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Updated: 15-Apr-2002 NATO Review

WEB EDITION
No. 3 - Jun. 1992
Vol. 40 - pp. 27-30

LIMITED BALLISTIC MISSILE STRIKES.
GPALS COMES UP WITH AN ANSWER

Ambassador Henry F. Cooper,
Director of the US Strategic Defense Initiative Organization,
Washington, D.C.

The collapse of the former Soviet Union coupled with the recent Gulf War with Iraq provides compelling evidence that defence against ballistic missile attack is more imperative than ever.

The stark consequences of ballistic missile proliferation in the Third Whorld were seen by millions of people around the world and felt by innocent civilians in Tel Aviv and Riyadh. Fortunately, we can only imagine what would have been the strategic consequences had Saddam Hussein possessed the ability to threaten with ballistic missile attack the undefended capitals of the world, including those in the NATO Alliance.

The important question to be asked is what lessons can be learned from the Gulf War and the collapse of the Soviet Union. First, the Gulf War. As far as strategic and theatre defences are concerned, at least five important lessons can be learned from the SCUD - PATRIOT duel. First, reliance on only deterrence through the threat of retaliation will not prevent unstable dictators or terrorist nations from acquiring and using ballistic missiles. Second, it is unlikely that pre-emptive strikes could destroy all launchers before their missiles were sent on missions of destruction. Third, the Patriots showed, in combat, that it is possible to intercept ballistic missiles in flight. Fourth, defences do not need to work perfectly to be useful. And fifth, defences that cost more than the attacking weapons can be well worth the price - just ask the citizens of Tel Aviv and Riyadh.

Clearly, as ballistic missile technology proliferates, the threat of short, medium, intermediate and intercontinental range ballistic missile attack grows. As Lt. Gen. Charles Horner, Commander, US Central Command Tactical Air Forces, said to aviation week and space technology, "...When very accurate missiles with mass destruction warheads are available to Third World nations, the US will need a regional, wide-area air defence force to duplicate on a grand scale the Patriot's pivotal role of defanging the Scud".

A new focus for SDI

These observations confirm the wisdom of a new direction for the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) programme, which was taken after almost two years of review of the implications of fundamental developments in the East-West relationship, and before the Gulf War. Much has changed in the world since SDI was first introduced nine years ago, particularly in the last 18 months.

These changes led President Bush, during his 1991 State of the Union Address, to announce that he had "directed that the SDI programme be refocused on providing protection from limited ballistic missile strikes, whatever their source. Let us pursue an SDI programme that can deal with any future threat to the United States, to our forces overseas and to our friends and allies."

The refocused programme, which increases SDI's emphasis on theatre missile defence, is called Global Protection Against Limited Strikes, or GPALS.

Under the old Phase I SDI programme, the first objective of strategic defence was to deter a massive Soviet first strike by destroying a significant percentage of several thousand THOUSAND attacking nuclear warheads. Under the new GPALS programme, the objective is to protect the United States,our forces overseas, as well as our allies and friends, by destroying the warheads of limited ballistic missile strikes (up to 200 warheads) launched from anywhere on earth.

A GPALS defence would consist of three elements working in concert to provide the best possible protection against limited ballistic missile attacks. First, improved theatre missile defences could protect against ballistic missile attacks on US forces overseas andon US friends and allies. Second, a ground-based defensive system , at five to seven sites, could defend the United States against accidental and unauthorized ballistic missile strikes from any source. And finally, a global, space-based element (Brilliant Pebbles) could intercept ballistic missiles with ranges greater than a few hundred miles, destroying the targets by colliding with them. With the necessary funding, we could begin fielding an advanced theatre missile defence by the mid-1990s, ground-based US defences in late 1997 and Brilliant Pebbles around the end of the decade.

With the passage of the Missile Defense Act of 1991, Congress has joined the Administration in pushing for advanced theatre ballistic missile defence and for US national defences against limited long-range ballistic missile attack. In particular, the Act states that we should develop for deployment, as early as technology permits or by 1996, a cost effective ballistic missile defence system which complies with the Anti-Ballistic Missile (ABM) Treaty. This would serve as an initial step toward deployment of an adequate number of ABM sites and space-based sensors necessary to provide a highly effective defence of the United States against limited attacks of ballistic missiles. At the same time, we are exploring possible opportunities for expanded cooperation with our Allies on missile defences, and discussing with the former Soviet Union how we might jointly develop and deploy effective defences that requires amending the current ABM treaty regime.

Role of space systems

It should be understood that space systems could play a very important role in future strategic defences. Even in the recent Gulf War, space-based sensors provided key initial warning information on the Scuds and, after analysis in Colorado Springs, key data were provided via a hot line to wake up the Patriot batteries in Israel and Saudi Arabia. Future space sensor systems will provide far more effective support for theatre defences. Similarly, US ground-based defensive systems would depend upon the timely development and deployment of space-based sensors such as our Brilliant Eyes system.

Furthermore, the space-based Brilliant Pebbles could detect and intercept ballistic missiles that fly through space, above the earth's atmosphere. Thus, Brilliant Pebbles could provide continuous world-wide protection against ballistic missiles launched from essentially anywhere, so long as they rise above the atmosphere - a characteristic associated with normal missiles with ranges greater than about 500 km. This ever present capability could be very important in maintaining stability during the mobilization period that could lead to conflicts in possible future regional crises.

A joint global system?

The proliferation of ballistic missiles throughout the developing world also is gaining in importance for the former Soviet Union. And with good reason. By the year 2000, it is estimated that 15 Third World nations will have the capability for indigenous production of ballistic missiles, up to 30 will have a chemical weapons capability, 10 may be able to deploy biological weapons, and as many as eight may have a nuclear capability. Because of geography, the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) is more directly threatened by such missiles than is the United States. As GPALS addresses a threat of mutual concern, we believe it may facilitate progress in future arms control talks with them.

A disturbing by-product of the break-up of the Soviet Union is the prospect that thousands of scientists working in the nuclear and advanced weapons fields now face the very real possibility of losing their jobs, coupled with the growing temptation to sell their services to the highest bidder. As Robert Gates, the Director of the CIA, said to the House Armed Services Committee, "Most of these emigrants will prefer to settle in Israel or in the West, but some may find a better market for their expertise in Third World countries trying to acquire or improve special nuclear, biological and/or chemical weapons capabilities."

The question then arises - as it has for six years in the Defence and Space Talks - how do we work with the Soviets (and now the CIS) toward building and deploying defences in the interests of us all? At least part of the answer is that if the member nations of the NATO Alliance speak with one voice, as we did throughout the Cold War, the former Soviet Union will eventually work with us to find a solution to maintain stability under an appropriate arms control regime while permitting all of us to deploy defensive systems for our mutual protection.There are signs that the leadership of the CIS is already thinking along those lines. In a speech last January to the United Nations, Russian President Boris Yeltsin said, "I think the time has come to consider creating a global system for the protection of the world community. It could be based on a reorientation of the US strategic defence system to make use of high technologies developed in Russia's defence complex. Russia considers the United States and the West not as mere partners but rather as allies."

As I stated before the Senate Appropriations Committee on 9 April, we are very interested in working cooperatively with the Russians. In fact, it was a position I advocated strongly for some five years in Geneva during the Defence and Space Talks. We believe there are cooperative efforts that are mutually beneficial with respect to SDI, and we are anxious to start working with our Russian counterparts as soon as possible.

Although GPALS was being considered long before the first Patriot intercepted an Iraqi Scud, the President's decision to redirect the focus of the SDI programme certainly came at an opportune moment. One important lesson of the Gulf War is that we need Global Protection Against Limited Strikes as soon as possible, with improved theatre missile defences leading the way.

An irony is that many of the same critics who gave a litany of excuses as to why we shouldn't have a Patriot ballistic missile defence capability, or why Patriot would never work, are now saying the very same things about strategic and improved theatre missile defence.

It was said that Patriot would never work because it was impossible to "hit a bullet with a bullet." But, thanks to CNN, the whole world saw Patriots close with approaching Scuds at a speed of more than two miles per second, which is two-and-a-half times faster than two bullets fired at each other from high-velocity rifles. And, on January 28, 1991, an experimental ground-based interceptor hit a Minuteman warhead over 100 miles above the earth with a closing velocity three times faster than that of a Patriot intercepting a Scud.

So, recent events show that we no longer have to be defenceless against ballistic missiles. And, as Henry Kissinger wrote in the 2 April 1991 WASHINGTON POST, "limitations on strategic defenses will have to be reconsidered in light of the Gulf War experience; no responsible leader can henceforth deliberately leave his civilian population vulnerable." Thus, we can and must defend ourselves against these most threatening offensive weapons systems, particularly those that in the future may be in the hands of irresponsible or terrorist leaders.

© Copyright by North Atlantic Treaty Organisation 1992.