STAR WARS REDUX: Democrats to Gut Missile Defense / Bush to Announce "Orbital Battle Station"

With these key developments, 2007 is set to be the biggest battle of space-based weapons since President Reagan proposed "Star Wars" in 1983.

The incoming chairman of the Senate's Armed Services Committee is Carl Levin. Levin, a Michigan Democrat, has long been a foe of missile defense. In 1980s, he worried that President Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative -- which aimed to develop technology to destroy Soviet missiles during all phases of flight -- was "destabilizing."

Today Sen. Levin sings the same tune in a different key. "They've not done the operational testing yet that is convincing," said Senator Levin during a post-election press conference. He was referring to the Ground based Missile Defense [GMD] system being installed in Alaska and California, to defend against North Korean missiles. He added that he favors stalling purchases of interceptor missiles - vital for missile defense -- until after testing is complete.

In short, Sen. Levin and other longtime opponents of missile defense plan to use "testing" - set to an unrealistically high level - to stop missile defense.

How the Game is Played

Former Assistant Secretary of Defense Frank Gaffney explains how the game works: "The idea is that we put it [missile defense] on ice until absolutely everybody is satisfied. It is a formula for not having the missile defense we need."

Critics hope to stop missile defense by devoting its entire budget to testing, which is costly. At $100 million dollars or more per test, a test or two could easily absorb the entire Ground-based missile defense budget.

Certainly testing sounds reasonable. Why not make sure the stuff works before blowing billions on it? But the testing fixation ignores that, like software, most successful weapons systems are best debugged after being deployed. And some weapons systems were never tested at all before deployment.

Complex weapons systems have often been used successfully without proper testing. In 1940, Britain's new air defenses -- radars, ground observers, anti-aircraft guns and squadrons of Spitfires and Hurricanes -- had never been tested against even a small scale simulated attack. Yet they won the Battle of Britain. Likewise in the 1991 Gulf War the first two E-8A ground surveillance radar aircraft had only just begun a long testing process when they were shipped to Saudi Arabia. During the war they performed magnificently and now these aircraft are in high demand all over the world.

For decades, critics of advanced technology weapons have pointed to testing failures to support their drive to cancel the programs. Yet test failures are a normal part of the development process of any weapon system. Consider the M-1 tank. Its early tests were riddled with failures, yet now it is one of the most effective tanks in the world.

Democrats: "A limited defense capability that works." Reasonable but Disingenuous

Over in the House of Representatives, Democrats are deploying a similar strategy to stop missile defense. Seven House Democrats, including Ike Skelton (D-MO), John Spratt (D-SC), Loretta Sanchez and Neil Abercrombie (D-HI), recently sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld complaining of "tests that have been highly scripted with unrealistic countermeasures, the time of the enemy launch was known and the threat came from only a single enemy missile." This sounds reasonable, but is actually disingenuous. Each test is designed to achieve a specific set of goals, this is what the Democrats mean by "scripted."

Each test requires the use of a heavily modified ICBM as a target. Hundreds, maybe thousands of highly trained specialists operate sensors and collect the telemetry from both the interceptor and the target missile. Development testing like this is designed to gather information on performance and reliability. It will be years before the system is ready for "operational testing."

While the Democratic lawmakers insist they support "fielding a limited defense capability that works," they still see missile defense as a boondoggle. The letter writers contend: "Since the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) was launched in the mid 1980's the United States has spent nearly $100 billion dollars on missile defense programs and studies with little to show for it." This last sentence is ironic since most Democrats have long opposed any actual deployment of strategic missile defenses.

anilloofsdi.jpg

Missile Defense: A Brief History

Missile Defense has gone through several phases of research and development. In the early 1990s a system called Brilliant Pebbles was ready to begin development when it was canceled by the Clinton administration.

Meanwhile a number of tactical missile defense systems have been developed including the Patriot PAC-3, which worked well during the 2003 Iraq operation and as well as the Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) missile which is planned to begin operations in 2009 and the Airborne Laser built into a Boeing 747 which may be operational early in the next decade.

Democrats in Congress have learned not to treat homeland missile defense with the disdain they demonstrated in the 1980s; the threat of attack from rogue nations seems far too real to shrug off. Generally Democratic lawmakers support for modest research budgets and "limited" missile defenses, while citing "inadequate testing" to stop actual deployment.

Democratic opponents of missile defense often speak as if the ground-based missile defense system was the whole program, ignoring the sea based SM-3 missile, which has been undergoing a rigorous and successful test program in the waters off Hawaii. Indeed, it is so successful that Japanese government is buying it to equip its Aegis cruisers. The Defense Department has been reluctant to fund an upgrade of the system to give it its full potential against long range missiles.

How Serious Are Pols About Missile Defense?

One test of how serious both Democrats and the Bush Administration is about defending America against missile attack is whether they are ready to use the ultimate high ground - outer space. The best time to hit a ballistic missile is just after blast off when it is climbing against of gravity and emitting a massive heat signature. This is known as "Boost Phase Intercept." In 1992 a space-based system that could perform this task known as Brilliant Pebbles was being developed by the Strategic Defense Initiative Organization [SDIO]. It was canceled by Les Aspin, Clinton's first Secretary of Defense, who claimed that he was "taking the Stars out of Star Wars."

Aspin also imposed drastic cuts to the long term missile defense science and technology research budget, cuts from which that part of the program has never really recovered.

orbitalbattlestation.jpg

Coming Soon: The Orbital Battle Station

Pajamas Media has learned that the Bush administration is going to ask Congress for funding to begin development of an "orbital battle station" that will be able to attack enemy missiles in their vulnerable boost phase.

Each Battle Station would be a fairly large satellite that carried a number, perhaps 40 to 50 infrared guided "kill vehicles." On orders from the ground, the battle station would launch these kill vehicles, roughly about the size of a loaf of bread, at incoming missiles. Professor Everett Dolman of the School of Advanced Air and Space Studies at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama and the author of %%Amazon= 0714681970 Astropolitik - Classical Geopolitics in The Space Age%%, says that space based systems are "the only viable option for global defense against the most likely threats, such as an attack by Iran against Israel or by Pakistan against India."

"The technology," Dolman said, "for a basic orbital interceptor that could hit an ICBM in mid flight has been available to the U.S. for at least two decades. Indeed should the U.S. dedicate itself to a fast track development and deployment of several dozen networked anti-missile satellites, it could have a baseline capability in place within two years."

The Bush administration pending request for an orbital battle station will surely touch off a brawl over "space weaponization". Loren Dealy a spokeswoman for the Democrats on the House Armed Services Committee told Pajamas Media: "Our members have serious concerns with the concept of space-based interceptors."

Critics have long believed space-based systems would set off an arms race in space that would destabilize international relations. Keeping space a sanctuary for our satellites seems reasonable, until one recognizes that this leaves billions of dollars of vital U.S. military assets defenseless targets that could be hit and destroyed by primitive space weapons that Iran or others could build regardless of any restraint we show. The orbital battle stations could possibly knock out such weapons the same way they knock out long range missiles.

While some Democrats can be expected to fight tooth and nail against any orbital battle station, the defense community suggests that others such as Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA) are not going to reject space-based defense as out of hand. Others such as Rep. John Spratt (D-SC) may want to slow things down. Last May, he said "We owe it to ourselves to understand the full ramifications of a move into space before we introduce this additional variable into the missile defense equation." Overall they may spend the same sums the GOP was planning to spend, but would keep any effective defense systems on the drawing board forever.

Now that the Democrats are in charge of both houses of Congress for the first time since the 9-11 attacks, they face an important and ultimately revealing choice: will they to stick with the bromides beloved by their base or work with the president to safeguard the country from North Korean and Iranian missiles?


Taylor Dinerman writes a weekly column for the Space Review (www.thespacereview.com), and has written on space and defense issues for The Wall Street Journal, National Review, and Ad Astra, the magazine of the National Space Society, Space News and elsewhere. He was an author of the textbook 'Space Science for Students' and is a consultant for the U.S. Defense Department. His views in no way represent those of the Department.