Not So `Brilliant'

By , Vera Kistiakowsky is professor of physics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a director of Council for a Livable World.

THE Bush administration's review of military policy includes the suggestion that the proposed Brilliant Pebbles space defense system might be used offensively as well. A senior Defense Department official recently told Aviation Week and Space Technology, an authoritative trade publication, that Brilliant Pebbles is being considered for use against mobile strategic missiles and satellites. Brilliant Pebbles was originally promoted as an inexpensive and more readily built alternative to the Space-Based Interceptor, the Pentagon's planned first phase of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), popularly known as ``star wars.'' Since the original estimates of the cost and effectiveness of Brilliant Pebbles have proven unduly optimistic, its advocates are advancing new justifications.

As SDI's critics have maintained, the ability of such systems to defend us is at best debatable, but they might support a United States first strike - a nuclear war the US could initiate by launching an attack that wiped out most Soviet nuclear weapons. Besides destroying Soviet communications satellites, Brilliant Pebbles could aid a first strike by destroying many of the missiles the Soviets would have left to launch. Thus, if deployed, Brilliant Pebbles would be enormously threatening and destabilizing.

Brilliant Pebbles is not a new concept, but its present version was proposed by Dr. Lowell Wood of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory about a year ago as a simple, inexpensive, and quickly deployable first-phase alternative to the Space-Based Interceptor. Up to 100,000 small hit-to-kill missiles would be launched into space, each with its own sensing system and computer. The original estimate of their weight and length was 5 pounds and 3 feet, and the suggested cost was as little as $20,000 apiece. They would orbit a few hundred miles above the earth in individual protective cocoons until released in the event of a nuclear attack. After sensing and identifying a target, they would speed to it, destroying it by colliding with it. The autonomy of the missiles would eliminate the need to develop battle management software to coordinate them, and the low cost would permit enough missiles to ensure needed redundancy.

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It was claimed this weapon could be built with ``off-the-shelf'' technologies, even though it was supposed to use a nonexistent computer the size of a deck of cards. More realistic appraisals put the cost per missile at ``several'' hundred thousand dollars and the launch weight at about 100 pounds. Deployment in orbit would require 152 space shuttle trips at a cost of $15 billion, in addition to the ``several'' tens of billions of dollars for the missiles themselves.

It is unlikely the US could put a million pounds of metal and 9 million pounds of fuel into low earth orbits in the face of probable international outrage. If a partial system with fewer missiles were deployed, the Soviet Union would be forced to respond in kind, initiating a destabilizing situation with the advantage going to the country that attacked first.

Brilliant Pebbles' sole purpose is to get something deployed in space, abrogating the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and giving the arms race a space spiral. Instead of contributing to national defense, Brilliant Pebbles would threaten international stability. At best it would be a waste of money. This concept should receive the treatment it deserves. It should be scrapped.

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