US Strategic Defense Program Is Too Important To Be Entrusted To Officials Who Would Eviscerate It

Candidate Clinton said during the campaign that a "fresh assessment" of the threats to U.S. interests was needed, including those posed by "the spread of weapons of mass destruction." He correctly warned that the United States "can’t afford to wait until a host of Third World nations acquire arsenals full of First World weapons."

It is striking therefore that now-President Clinton appears set to reduce dramatically the U.S. strategic defense program. By some accounts, he intends to cut as much as one-third to one-half from the Bush Administration’s FY1994 request and impose unwarranted restrictions on the Global Protection Against Limited Strikes (GPALS) system.

Worse yet, two individuals reported to be the top contenders to head the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization (SDIO) are known to advocate a dramatic restructuring of the SDI program to feature more expensive, Army-dominated land-based systems with only limited defensive capabilities. President Clinton should be forewarned that there would be serious national security, foreign policy and cost consequences of adopting the proposals being advanced by Bill Davis (a former Deputy Commander of what is now the Army’s Strategic Defense Command) and retired Lieutenant General Robert Hammond(1): Their approach would make the nation’s missile defense system significantly less capable, much more costly and leave it in jeopardy of eventual cancellation.

The Davis-Hammond Plan: ‘SDI Lite’

The general thrust of the Davis-Hammond approach is to concentrate U.S. missile defense efforts almost entirely within the Army at the service’s Strategic Defense Command facility in Huntsville, Alabama. Among the principal elements of their proposals, Mr. Davis and Gen. Hammond have signalled that they would:

  • Abandon the global mission of GPALS by cancelling the Brilliant Pebbles space-based interceptor and retaining the Brilliant Eyes sensor only as a scaled back "growth option" with a reduced budget;
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  • Reinstate two programs cancelled by the Bush Administration: the Endoatmospheric/Exoatmospheric Interceptor (known as E2I, which lost the competition for the primary ground-based missile at the initial U.S. defensive site) and the interim Ground-based Surveillance and Tracking System (GSTS) which was made unnecessary by the availability of the more capable and cost-effective space-based Brilliant Eyes sensors.
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  • Provide funds for land-based systems by cutting more promising space-based alternatives, by cancelling the Navy’s theater defense program and the Air Force’s airborne laser experiment and by limiting work on fruitful follow-on technologies;
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  • Limit the scope of the SDI program to a single, ABM Treaty-compliant site along with modest theater defenses;
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  • Decentralize SDIO, cut its staff from 269 to 100 and transfer directed energy weapons programs to DARPA or the services.

 

‘Garbage In, Garbage Out’

A number of significant national security and economic considerations argue strongly against adopting the strict limitations of the Davis-Hammond plan. These include:

Cost and Capability: Cost concerns alone should dictate rejection of a completely ground-based defensive system in favor of one that uses both ground and space elements. The latter, after all, enjoys two distinct advantages over the former: (1) Orbiting sensors and interceptors are cheaper to build and maintain — on the order of a 3-to-1 cost advantage — and (2) they offer continuous, global defense coverage.

In contrast, ground-based defenses have limited intercept ranges and take longer to bring to bear. For such defenses to provide comparable coverage to that offered by a constellation of orbiting interceptors, the ground-based systems would have to be deployed in prohibitively large numbers all around the globe. As a practical matter, a global system without space-based assets would be economically unfeasible and politically problematic.(2)

A global missile defense featuring space- and ground-based interceptor "layers" inherently offers not only more effective strategic leverage than ground systems alone.(3) It also provides the capability to destroy attacking missiles in their boost-phase — i.e., over an attacker’s territory and before the missile deploys its warheads. This is of surpassing importance if the incoming missile is loaded with chemical or biological weapons; intercepts performed over "defended" territory could simply have the effect of more efficiently disseminating lethal agents or viruses.

The Abiding Need for Global, Space-based Systems: These considerations gainsay arguments put forward by critics of space-based strategic defenses to the effect that the mission for orbiting interceptors disappeared when, as Davis contends, the "credibility of the Soviet missile threat disappeared." Such claims are simply misguided and irresponsible in light of the fact that — even if the START II Treaty reductions are fully achieved ten years hence (hardly a bankable proposition) — Russia would retain thousands of menacing long-range nuclear weapons.

Arguably, a still more ominous threat is that posed by another strategic development: the burgeoning prospect of significant ballistic missile proliferation in the Third World. Such a threat is particularly worrisome in light of Russia’s announced intention to sell strategic missiles as "space-launch vehicles" and the ease with which shorter-range missiles might be "clustered" together to give them a crude capability to deliver payloads over strategic distances.(4)

Substantial Foreign Interest in Defenses: It is these threats, and the advantages of space-based defenses to ameliorate them, that have caught the attention of the Western European Union, whose member countries are already exposed to short- as well as longer-range ballistic missile threats. An unprecedented report from the WEU’s Technical and Aerospace Committee on 2 December announced that, "It is high time for the Western European countries to adopt a joint position" on responding to the risk of weapons proliferation, which it said is becoming "less and less hypothetical."

The Committee recommended that the WEU "identify without delay Europe’s needs and the means available to it to counter the ballistic missile threat and adopt without delay a joint European position" on the American GPALS system because, the report states, Europe can "no longer postpone" a response. The WEU called for an extension of NATO’s charter to include the role of providing missile defense for Europe, Israel, the former Soviet Union and other nations — echoing a previous agreement between Presidents Bush and Yeltsin to create a Global Protection System.

The Davis-Hammond plan, however, specifically rejects any global mission for U.S. strategic defenses. If adopted, it would deny the United States not only its most promising defensive approach but also the approach that best lends itself to international military cooperation in this area.

The Dangers of Myopic Parochialism: A principal by-product of a decision to cancel space-based and sea-based elements while reactivating the E2I and GSTS would, of course, be to put almost the entire SDI program into the Army’s hands — much of it centered in Huntsville. As it stands today, the Army already controls over half of the SDI budget.

Unfortunately, the Army has in the past often proven a less than reliable sponsoring service for weapons systems that break new technological ground. Systems developed by the Army frequently have hit dead-ends as a result of technical, cost or other factors. All too often, troubled programs have been allowed to atrophy or were killed outright at a late stage of development (e.g., the "Sgt. York" DIVAD air defense gun, the anti-satellite system and the VIPER anti-armor missile). In such cases, the Army — and the country — have had little to show for significant investments.

While the Army has managed with somewhat better results terminal and point defense programs like Safeguard and Patriot, the technology and missions of today’s larger, vastly more sophisticated missile defense systems (such as ERINT, Brilliant Eyes and Brilliant Pebbles) go well beyond what the Army traditionally has had expertise in. Giving the Army virtually exclusive control over the missile defense mission — including the complex areas of battle management, layered defense and space control — when it has little if any successful experience in these areas would, at best, likely jack up acquisition costs and delay deployment schedules. It may even cause vital programs to slide into oblivion.

The Davis-Hammond parochialism seems particularly misplaced when it comes to their desire to resuscitate cancelled programs like E2I and GSTS. For example, under the current budget, Brilliant Eyes sensors will be available two years prior to the congressional target date of 2002 for the initial site. This would render wholly unnecessary the $1-2 billion investment that Davis and Hammond propose making in the substantially less capable, "interim" GSTS sensor.

The Bottom Line

Only a continuous, world-wide capability that employs both space-based and land-based defenses can provide the kind of protection that the United States and its allies desire — and need. The Davis-Hammond plan’s abandonment of any global capability, however, makes effective defense of our allies impracticable and invites nations that desire missile defense to proceed on their own, individually or collectively.

Such unilateral abdication of control of space would be quite detrimental to U.S. national security. Moreover, the large budgets required to field exclusively ground-based defenses are unlikely to be underwritten by a Congress that still sees the defense budget as a cash cow and an Administration that has proposed cutting the SDI budget by $15-20 billion over five years.

Given the tremendous consequences of adopting the Davis-Hammond approach to strategic defense in a world increasingly characterized by massive proliferation, Mr. Clinton’s choice for the SDIO directorship bears close scrutiny. Indeed, it was Mr. Clinton himself who went out of his way at a 19 November news conference to stress the urgency of the proliferation threat:

 

"You didn’t ask this question, but let me tack this on, because I want to lay this marker down for the rest of the world. I believe that one of our great challenges as a nation that is the world’s leading nation still, in promoting peace and democracy, will be to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the building of massive armaments in the hands of people who are prepared to use them. Not just nuclear, but also biological and chemical. This is going to be in my opinion a challenge every month for the president for the next four years, and I’m going to do my best." (Emphasis added.)

 

For Mr. Clinton truly to "do his best," he had best avoid the mistake of nominating Mr. Davis or Gen. Hammond — or anyone else who advocates unduly restrictive and counterproductive plans for restructuring the SDI program. The costs of missteps could be tragically immense, indeed. One way to avoid them is to eschew those determined to take such steps.

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1. Mr. Davis and Gen. Hammond have published separate but essentially comparable plans for restructuring SDI. Mr. Davis’ recommendations have been outlined in an 11-page paper entitled "SDI and the Winds of Change." This paper and a recommendation that he be assigned to head up the Pentagon’s SDI Organization have reportedly been forwarded to the White House by Sen. Howell Heflin (D-AL). Gen. Hammond’s proposals appeared in the 9 December Defense Daily.

2. According to a 20 January report by outgoing SDIO Director Amb. Henry Cooper, the total acquisition cost of the complete ground-based system is $42-47 billion. This contrasts with an estimated $15 billion price-tag for a system that would provide world-wide protection: a constellation of 1,000 Brilliant Pebbles. Interestingly, the disparity in favor of a space-based defense could be even more dramatic but for cost-growth associated with schedule delays — delays driven by congressionally imposed budget cuts intended to hamstring the Brilliant Pebbles development program.

3. Interestingly, Mr. Davis has cited the importance of layered or "tiered" defense among his rationales for restarting the canceled E2I secondary interceptor for the single ground-based defense site he advocates — despite the fact that the E2I system does not represent an independent layer.

4. See the Center’s Transition Brief entitled "The Single Most Urgent Clinton Security Decision: Ending U.S. Vulnerability to Missile Attack" (No. 92-D 144, 3 December 1992), and an article by Center Director Frank Gaffney entitled "Star Wars II" in the 8 February issue of The New Republic.

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