The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

GMD interceptor emplacement
The first GMD interceptor is installed in its silo in Alaska. Will either Bush or Kerry advocate a space-based missile defense system? (credit: Boeing)

Bush versus Kerry on space weaponization

One of the biggest surprises of the last four years is the failure of President Bush to pick up from where his father left off in the missile defense area. The space-based missile interceptor program, called Brilliant Pebbles, was ready to begin the engineering, manufacturing, and development stage in 1993 when Bill Clinton’s first Secretary of Defense canceled it, saying that he was going to “take the stars out of Star Wars.”

Brilliant Pebbles was planned as a part of George H.W. Bush’s Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) missile defense system. Based in low Earth orbit, they were designed to home in on the heat given off by an ascending rocket and destroy it by diving into it. The system was based on well-understood infrared detection technology and on old-fashioned Newtonian physics, aka gravity. Brilliant Pebbles was a viable early version of a space-based boost-phase intercept system. It did not depend on any technological breakthroughs. In series production, each Pebble would have cost about as much as an advanced air-to-air missile—certainly not more than double the cost of, say, an AIM-120C AMRAAM air-to-air missile.

Instead of reviving the GPALS concept, this administration withdrew from the 1972 ABM Treaty and accelerated the development and deployment of the Clinton-era Ground-Based Missile Defense system, known as GMD. This system was designed as a mid-course intercept weapon. That is, it was designed to perform the hardest part of the missile defense mission: hitting a warhead after it (or they) have been released from the launch vehicle—and after they have ejected any decoys.

In series production, each Brilliant Pebble would have cost about as much as an advanced air-to-air missile.

Missile defense targeting problems are generally divided into three parts: the boost phase, which includes the launch and ascent from the surface until the missile leaves Earth’s atmosphere; the mid-course phase, which is when the warheads travel through space towards their targets, sometimes surrounded by decoys; and the terminal phase, which is when the warheads descend towards their final destinations. The Bush Administration is talking about modifying the Theater High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) weapon into one capable of fulfilling the terminal defense mission. This is a not unreasonable option, and one that would have been impossible to work on if the ABM treaty were still in force.

The GMD system has almost reached an early operational status and is probably the only system that could have been finished before the end of Bush’s first term. This complex ties together some powerful, older, early warning radars in Alaska, space-based sensors, including the Defense Support Program (DSP) heat detecting satellites, with a few interceptor missiles, also based in Alaska and California, and a new command center in Colorado. This system is still in a test phase. Since it does have limited operational capability, it can actually be described as the first element of a real national missile defense set up.

There has been little or no attention paid to the revival of Brilliant Pebbles. Instead, there is a new project called the Kinetic Energy Interceptor (KEI) which they claim will eventually produce a boost-phase intercept weapon capable of being deployed on land, at sea, or in space. At least, that is what is claimed. So far, most of the work on it seems to be centered on the land-based version. The idea is that, after an enemy launches his missile, the US will detect it, track it, and then launch a KEI that will catch up with it and kill it. This will also have a political dimension, as the land-based KEIs will have to be based on friendly soil near the potential enemy. In the case of North Korea, this would mean that in case of a surprise attack, the US might have to get permission from South Korea, before it could begin the interception. In effect, the ground-based KEI would give allies like South Korea a possible veto over whether or not an enemy warhead would land on the US homeland.

Congress has cut the development budget for the KEI program. This is a sign that the unresolved conceptual problems are very real and will delay work on it for years. Even if Bush is reelected, there seems to be no real possibility that the US will be able to deploy any kind of boost-phase interceptor, either ground-based or space-based, by the end of his second term. However, he might be able to lay the technological groundwork for such a deployment during the first term of his successor.

Even if Bush is reelected, there seems to be no real possibility that the US will be able to deploy any kind of boost-phase interceptor, either ground-based or space-based, by the end of his second term.

Kerry, on the other hand, would actively work against any sort of effective missile defense, and might follow Richard Nixon’s example and scrap the early version that is now being put in place. He would also try to follow up on his election promise and cut the missile defense budget. There is little doubt that he would use his power as Commander in Chief to gut the small amount of work now being done on space-based missile defense efforts.

For all the flaws in the administration’s approach to missile defense, the Bush Administration is, at least, determined not to give enemy weapons mounted on ballistic missiles a totally free ride. The imperfect system now being installed is far better than nothing. It not only complicates and impedes an enemy’s first strike plans, but it is a good cornerstone for a future multilayered defense that would include weapons that could hit enemy missiles and warheads in all three phases.

A Kerry Administration would almost certainly open up a new window of vulnerability and leave the country undefended, with only the threat of massive revenge to protect it—a threat of questionable credibility against the kind of madmen we are dealing with these days. His instincts would also be to sign a treaty outlawing the use or deployment of weapons in space. Such a treaty would almost certainly fail to be ratified. As with the Kyoto and International Criminal Court issues, the US Constitution means little or nothing to those nations and international institutions that support these measures.