Obama signs defense bill that could spur new space-based arms race
David Willman, LA Times, Dec 23 2016
Obama has signed legislation that, by striking a single word from longstanding nuclear defense policy, could heighten tensions with Russia and China and launch the country on an expensive effort to build space-based defense systems. This year’s edition of the annual National Defense Authorization Act contained two provisions with potentially momentous consequences. One struck the word “limited” from language describing the mission of the country’s homeland missile defense system. The other calls for the Pentagon to start “research, development, test and evaluation” of space-based systems for missile defense. Together, the provisions signal that Pindostan will seek to use advanced technology to defeat both small-scale and large-scale nuclear attacks. That could unsettle the decades-old balance of power among the major nuclear states. Huge bipartisan majorities in both houses of Congress approved the policy changes over the past month, with virtually no public debate. Although the White House had earlier criticized the changes, it stopped short of threatening a veto. On Friday, Obama signed the legislation. In a four-page signing statement, the president criticized various aspects of the bill, including the structure of a cyber-security command and limits on administrative leave for employees, but said nothing about the changes in nuclear defense policy. Before Obama’s action, proponents and opponents of the policy changes agreed that they could have dramatic effects. Leading defense scientists said the idea that a space-based system could provide security against nuclear attack is a fantasy. David Montague, retired president of missile systems for Lockheed and co-chair of a National Academy of Sciences panel that studied missile defense technologies for Congress, said in an interview:
It defies the laws of physics and is not based on science of any kind. Even if we darken the sky with hundreds or thousands of satellites and interceptors, there’s no way to ensure against a dedicated attack. So it’s an opportunity to waste a prodigious amount of money. It’s insanity, pure and simple.
Trent Franks, who introduced and shepherded the policy changes in the House, said he drew inspiration from Reagan’s SDI of the 1980s, known as “Star Wars,” which was intended to use lasers and other space-based weaponry to render nuclear weapons “impotent and obsolete.” The initiative cost taxpayers $30b but no system was ever deployed. Franks said that striking the word “limited” from the homeland defense system’s mission, and at the same time pursuing a space-based system, would put Pindostan on a path to better safeguard its security. He said the new approach would protect both Pindosi territory and surveillance satellites. Franks said:
I hope that the day will come when we could have solid-state lasers in space that can defeat any missile attack. That day is a long ways off. But fortunately, it’s a little closer, and a little more certain, with the passage of these amendments. The new policy says Pindostan should maintain and improve a robust layered missile defense system capable of defending its’ own territory and that of its vassals against the developing and increasingly complex ballistic missile threat.
A space-based defense system would hinge on annual congressional appropriations and decisions by the incoming Trump administration. The National Academy study, released in 2012, concluded that even a bare-bones space-based system would cost about $200b to put in place, and hundreds of billions to operate in subsequent years. Franks, asked whether the country could afford it, replied:
What is national security worth? It’s priceless!
Philip Coyle, a former Asst Sec Defe who headed the Pentagon office responsible for testing and evaluating weapon systems, described the idea of a space-based nuclear shield as “a sham.” Coyle said:
To do this would cost just gazillions and gazillions. The technology isn’t at hand, nor is the money. It’s unfortunate from my point of view that the Congress doesn’t see that. Both Russia and China will use it as an excuse to do something that they want to do.
The word “limited” has guided Pindosi policy since the National Missile Defense Act of 1999. In part it reflects the reality that intercepting and destroying incoming warheads is supremely difficult, and that it would be impractical to field enough interceptors to counter a large-scale attack. The current homeland anti-missile system, yclept the Ground-based Midcourse Defense system or GMD, relies on interceptors at Vandenberg AFB in California and Ft Greely, Alaska. In flight tests, the $40b+ system has managed to destroy mock enemy warheads only about half the time. The first of Franks’ amendments, to eliminate “limited” from the policy, was approved in April by the House Armed Services Committee with no debate and without a recorded roll-call vote. At a committee hearing on May 17, a senior Democrat on the panel, Jim Cooper, protested:
I think it was a mistake to mandate a poorly thought out, unaffordable and unrealistic missile defense policy, including plans for a space-based missile deterrent
But neither Cooper nor any other House Democrat sought to overturn the provisions, and he was among those who voted to pass the overall bill the next day. Ted Cruz, Franks’ Republican partner on the legislation, enjoyed a similarly smooth path. The Senate Armed Services Committee deliberated in closed session, forestalling public debate. The legislation was approved by a roll call vote of 16-10, with Joe Manchin and Tim Kaine joining the Republican majority. In June, Ed Markey sought to restore “limited” saying that the change in policy would create “the impetus for a new arms race” with Russia and China. Markey offered an amendment on the Senate floor, but could not muster enough support to bring it to vote. The policy changes were greeted with opposition from another quarter as well. At a congressional hearing in April, Franks pressed MDA director Vice-Adm James Syring for his stance on expanding Pindo capability into space. Syring replied:
I have serious concerns about the technical feasibility of the interceptors in space, and I have serious concerns about the long-term affordability of a program like that.