in 1993 and has not been revived since.
In particular, President-elect Trump should direct the Pentagon to revive SDI plans for destroying ballistic missiles in their boost phase, shortly after launch — when a ballistic missile is most vulnerable and before it releases its nuclear warheads and decoys. We should not continue depending solely on the more expensive midcourse- and terminal-phase intercept capability.
President-elect Trump should direct the Pentagon to revive SDI plans for destroying ballistic missiles in their boost phase, shortly after launch.
The most effective option is a space-based system that can stop missiles beginning in their boost phase, an idea judged technically feasible in 1990 with the technology emerging then. That is, at the very least, we can produce a cost-effective solution based on SDI concepts pioneered a quarter century ago.
In particular, Brilliant Pebbles, a constellation of small space-based interceptors designed to engage attacking ballistic missiles in all phases of their flight trajectory, underwent numerous scientific and engineering peer reviews and was approved by the Pentagon’s acquisition authorities in 1991.
By the 1992 election, SDI technological developments had vindicated President Reagan’s foresight. Despite these successes, President Reagan’s political opponents sought to undermine SDI at every step of the way — and Brilliant Pebbles, the focal point of the SDI architecture in 1992, was a major target for anti-SDI activities.
Following the election, President Clinton emphasized international treaties instead of effective defenses. Political, not technological, constraints led to cancellation of the Brilliant Pebbles program in 1993, and ever since, space-based defense concepts have been neglected.
This neglect is despite the fact that the ensuing decades have seen technological advances — by businesses, NASA, and the military — that enable lighter mass, lower cost, higher performance technologies, and very high reliability. To top it off, today’s commercial space sector now promises drastically reduced space-launch costs.
Rigorous cost analyses conducted by the head of Pentagon acquisition programs in the late 1980s (independent of the SDI) estimated Brilliant Pebbles would cost $10 billion in 1988 dollars — about $20 billion today — for research, development, deployment, and 20 years of operations. A new Brilliant Pebbles program should cost even less while providing greater protection than all current U.S. land- and sea-based missile defenses.
A 21st-century Brilliant Pebbles system would protect the U.S. homeland, our overseas troops, and our friends and allies against ballistic missiles of all types — including against EMP attacks. It would make missile defense cost-effective, inverting the current, pricey dynamic that favors our enemies’ less expensive offensive technology.
It would greatly enhance our deterrence policy, particularly as a central element of “deterrence by denial” (the ability to defend and protect vitally important targets). Moreover, Brilliant Pebbles would also support other vital U.S. national-security missions and protect the critical space assets on which practically all U.S. military operations depend.
Reagan understood missile defense could help make America as great and safe as it could be. Now it falls to President Trump to follow through on that brilliant vision.
— Ambassador Henry F. Cooper was SDI director, chief U.S. negotiator at the Geneva Defense and Space Talks with the Soviet Union, and deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force for Strategic and Space Systems. Lieutenant General Malcolm R. O’Neill, USA (Ret.), was deputy SDI director, director of the Ballistic Missile Defense Organization, and assistant secretary of the Army for Acquisition, Logistics and Technology. Dr. Robert L. Pfaltzgraff Jr. is president of the Institute for Foreign Policy Analysis (IFPA), Inc., and Shelby Cullom Davis Professor of International Security Studies at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and chairman of the Independent Working Group on Missile Defense. Colonel Rowland “Rhip” H. Worrell, USAF (Ret.) was director of the SDI Brilliant Pebbles Task Force, director of the National Test Facility Joint Program Office, and vice commander of the USAF Space Warfare Center.