Battlestar America


High Frontier: A New National Strategy, by Lt. Gen. Daniel O. Graham, USA (Ret.), Washington, D.C.: High Frontier, 1982, 175 pp., $15.00.

As military advisor to then-candidate Ronald Reagan, General Daniel Graham proposed a radical shift in defense strategy that would exploit spaceborne weaponry to shield the nation from nuclear attack, thus breaking free of the doctrine of "mutual assured destruction" (MAD). Once Reagan became president, these proposals were ignored, but General Graham decided to bring the idea to the public. With the assistance of the Heritage Foundation and several dozen aerospace-industry executives, he has produced a comprehensive proposal titled High Frontier (not to be confused with a similar title by space enthusiast Gerard K. O'Neill).

Graham's premise is that MAD is both immoral and impractical: the former, because it subverts the role of the military from the defense of Americans to the destruction of Soviets, an emphasis that alienates public approval and support; the latter, because it entails perpetual accumulation of nuclear weapons, an economic juggernaut that we cannot indefinitely sustain. Also, the relentless increase of Soviet nuclear and conventional military power creates an unstable environment for the continuation of MAD—particularly as Soviet strategic theory repudiates MAD and focuses instead on theories for war winning and war survival.

Given the bankruptcy of MAD, compounded by the inability of the US government to compete with the Soviet government in arms production, a compelling and rational alternative would be to break out of the MAD deadlock by exploiting existing American technological advantages in a resolute strategy of "assured survival." The obvious instrument for this strategy is the demonstrated American prowess in space technology and electronic miniaturization.

In order to meet the urgency of the growing Soviet threat, High Frontier proposes a five-point military crash program:

• A point defense system for US ICBM silos, effective enough to deny the Soviets any confidence in their ability to wage a first strike (ready by 1985 at a cost of $5–$8 billion).

• A first-generation spaceborne ballistic missile defense (BMD) system, capable of significant attrition of a Soviet ICBM attack during the boost phase of their flight (ready by 1988 at a cost of $13–$15 billion).

• A second-generation spaceborne BMD system, capable of destroying hostile objects anywhere in near-earth space (ready by 1994 at a cost of about $5 billion if conventional technology is used, at greater cost if advanced weapons are used).

• A manned utility vehicle, capable of satellite inspection, on-orbit maintenance, and space-tug missions to altitudes not attainable by the space shuttle (ready by 1990 for less than $1 billion).

• A comprehensive civil defense program to provide shelter and contingency supplies for the preservation of the citizenry in event of an attack (completed by 1985 at a cost less than $5 billion).

The overall program has high technical credibility in that it extrapolates from known technology—but cost and schedule estimates are founded on an ambitious, success-oriented approach. It is very clearly gambling on the success of simple weapon concepts that can be developed and deployed very rapidly—as opposed to more complex systems that would take more time and thus fail to meet the urgency of the threat.

An example of this philosophy is the proposal for ICBM point defense: a version of the swarmjet concept, which is a barrage of unguided rockets that are fired at an incoming warhead, much like a round of old-fashioned grapeshot. The concept is simple, yet no hardware exists. But High Frontier reviews other options, such as the "low altitude defense system" (LOADS) currently in development. The message is that ICBM point defense is technically feasible but that cost and schedule will be determined by the kind of system selected.

The spaceborne BMD proposal, however, is the most dramatic component of the High Frontier program. According to the plan envisioned by Graham, some 450 satellites would be placed in a variety of orbits by MX booster vehicles. Each satellite would carry 40 interceptor missiles, any of which could be fired upon an ascending ICBM. With these satellites deployed in a globe-girdling constellation, no nation could launch an offensive missile attack without automatic interception and high attrition. This would introduce a significant element of uncertainty in Soviet attack planning, making the success of such an attack less assured. Technical and schedule risk appear credible, given crash program status and the fact that the interceptor missile is already under development as the Air Force's antisatellite weapon program.

The first-generation spaceborne BMD system would be designed for a service life of 10 years, which conforms to known design practice. A follow-on system would then be needed, having greater performance and increased resistance to any countermeasures the Soviets may have developed in the interim (such as direct-ascent attack by nuclear weapons). This second-generation system could simply be a product upgrade of the first version…or it could incorporate advanced technology, represented by the prospect of high-energy laser weapons and directed particle beams. Although development of such advanced weapons depends on the resolution of many pending engineering problems, progress in the US programs is currently limited by research funding rather than by technical obstacles.

The manned spaceplane is the least justified and most technically speculative of all the proposals. It is not clear why its suggested missions could not be more easily, safely, and inexpensively accomplished by unmanned vehicles under ground control, and there is no appreciation of the difficulty in designing a manrated spacecraft having the stipulated mission capability. A more credible rationale for a vehicle similar to this arises from the need to develop a "back-up" to existing space launch facilities at Cape Canaveral and Vandenberg Air Force Base, whose "softness" to nuclear attack could deny the United States any space access during a major conflict. A vehicle that could be launched into orbit from the back of a 747 (as High Frontier also mentions) would be able to operate from airfields and thus resist attack through being mobile.

On the other hand, the civil defense augmentation program is no more than straightforward implementation of existing plans, with no technical, cost, or schedule risk apparent. High Frontier points out that shelters have been designed for mass production and rapid installation that are proof against a 50 psi overpressure—corresponding to conditions at less than one mile from Ground Zero of a one-megaton detonation. The cost of providing these shelters to selected areas would be $200 per person protected. Sheltering and stockpiling can easily and rapidly be accomplished at a trifling cost, when measured against the worth of other government expenditures. The benefit would be measured in millions of lives saved in the event of an attack.

Although essentially a proposal for military strategy, High Frontier also sets forth a parallel program for the industrial exploitation of space: inexpensive launch vehicles, a manned space station, solar power satellites, and seed money for space ventures. It is argued that space technology developed for military purposes can synergically be applied to civilian purposes, with the ultimate prospect of generating a multibillion-dollar space industry in the next 25 years.

The space-industrialization aspect of High Frontier is intriguing but unquestionably speculative; it should not divert attention from the soundness of the military proposals. Although "assured survival" is an immodest objective, it is surely the only rational basis for framing national strategy—and High Frontier offers the only credible avenue for reaching it. But it is not a panacea, as the authors admit; we may still need existing strategic forces to withstand a major conflict. What High Frontier does not fully impress on the reader is that the Soviets are developing a space warfare capability whether we do so or not. In this light, High Frontier is not an alternative—it is a necessity.

Michael Dunn is a military space-systems analyst for Boeing Aerospace.