The Genesis of US Missile Shield


I have deliberately kept quiet about the present day fad of journalists about the projected US Missile shield and its pros and cons. Way back in 1983, more precisely after 23 March 1983, and after a visionary pronouncement (not supported by any scientific confirmation) President Reagan announced or rather appealed to the US scientific community to get a US anti-ballistic missile shield ready to ‘zap’ the Soviet ballistic missile (including their MIRVed weapons.) This passion or rather the frenzy remained with him as long as he was not senile and almost till the end of the cold war, the cold scientific and the laws of physics evidence were going totally against the lofty presidential vision.

It is on record that President Reagan did not consult any of his scientific advisors about the real feasibility of this architecture and went straight ahead with the setting up of the SDIO (Strategic Defence Initiative Organisation) under a senior and experienced Air Force Officer Gen Abrahamson who is credited with the fabrication of the F-16 Falcon fighter aircraft. Naturally, being a presidential fad there was no shortage of funds and enthusiasm with the entire US resources behind the phoney project.

Unluckily, for the grand scheme there was a band of US scientists known as Union of Concerned Scientists (with such famous names as Drs Hans Bethe and Garwin) who critically evaluated the scheme of things and found it unworkable, the American resources of manpower and material notwithstanding.

It was found that the amount of electricity needed for laser operation in a space platform to incinerate the incoming hostile ballistic missile could not be produced under any circumstances. This could be terribly expensive.

Of course even in a democratic country like the United States the work on a futile and scientifically impossible project continued with the hope that the research may well provide some industrial spin offs and other scientific profit.

The gargantuan research organisation and the projected architectures were reexamined and critically analysed and the sponsors gradually conceded to the point of view of the Union of Concerned Scientists. At the political levels the greatest hurdle was the well meaning ABM Treaty 1972 (which is still so). This treaty which had been contracted by President Nixon with great political dexterity and vision prohibits any research/experiments for the fabrication of anti-missile weapons with the hope that this would automatically curtail the number of missiles arsenals with the superpowers.

With the demolition of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the work on SDI slowed down and the US hawks started looking for a more Sensible Defence Initiative (SDI) which in fact implied a downsizing of the ambitious Presidential craze.

The interesting part of the whole exercise is that with the Soviet threat receding, although the Russians have their own missile defence system against Moscow, and their repeated grumbling, the US became more chary about certain other rogue states who had acquired ballistic missiles and nuclear warheads. This being so the research on anti-missile missiles continued and some of the work under the US funding was carried out in Israel under the supervision of the Israel Air Force. It was here that the much trumpeted anti-missile missile ‘ Arrow’ was fabricated and tested.

There is yet another interesting facet of the use of missiles to intercept the Soviet Scud Missiles (of the 1960s era). These Scud B’s were used by Iraq against Israel and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and it was claimed during the Gulf War 1991 that these were destroyed by the Ratheon developed ‘Patriots’. Even President Bush (the father of the present US President) went to the Gulf and made a statement that nearly more than ninety per cent Scuds have been downed by the Patriots. This I have found was more of a sales promotional statement than fact.

It is on record that an inquest was held in USA and from the evidence gathered from the battlefield it was found that the claim as made by President Bush was far from true, the Gulf States all the same invested large sums in the purchase of the Patriots. (Even Japan and South Korea are also in possession of these missiles now a days.)

The real efficacy of the Patriots of the 1991 era have been well brought out in the inquest which has been published in CRS (Congressional Research Service) papers which is not a restricted document. It has come out that the Patriot’s handling in Israel was by the Israelis, and the batteries in KSA were handled/operated by US crew.

An insider revelation is that the Iraqis tried to tamper with the basic ballistics of the Scud by putting two rockets and a single warhead to achieve additional range to reach out to Tel Aviv from locations inside Iraq. With this arrangement they sacrificed original missile ballistics and traded this with range. Consequently the so-called Iraqi modification completely ‘destroyed’ the Scud, and it broke into two ‘of its own’ while on re-entry in the space, and were not destroyed by the so-called Patriot action as is generally and incorrectly claimed.

I have made quite an intensive study of the efficacy of anti-missile missiles – but most of them primarily have been built to deal with fast high flying aircraft and with some luck these could perform well against as a hostile missile -but not always (as was the case of Patriots.) This sort of shield is unreliable and a rocket carrying a prototype interceptor was launched from Kwajalein Missile Range in the South Pacific last year and its kill vehicle failed to hit a ballistic missile that had been launched 20 minutes earlier. It was like hitting a bullet with another bullet and the technology is not so easy as it appears.

The US National Missile Defence & the SDI Syndrome

It is rather important and necessary to understand the SDI (Strategic Defence Initiative) technologies while discussing the current US debate on NMD as NMD is a derivative or perhaps a down sized and more sensible defence initiative than the original grand scheme of things as envisaged by President Reagan. So let us study the SDI and its progress briefly over the period of its maximum frenzy i.e. 1983 to 1988. Only some of the more important milestones have been highlighted.

President Reagan made a historic speech on 23 March 1983. He presented to the US and the world at large a scheme of things consisting of defensive measures against the menace of burgeoning Soviet missile arsenal. He said “… What if free world could live secure in the knowledge that their security did not rest upon the threat of instant US retaliation to detect a Soviet attack, that we could intercept and destroy strategic ballistic missiles before they reached out own soil or that of our allies…” He continued in the same vein “… I call upon the scientific community in our country, those who gave us nuclear weapons, to turn their great talents now to the cause of mankind and world peace, to give us the means of rendering these nuclear weapons impotent and obsolete…. I am directing a comprehensive and intensive effort to define a long term research and development programme to begin to achieve our ultimate goal of eliminating the threat posed by strategic nuclear missiles.”

For sure the Soviet Union straightway denounced SDI.

The Presidential wish being what it was, the recommendations of three studies ordered by the President were soon completed. The Technology Study opined “… powerful new technologies are becoming available that justify a major technology development effort offering future technological options to implement a defensive strategy…” This had happened by October 1983, very quick indeed by any standards of assessment. The study recommended a five-year programme to determine the technical feasibility of future ballistic missile defences and proposed $ 26,000 million for this massive effort.

January 1984 saw the creation of the Strategic Defensive Initiative Organisation (SDIO) to undertake a “comprehensive programme to develop the key technologies associated with concepts for defence against ballistic missiles…” In the same month to further progress his brainchild SDI, President Reagan reported to the Congress:

The existence of large phased Array (PR) Soviet radar (under construction) at Krasnoyarsk which violated the provisions of ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty, 1972.

USSR may be preparing for a large scale AMB (Anti-Ballistic Missile) defence of its own.

The above findings may be found in the Reports sent to the Congress annually by the President during 1985, 1986 and 1987 too.

The first exclusive budget for the SDI was submitted to the Congress in February 1984.

1984 was a fairly active year for the SDI – and some of the other important events this year in this regard were:

Briefing of NATO Defence Ministers by the US Defence Secretary Casper Weinberger on SDI in Cesme Turkey.

Appointment of Lt Gen James A Abrahamson as Director of SDIO.

Staging of a Homing Overlay Experiment (HOE) and successful interception of a missile warhead in midcourse phase of flight. (Of course this was a non nuclear intercept) This was considered as a landmark and laid the foundation for the Exoatmospheric Re-entry Vehicle Interceptor Subsystem (an important technology needed for SDI infrastructure)

President Reagan met the British Prime Minister Margaret Thacher at Camp David and the two dignitaries agreed on the following points:

The US and the Western aim was not to achieve ascendancy but to maintain balance (in missile arsenals).

SDI related deployment, in view of treaty obligations, had to be negotiated.

The overall aim is to enhance, and not undermine deterrence.

The main aim is to achieve security with reduced levels of offensive systems on both sides.

1985 was yet another bumper year for SDI, and some of the events of greater importance are summarised below:-

The DoD (Dept of Defence) booklet “Defence Against Ballistic Missiles” clarified that “the essential objective of SDI is to diminish the risk of nuclear destruction and to provide for a safer, less menacing way of preventing nuclear war in the decades to come.”

Yet another and more detailed White House Publication “The President’s Strategic Defence Initiative” was published to provide a rationale for the SDI technologies/programme which was described as a purely defensive measure. The three main reasons were, the immense Soviet build up in conventional and nuclear weapons, the awesome destructive power of nuclear weapons and the need for new technologies that may make effective non-nuclear defences against ballistic missiles possible.

Important USA-Soviet Union Talks (NST) held in Geneva on 12 March 1985 and the Soviet side dubbed SDI as a ‘space-strike arms’ which was an attempt to kill the SDI programme (while retaining their own such programme).

A Department of State Special Report on the SDI was published in June 1985 which further clarified the aim of SDI, and the extent of the technologies involved.

On the practical side, a ground based Directed Energy experiment using the Inra Red Advanced Chemical Laser (MIRACL) was conducted at the White Sands Missile Range. It was found for the first time (experimentally) that a laser can destroy a ballistic missile booster i.e. liquid propellant ballistic missiles are vulnerable to attack by lasers.

Tracking of a sounding rocket by a low-power laser also carried out in an experimental site in Hawaii on 27 September 1985.

At the fag end of the year 1985 an MoU was signed by USA with United Kingdom for participation in SDI research. Such an agreement was also signed with Federal Republic of Germany on 26 February 1986.

As would be seen the Soviets never really agreed to the SDI and took it as an exception although they had their own ‘SDI’ and its network around Moscow which was fully operational. With the passage of time, and with the technologies involved becoming more expensive (and unworkable), the US was forced to work out a more ‘sensible’ defence initiative which came out in the form of TMD (Theatre Missile Defence and the present National Missile Defence. More on this later).

The Ugly Head of Star Wars

With the installation of the 43rd President of the United States of America and the US economy still being quite healthy and vibrant, the ugly head of ‘Star War’ has again risen though as I have indicated earlier in a less formidable and more sensible form. A small quote from the US Magazine ‘New Scientist’ of 20 January 2001 is indicative of the fact that Reagan’s SDI has been nearly revived. “…. Killer satellites, nuclear powered lasers and interceptor missiles – the Front-line of George Bush’s Fortress America may sound a little familiar. Yes. Ronald Reagan’s Star Wars project is back…”

During his Presidential campaign, George W. Bush had made it quite clear that his administration is likely to invest heavily in space-based missile defence technology to protect the US and its Allies from a nuclear attack. His choice for Defence Secretary, Donald H Rumsfeld is an enthusiastic supporter of missile defence. He is rightly called ‘the missile Secretary’.

President-elect Bush’s appointment shows, “we’ll move forward with missile defence in a very serious way,” says Jack Spencer, defence policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation, a Washington based think tank that supports missile defence.

The present US stance as far as the missile defence is concerned is synonymous of the SDI of President Reagan and once again downsized SDI which had envisaged both space and ground kill technologies may not work for a more comprehensive missile defence.

So far the new technologies have not been spelled out and as per ‘New Scientist’ “… Critics claim such missile defence systems are unreliable and destabilising… And it’s not yet clear how far Bush administration will go in deploying one, because they are constrained by arms control agreements… But Bush is likely to spend billions of dollars researching the technology..” From the scientific feasibility point of view there are again critics from UCS (Union of Concerned Scientists) of Mass. And according to Tom Collina “He is talking about global coverage. You can only do that from space.” This option as we have seen was critical in abandoning the basic concept of SDI, and Reagan’s architecture.

The appointment of Rumsfeld is significant in the sense that he will bring about a rebirth of SDI. He had held responsible positions in the security sector during Nixon, Ford and Reagan’s period, and he is back in the driving seat.

A brief analysis of the events will indicate that the US never abandoned the SDI technologies (in spite of curtailed funding) and even carried out trials of projects like ‘Arrow’ in Israel with US funding. It has been recently reported that successful trials of ‘Arrow’ have already been carried out.

It appears that the present frenzy of the revival of SDI and NMD is mainly due to the fact that US is more worried about ‘rogue’ states like North Korea and Iraq.

As I have mentioned a plan known as Theatre Missile Defence (TMD) had already been worked out specially to combat North Korean missiles but the scheme envisaged engagement of the hostile missile from the ground after it has been located and pin pointed by a radar suitably deployed to do that. A detail of this system and US-Japanese nexus may be found in the paragraphs that follow. However, the new NMD has added a new impetus and Pentagon’s modest plan to use interceptor missiles to shoot down any hostile nuclear warhead seems to have become obsolete.

“While Clinton demurred on deploying NMD, Bush may now go ahead, although Congress could oppose him. They are less likely to fight new funding, possibly several billion dollars a year for developing technologies that would promise true space-based defence.”

Very broadly the proposed NMD System is intended to defend all 50 states from small-scale attacks (upto several tons of missiles) by intercontinental missiles (ICBMs) armed with nuclear, chemical or biological warheads. And this is perhaps the third time that the NMD debate has become a national controversy, and the physicists have been involved in this from the beginning.

In a very brief outline the proposed NMD system consists of possibly interceptor missiles tipped with conventional explosives or nuclear warheads with homing ‘kill vehicles’ that destroy an incoming warhead by directly colliding with it. It could use directed energy weapons like the SDI technologies including space based laser (still under development.)

The centre piece of the planned NMD system is the ‘exoatmospheric kill vehicle’ (EKW) which would be launched by an interceptor missile.

SDI (Strategic Defence Initiative), or the “Star wars” as the more flamboyant journalists called it was perhaps the most grandiose practical step which President Reagan had wished to take to end the Cold War which had persisted throughout the eighties, and then died its natural death just before the Gulf War 1991.

President Reagan, I am sure, was a non-scientist, but he was terribly obsessed with his massive plan of things, and perhaps thought that whatever is thinkable is possible with American technology. At least his launching of SDI, and his monumental address to the American nation of 23 March 1983 clearly speaks of this.

The scientists, worldover did their best but this grand idea could not be translated into a viable and efficient destructive technology. Directed energy weapons were just not cost effective.

This short presentation deals with the US overtures towards Japan (and some other allies who were technically well advanced) to pool their resources and produce a viable, and practical space based system which could deal with hostile missiles, preferable with laser incineration from a space (satellite) platform.

As it is, a sort of US-Japanese military technology had existed since 1980, and the US and Japan had co-produced many major weapons, more significantly the F-4, F-15 and 0-3C (Orion). And yet another more important example was the technical collaboration in the much debated FS-X aircraft (to be built in Japan).

According to a knowledgeable analyst “… It often involved a kind of compromise between Japan’s search for indigenous military development and production, and the US interests in selling American weapon systems ‘off-the-shelf’ to Japan.”

The US Congress Office of Technical Assessment (OTA) notes: “… Massive technology transfers have taken place from the United States to Japan under existing programmes. Licensed production of a variety of types of US military aircraft has contributed the development of a core of Japanese companies skilled in diverse aspects of aircraft production… These programmes have also stimulated critical industries such as electronics and materials through generous technology transfers….”

But I suppose a formal invitation to Japan to participate in the (not yet perfected) SDI technologies was extended by the then US Defence Secretary Weinberger in March 1985. The NATO allies as well as Australia, Israel, and South Korea were also included in this gargantuan venture which appeared so seductive to all including the USA, but ended in a fiasco as it was not scientifically viable. Even for a country like USA it was not cost effective. And on the feasibility side some of the renowned scientists like Dr Hans Bethe had termed it as ‘science fiction’. USC (Union of Concerned Scientists) a US think tank was deadly against this venture purely from scientific point of view. They argued that it was not quite possible to have a gigantic satellite in the space from where heavy doses of laser energy could be darted on the incoming hostile missiles. It was just not on technically. Perhaps more wishful thinking than a viable scientific venture.

Even USA signed an MoA (Memoranda of Agreement) with Japan in 1987, and some 67 contracts were awarded to foreign countries for SDI architectures. I’m not sure what Japan got out of these. Edward Teller, and Gen Scowcroft seem to have had a very great influence on President Reagan in so far as the viability of this gigantic, and epoch-making programme was concerned, 1983, incidentally was a time of the greatest triumph of Japanese Prime Minister Nakasone, and the Nakasone initiative “has important side benefits of removing industry concerns about approval of transfer of dual-use technology for military application.” Nakasone made several breakthroughs in Japan’s defence policy, prominently lifting ‘the I per cent GNP Ceiling’ on the defence budget. Apparently the US Government took advantage of Prime Minister Nakasone’s unique standing as a Japanese politician, “Strong and decisive enough to disregard prior Japanese consensus.”

His cabinet made the following meaningful statement in 1983:  “… In view of the new situation which has been brought about by the recent advance of technology in Japan, it has become extremely important for Japan to reciprocate in the exchange of defence, related technologies in order to ensure the effective operation of the Japanese-US Security Treaty and its related arrangements… The Japanese Government has decided to respond positively to the US request for exchange of defence-related technologies and to open a way for the transfer to the US ‘military technologies’ (including arms which are necessary to make such transfers effective …such transfer of military technologies will not be subject to the Three Principles on Arms Export….

The implementation of such transfer will be made within the framework of relevant provisions of the MDA Agreement….”

A fuller discussion on the pros and cons of the proposed system will be presented in the conclusive presentation. I am no judge of the US policy actions but the NMD proponents are perhaps right to some extent that the ballistic missile threat (worldwide) is on the increase. The present day ballistic missile club has some three dozen members, and the most possess only aging Soviet-era short range missiles.

But then there are a few who are deeply hostile to the United States and appear intent on acquiring long-range missiles capable of hitting American soil. North Korea is Exhibit A in this regard and has fired a long range version of its Taepo Dong-I missile over Japan in August 1988. North Korea has been developing Taepo Dong-2 with a range between 2500 miles and 3600 miles which will put Aleutian Islands and most of Alaska and Western island of Hawaii at risk.

US-Japan Ballistic Missile Defence Nexus

There is no doubt that the North Korean Missile threat is worrisome for Japan and naturally USA which is guarantor of defence of Japan and security in the region. China and South Korea are equally worried.

Recently there have been news about a US-Japan effort to buy all the North Korean missiles and destroy them as an effective arms control measure. But such measures probably cannot work as North Korea is money starved and would perhaps never abandon efforts to manufacture ballistic missiles for export. The new version of Nodong missile is even more lethal and has added reach.

Notwithstanding the very rigid (and visibly modest) and non-militaristic/almost pacifistic Japanese Constitution, Tokyo and large Japanese manufacturing companies have shown a reasonable technical interest in the scaled down SDI and ‘Star War’ technologies as this might have spin off effects for the Japanese industry too.

I am not quite sure the SDI technologies are quite seductive, but a sophisticated technology can also be a double edged weapon and may well lead to ruination. In this connection one of the saner heads of France has opined in his Gallic humour that the best way of losing precious money is on ornate technologies, though the most pleasurable one is on women. Gambling too falls in the category of lavish losses. But a successful and fruitful technology is power and is respected everywhere.

Japan, it appears, has constituted a Board of 21 companies, a sort of a joint government, industrial venture and “based on the reports from the delegation the government discussed the matter at an ad hoc ministerial meeting which was held six times, and concluded that it was appropriate to deal with Japan’s participation in SDI research within the framework of the Japanese-US security arrangements and the 1983, and 1985 agreements for military technology exchange.”

On September 9, 1986 the Japanese government stated “… our participation in this research programme will lead to further enhancement of mutual cooperation between our two countries under the Japan-US Security Treaty, and thus is conducive to the effective operations of Japan-US Security systems.”

The Japanese government has in fact encouraged the Japanese industry to transfer dual-use technologies to US. But then this could have a snag and “… if some dual-use technology originally developed in Japan is improved or modified for US military technology, Japanese industry cannot produce or sell, without US consent, any hardware made through the retransferred but originally Japanese technology.” This could be of very considerable concern for the Japanese industry, and a clear drawback of co-production system.

However, in spite of this state of doubt and perhaps embarrassment the “… substance of arrangement relating to Japan’s participation in the SDI research was signed on July 27, 1987. (In this connection refer to ‘Defence of Japan’ Whitepaper-1988 page 331).

Some of the industrial heavy weights in Japan like the Mitsubishi Heavy Industries (MHI) showed extraordinary keen interest in SDI, and the company ‘has tried hard to develop in software technology capacity since the time of its participation in the SDI project… and MHI actively carried out the West Pacific Missile Defence Architecture Study (WESTPAC) in 1988-93 as general version of SDI.

The company had expected that the programme would be developed for Japan’s entire air defence system, thus offering the chance of big business.

A prominent Japanese analyst Tachibana points out that the licensed production of much trumpeted and talked about Raytheon’s ‘Patriot’ might have been relevant to the SDI research preparations.

Some 17 companies including the mighty MHI, NEC, Toshiba, Hitachi and Nissan share major contracts for the production of ‘Patriot’ and its components and these companies expected to have an opportunity to learn relevant technologies from SDI research, and even a business chance for the post-Patriot defence system.

It is interesting to note, and at the cost of some repetition, that with the medium range ballistic missiles now available with North Korea, US Patriot batteries have been deployed in Japan as a deterrent.

Continuing with the disillusionment of the Japanese companies many of the dual-use products could be subject to US security regulations through SDI collaboration as the patent rights of such technologies would be held by USA. Japanese industry thus has gradually started realising that the SDI entailed a ‘high technical war’ rather than ‘Star Wars’ for the industry. See Nihon Keizi- Shimbun of 21 February 1986.

WESTPAC as mentioned earlier on was in fact a feasibility study to identify and prepare a ‘highly viable theatre missile defence capability for the US overseas forward deployed forces and US Allies and friendly nations.’ It will be too tedious for the general reader to grasp and comprehend the technicalities of these studies which had four phases of research. The entire system was named as Theatre Missile Defence (TMD), a sort of NMD and a down-sized SDI.

WESTPAC was a very comprehensive plan and it was good for the world that the Cold War came to an end. And with that the WESTPAC had to shift its emphasis from various missile threats exclusively to theatre missile proliferation and other weapons of mass destruction, and the grandiose scheme of SDI went into oblivion for good.

I suppose some of the heavy weights of the Japanese industry like MHI and MHI-led consortiums like MELCO (MITSUBISHI Electronics) NEC, Hitachi, Fujitsu, Japan Radio Corporation could play a very important part in the scheme of things, but then who could predict such a sudden end of the Cold War.

For certain, however, both sides i.e. the USA and the Japanese had interest in certain type of technologies although the Japanese military technologies were in fact US derived ones. The real useful Japanese technologies of US interest were such technologies as gallium-arsenide devices, microwave integrated circuits, fiber optics communication, millimeter waves, flat displays, ceramics, composite materials, rocket propulsion etc.

To sum up this US-Japan nexus, it is interesting to see that the motives of USA and Japan for this collaboration are well described in the following paragraph.

“… Technologically, the call for international collaboration on SDI did not succeed more than the tapping of science and technology of other countries, which the United States had done for decades … in turn, the US Allies showed strong interest in access to US state of art technology through SDI collaboration. In this sense, SDI collaboration became a ‘flexible sum game’ for both the United States and Allies … Japan was one of the countries which decided to join SDI research collaboration, mainly out of interest in the advanced technology rather than strategic and security effects….”