Another version of Star Wars looms
Bush awaits political support for missile-destroying satellites, says Livermore lab scientist
By Ian Hoffman/Oakland Tribune/September 10/2002

The scientific fathers of Brilliant Pebbles say the Bush administration is considering revival of their Cold War-era plan for sending swarms of missile-killing minisatellites into Earth orbit -- and perhaps sharing control of the defense with Russia and the rest of the free world.

Lawrence Livermore lab's Lowell Wood and Los Alamos lab's Gregory Canavan, the missile-defense theorists who with H-bomb father Edward Teller conceived Brilliant Pebbles in a series of 1986 war games, say their invention is ready for engineering into a prototype for tests in space.

"At the present time," Wood told missile-defense critics in late spring, "it's an option laying in front of the national leadership with respect to ballistic missile defense applications."

Senate Democratic leaders have signaled profound unease at the notion of posting weapons in orbit.

Canavan suggests the Bush administration is waiting for a more sympathetic political environment. "I think it all turns on the (midterm) elections," Canavan said. "If the Republicans can regain the Senate, then they'll see an opening. The guy who's seen all the ins and outs and who's ready to move as soon as he sees light of day is (Defense Secretary Donald) Rumsfeld."

Brilliant Pebbles originally was designed for the Armageddon scenario of a Soviet strike with thousands of nuclear warheads, perhaps preceded by a disabling assault on any American defenses. After the Scud attacks of the Gulf War, however, Wood told scientists and students at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, pebbles were modified so they now can swoop down into the atmosphere and kill Scuds, perhaps even cruise missiles.

Pebbles, Wood said, also can act as bodyguards for high-value U.S. satellites, inspect or attack other satellites and sacrifice themselves in one-time spy missions.

Arrayed by the hundreds in two layers of space, the pebbles were hardened against nuclear blasts and lesser assaults. All or part of the constellation would be activated on human command, then the satellites would talk among themselves, size up likely targets and autonomously fire themselves one by one, like self-directed bullets, at enemy missiles. When tensions eased, U.S. military commanders would rescind "weapons release," and the pebbles would cease their attack.

Brilliant Pebbles is so effective, Wood said, that he and Teller, his mentor at Livermore, endorse internationalizing control of the entire anti-missile constellation, or at least handing the encrypted control keys to the Russian Federation and any country with a democratically elected legislature. Senior national-security aides in the Bush administration are weighing the idea, Wood said.

If so, the deliberations are closely held at the Pentagon. "I haven't heard anything about Brilliant Pebbles coming back, ever," said Maj. Cathy Reardon, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Missile Defense Agency.

Despite withdrawing from a 1972 Soviet-U.S. treaty that forbids such a defense system, President George W. Bush and the Pentagon haven't shown discernible public enthusiasm for Brilliant Pebbles.

The Missile Defense Agency proposes to spend $54 million next year on unspecified "kinetic-energy kill vehicles" for space, out of more than $6.7 billion for missile defense. The budget for space-based interceptors is projected to nearly double by 2005, when the Pentagon plans a first flight test. By comparison, MDA is seeking $634 million for competing directed-energy weapons, predominantly the Airborne Laser mounted on an airliner and a less-defined Space-Based Laser.

Longtime admirers of Brilliant Pebbles say they expected a warmer embrace by the new administration. In the early 1990s, after all, then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney called Brilliant Pebbles the "No. 1 project" for the first Bush administration, and it was funded generously even as more exotic schemes from President Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, or Star Wars program, were dropped.

But Brilliant Pebbles hasn't received any money since Clinton Defense Secretary Les Aspin announced in 1993 that he was "taking the star out of Star Wars." The Bush administration in effect has continued on the same course as the Clinton administration, by keeping its primary missile-defense thrust in "hit-to-kill" interceptors mounted on fast ground-based rockets, to be deployed initially in Alaska.

"The decision was to go with hit-to-kill technology in the last administration and to go on with that now," said Pam Bain of the Missile Defense Agency. "There are only so much resources."

Despite the optimism of Brilliant Pebbles' inventors, Bain added, putting hundreds of interceptors in space "is a decision for the secretary of defense and the president, but there has not been a decision to do that."

One of Brilliant Pebbles' leading promoters in Washington, D.C., confesses to frustration. "I haven't seen anyone in the administration speak out for Pebbles yet," said a wistful Henry Cooper, chairman of High Frontier, a Washington, D.C., nonprofit devoted to missile defenses, particularly in space.

"If there is a serious program to revive Brilliant Pebbles, I know nothing about it, and I'm doing everything I can to revive such a program," he said. At a cost of roughly $10 billion, Cooper said, Brilliant Pebbles remains the most mature, economical global defense for knocking down missiles while their rockets are still aflame and their warheads are most vulnerable.

Critics and advocates of missile defenses suggest Brilliant Pebbles faces a tougher market today, even with an administration full of familiar figures, for a variety of political, economic and technical reasons.

"I'm not sure it's as viable as the Livermore people would argue," said Dan Goure, a missile-defense proponent at the Lexington Institute, a pro-defense, moderate think-tank. "The parents tend to see musical talent where others only hear dissonance."

Goure and missile-defense critic Ted Postol, an MIT physicist, say Brilliant Pebbles can be defeated easily by a "salvo launch" of multiple missiles simultaneously from the same place. The pebbles only would have one to four minutes, depending on type of missile, to see and attack it, at speeds 12 times that of a high-velocity bullet. Only one or two pebbles would be positioned to strike on such a tight schedule. The only solution is to add more pebbles. Ground-based interceptors would have an equal or better shot, Goure argued. "That's a huge difference in cost."

"If I'm going to go to all the hassle of going to space and upset all my allies, why not wait and go with directed energy (such as a laser), which is much more effective," Goure said.

Postol said he suspects the pebbles aren't fast or maneuverable enough to hit a missile. And he doubts they will be able to see shorter-range missiles such as Scuds. As a pebble re-enters deeply into the atmosphere, he said, the windows for its infrared sensors are blinded by the redhot blast of onrushing air, a phenomenon known as "red-eye."

"That's the equivalent of me taking an aircraft searchlight and putting it two or three feet in front of your face, then asking you to see a lit match a few miles away on a dark night," Postol said. "The shock front is not a minor technical problem."

Canavan said it's very hard to do simultaneous missile launches and the pebbles won't be blinded as much as Postol contends. He's waiting for a chance to argue the Brilliant Pebbles case again.

"If the technical arguments for a space-based interceptor are as sound and strong as I think they are, people will just have to recognize that, and I think it will happen."