The Proposal For Early Deployment
Very soon after Reagan launched the Strategic Defense Initiative, proposals for early deployment rose insistently in certain defense-oriented quarters. Indeed, the early deployment of the High Frontier version of the SDI was being strongly advocated by Graham and his supporters in and out of government even before the March 1983 speech. Given the fundamentally political nature of the whole affair, and especially the intrinsically political objectives of those who advocated early deployment, it is not surprising that this particular subissue evoked some especially strident controversy. Indeed, even within the defense establishment, the meaning of the term "early deployment" was itself debated. Clearly, in the minds of some of the more politically oriented advocates, the drive for early deployment was stimulated primarily by the desire to get as much of the project as possible committed during the Reagan administration in order to make it difficult—even, they hoped, impossible—for a future president to back away from it. But if the purpose of the drive for early deployment was clear to the politicians, it was not so clear to the technologists, including those who are sympathetic to the basic idea.
To the authors of the Marshall Institute report, early deployment meant abandoning what they called a "business-as-usual" approach to the initiative. Deployment of a partial "three-layer defense" system based on KKVs could, they said, begin in seven years, or in 1994, if the government used "streamlined management and procurement procedures," while under "business as usual" conditions, "deployment of the full 3-layer defense cannot commence until the late 1990s."
The highly respected defense expert Robert R. Everett, who was chairman of the Defense Science Board's Strategic Defense Milestone Panel and had been president of the Mitre Corporation, saw matters differently. In a 1987 memorandum to Under Secretary of Defense Richard Godwin, he remarked—plaintively, it seemed—that "the term early deployment, which is sometimes heard, appears to mean only that a first
phase would necessarily be earlier than later phases and not earlier than previously suggested. In any event, current plans and decisions deal only with continued research and development, and deployment will come later."
Despite this uncertainty about what, if anything, early deployment might mean, plans for going ahead with the deployment of "phase I" of a combined ground and space multilayer defense system were continuously being elaborated. As of the fall of 1987 the Defense Acquisition Board advanced six SDI technologies to the "demonstration and validation phase," recognizing their potential roles in a first-phase deployment:
Oddly, as of summer 1987 HEDI was not on the Defense Acquisition Board's list of phase I projects. As SDIO director Lieutenant General James A. Abrahamson, Jr., put it, "We think the other layers have more
advantage and contribute more to the stability equation and deterrence equation." HEDI is included in most other unofficial versions of early deployment, including that described by the Marshall Institute (it is, in fact, the recommended third layer; without it there would be only a two-layer system).
In April 1988 the SDIO accepted the Everett panel's recommendation calling for the reordering of Phase I priorities to emphasize space surveillance (in the form of the BSTS and SSTS projects and communication). The panel recommended against inclusion of space-based interceptors and called instead for consideration of an initial deployment of one hundred ground-based, long-range interceptor missiles similar to the proposed ERIS missiles, but possibly larger in order to provide greater range. These missiles would be deployed at the existing Safeguard site in Grand Forks, North Dakota, and would be intended to provide site defense for a missile field, as contemplated in the ABM Treaty, and only a very thin area defense. This proposal resembles the "Accidental Launch Protection System" proposed for "debate and serious exploration" by Sen. Sam Nunn (D., Ga.) in January 1988. Notably absent from either the Everett panel recommendation or the Nunn proposal was any endorsement of the early deployment of space-based kill systems. As a result of the adoption of the Everett panel recommendations, research on neutral-particle-beam devices for midcourse discrimination and the testing of the space-based "Alpha" chemical laser will probably be delayed.
On the basis of the Everett report, the Defense Acquisition Board recommended in June 1988 that the plan for Phase I deployment in the late 1990s—which the board had recommended, and Secretary Weinberger had approved, a year earlier—should be reassessed. Just prior to receiving that recommendation, the under secretary of defense for acquisition, Robert Costello, reportedly sent a memorandum to Abrahamson on May 27, 1988, outlining new, more modest objectives for SDI, indicating, as a report in Science magazine observed, "that the program is being brought more tightly under the control of the civilian managers of the Defense Department." Previously, as the report noted, Abrahamson "had broad authority to set the goals and structure of the program and he reported directly to the secretary of defense." In keeping with Secretary of Defense Frank C. Carlucci's decision that the planned Pentagon budget would need to be cut by $300 billion over the next five years, SDI was coming to be regarded not as a sacrosanct program but one
that would have to be compared with other research priorities. Nevertheless, SDIO planning continues to assume that deployment, in several phases, will take place as research continues (see tables 1 and 2).
Indeed, the more exuberant technological optimists continue to believe that the technology is now in hand to build a ballistic missile defense that would have significant strategic benefits. Indeed, the thrust of the High Frontier study was that this technological plateau had already been reached in 1982. The Marshall Institute report, reportedly written with the benefit of briefings by SDIO staff members, expresses no doubts whatever that a three-layer system "93 percent effective" against a "threat cloud" of ten thousand warheads and a hundred thousand decoys could be built in seven years for $121 billion and operated for between $10 billion and $15 billion per year.
The Everett panel reached a very different set of conclusions. Reporting some months later than the Marshall Institute did, this panel had been asked by the under secretary of defense for acquisition to review the SDI program and to comment on the state of SDI technology, systems design, costs, organization, management, and readiness to move toward deployment. (The Everett memorandum cited above was sent on the occasion of the completion of this review.) "Much remains to be done," the panel concluded, "before a confident decision can be made to proceed." It also observed that "a number of significant technological problems remain to be solved. Cost estimates are, therefore, highly uncertain." It went on to list "the principal pieces of missing technology": (1) the technology for the survivability of the SBKKV bus, (2) targeting the rocket hard body (i.e., the booster) in the presence of the rocket plume, (3) the ability of the passive infrared detectors on the probe and the SSTS to discriminate anything but the most primitive decoys and debris, and (4) the technology for the manufacture of the very large IR focal planes (i.e., the basic component of the infrared telescopes that determine the effectiveness of the probe, SSTS, and improved BSTS)—by no means a trivial list. The panel's report goes on to note that there "is little information on how objects look in space or how rockets look in boost phase. Component and systems design are proceeding on the basis of assumptions and calculations which may or may not prove reliable." It should be noted that all these cautionary remarks came from people who were, in the main, sympathetic to the project. Critics could easily suggest a number of other major missing pieces, but this list is nevertheless formidable as it stands.
Project insiders had other misgivings about early deployment, as evidenced
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by a report drafted by three analysts at the Livermore Laboratory. The report points out that the optimistic projections (e.g., the Marshall report, in particular) are based on calculations involving the characteristics of the Soviet SS-18, the most ponderous and vulnerable of all current Soviet missiles. Changes in the Soviet force structure, now under way, will greatly complicate the problem of interception. The report also stated that possible future modifications of Soviet forces, including some that are less extreme than those projected in the Fletcher report, make interception by SBKKVs of the type now being developed impossible. For example, the Livermore report concludes that whereas 20,000 interceptors in orbit could intercept 90 percent of the currently deployed enemy RVs during the combined boost and post-boost phases, about 100,000 interceptors would be required by the mid-1990s, given the DOD's projections. The projected threat consists of missiles and warheads whose development and deployment must have been well established even before Reagan's "Star Wars" speech. The so-called near-term responsive threat (that is, the threat designed and planned in response to the speech) is widely estimated to be such that the kind of SBKKVs the United States now knows how to make would have virtually no intercept capabilities at all.
The issues raised by the Livermore study may be further clarified by analyzing them in terms of the fraction of SBKKVs able to reach their targets after a suitable launch warning. According to the Livermore group, in the case of Soviet SS-18s intercepted by SBKKVs accelerated to 6 km per second, only 2.5 percent of the KKVs would be available for boost phase interception, 13 percent for interception before completion of the post-boost phase. (This latter figure agrees, at least roughly, with the conclusion presented in the Marshall report; i.e., that a force of 11,000 SBKKVs can handle an attack launched by 1,600 ICBMs.) For missiles like the U.S. MX and the Soviet SS-24 (a new ICBM now being deployed), these percentages fall to 1.3 percent and 9.5 percent respectively. For missiles like the current U.S. Minuteman and the Soviet SS-25 (yet another new missile) they drop to 1.6 percent and 2.3 percent respectively. In other words, fewer than one-fifth as many SBKKVs can reach an SS-25 as can reach an SS-18. For the Fletcher report's so-called fast-burn booster, these percentages are both zero.
There are still further difficulties that can easily be derived from the Livermore analysis. Recall that in the case of the SS-18, 13 percent of the SBKKVs are able to reach at least the post-boost vehicles, or buses, before they finish off-loading their RVs, but only 2.5 percent can reach
the boosters before burnout. This means that 80 percent of the interceptions ([13 — 2.5]/13) take place during the post-boost phase. Three important problems result. First, the bus is smaller, tougher, and much easier to decoy than the booster. The demands on the SBKKV are therefore much more severe than they are in the boost phase. Second, the rocket exhaust during the post-boost phase is far dimmer than in the boost phase. This means that the surveillance and tracking system, both in the BSTS and on the KKV itself, will require much greater extrapolations from "off-the-shelf" items than the optimists usually imply. Third, and probably most important, the buses are continuously discharging RVs all during the post-boost phase. Even if an SBKKV succeeds in destroying a bus, on average, more than half of its RVs will already be en route to the targets. And to make things even harder for the defense, the attacker could redesign the post-boost system so that all the RVs were released simultaneously rather than serially, thus greatly reducing the engagement time. A Senate staff report echoed these findings in even sharper terms:
Based on our briefings, it appears that SDIO is designing its Phase I space defense against an optimistic version of the Soviet threat. They appear to take a relaxed view of the smorgasbord of response options available to the Soviets to counter SDI. Phase I is being designed to address the Soviet threat of the mid 1990's, yet it probably will not even begin to be deployed until the late 1990's and will have the bulk of its deployment life in the following decade. The far more sophisticated threat environment of that later period would appear easily capable of defeating the Phase I system. In short, Phase I likely would be obsolete the day it was deployed.
These skeptical assessments are important not because they indicate there is anything especially defective in the way optimists tend to present the prospects for successful boost-phase interception, but because these complexities are typical of all elements of SDI. Without exception, the various components under development in the project all turn out to be (even ignoring countermeasures) much more difficult and much further from current capabilities than simplistic claims make them appear.
The Livermore report went on to point out—as have other proponents of strategic defense in general—that changes the Soviets are already making to take account of possible U.S. defenses present less of a danger to the United States than the current Soviet offense poses. The Soviets have had to reduce the size and lethality of their forces in order to assure penetration of potential U.S. defenses. Thus, the Livermore analysts say, "the deployed defense has resulted in significant reductions
without firing a shot." This effect, in fact, parallels what the Soviets have achieved with their (enormously expensive) air defenses. U.S. responses to the U.S.S.R.'s continuing improvements in its air defenses over the years have involved the substitution of penetration aids (e.g., standoff missiles, electronic countermeasures, etc.) for some of the explosive megatonnage previously carried by bombers. Thus, the Soviets have achieved a considerable reduction in the force of a potential U.S. attack "without firing a shot." SDI puts the United States in a similar position. The big question, of course, is whether the construction of extremely expensive defenses is the best way to accomplish such a reduction. Negotiated arms control may be much easier to achieve and is obviously a good deal less expensive.
Clearly, there is a very wide diversity of views, even within the defense community, about the status of the relevant R&D; about the meaning and prospects of what is already known and in hand; and about the feasibility, cost, and value of any kind of early deployment. In every instance—and even among those who favor SDI—the better-informed and more competent the group, the more cautious and hedged the claims.