Smart Rocks, Brilliant Pebbles and All That Political Jazz

Most people think President Reagan’s administration hatched the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) idea, which is lovingly referred to as Star Wars defense. In a nutshell, the Reagan administration figured that well over 100,000 nuclear weapons in the U.S. and Russian

X-ray laser bakes solid plasma from aluminum foil

X-ray laser bakes solid plasma from aluminum foil

inventories were adequate and we ought to spend some time and money figuring out how to protect the country from them. The effort to develop a mostly non-nuclear global, or at least the whole of the continental U.S., shield was the SDI toolbox. Some of the tools included ground based interceptors, which were basic missile interceptors, Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) like railguns, X-Ray and Chemical LASERS, and kinetic energy weapons like Brilliant Pebbles, which came from the earlier Smart Rocks.

Beginning with Eisenhower, every administration has dabbled in the development of Star

Shown in this 1958 photograph are four of the twelve missiles of D Battery, 9th AAA Missile Battalion, Angel Island. The missiles were stored underground, and were raised only for maintenance or firing. the site was razed when the missiles were removed from the island in 1962.

Shown in this 1958 photograph are four of the twelve missiles of D Battery, 9th AAA Missile Battalion, Angel Island. The missiles were stored underground, and were raised only for maintenance or firing. the site was razed when the missiles were removed from the island in 1962.

Wars defense technology. And the opposing side, whoever they are at the time, screams bloody murder about the programs.  The scientists, engineers, and technicians who support the various categories of Star Wars technology just kept on working as the program names and proportionate funding changed. Eisenhower, for example, was spending about $30 billion a year on missile technology like the Nike, which was designed to take down airplanes delivering nuclear bombs.

Although the Soviets certainly could use airplanes, they were never huge ‘deliver-the-bomb-by-airplane’ proponents and, in 1957, the Soviet Union demonstrated its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) prowess. Oops! Time for plan B.

Project Defender was born to beat the ICBM threat. Billions of dollars were redirected and thousands of scientists and technical staff were on the hunt for advanced anti-ICBM technology. I am a beneficiary of that effort. My dad worked for years making a living for our family constructing Minuteman missile sites in Montana. The nation had turned on a dime.

President Kennedy’s administration experienced similar shock therapy in 1961 when the old

Semipalatinsk Polygon — the Soviet nuclear testing site in the northeast of Kazakhstan

Semipalatinsk Polygon — the Soviet nuclear testing site in the northeast of Kazakhstan

Soviet Union broke a moratorium on atmospheric nuclear testing by detonating fifty nuclear weapons in the atmosphere between January and April. Oops!

Rewinding to 1958, we find a world increasingly aware of the dangers of nuclear fallout and great pressure was applied to end atmospheric testing. In the George Washington University’s National Security Archives, The Making of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1958-1963 edited by William Burr and Hector L. Montford;  “The Soviets, who had been calling for a test ban since the mid-1950s, took a major initiative in early 1958 when they called for an American-British-Soviet test moratorium.”[1] This push put the ball firmly in the Kennedy administration’s court. President Kennedy worked tirelessly across the aisles of congress to achieve the 1958 atmospheric nuclear testing moratorium that the Soviets had proposed. Kennedy was attacked by everyone from the scientific and military right to the progressive left, he suffered great political pain and suffering but, to his great credit, he made the moratorium work.

During the moratorium, U.S.nuclear capability declined. The infrastructure fell into disrepair

RB-57D flying toward an Operation Dominic mushroom cloud. (Response to Soviet tests)

RB-57D flying toward an Operation Dominic mushroom cloud. (Response to Soviet tests)

and scientific and technical staff took their skill sets and left for other jobs on the ‘outside’. When the soviets let loose with their ‘in-your-face’ fifty test series in 1961, President Kennedy looked to the nuclear science guys left at the Los Alamos, Lawrence Livermore, and Sandia National laboratories and directed that we show ‘em OUR nuclear stuff. Well….we couldn’t do it. In the four months it took the Soviet Union to successfully unleash fifty atmospheric nukes, the U.S. could barely figure out what was needed to restart the program. In fact, it would be about two years before we could respond and by then we were off to other nuclear treaty negotiations. Negotiations notwithstanding the U.S. responded with Operation Dominic a series of 36 Nuclear Tests.

Project Defender, the 1958 response to President Eisenhower’s ‘oops’, included one of my personal favorites, the Ballistic Missile Boost Intercepts (BaMBI or Bambi) project. It was one of the first kinetic energy designs and has a lovely timeline that illustrates the continuity of programs funded under different administrations on both sides of the aisle. Remember, when the politicians howl like a pack of coyotes, the scientists and technicians keep on trucking. Missile interceptors are akin to someone shooting a gun then another marksman shoots the bullet out of the air; they are land based. Kinetic energy designs, on the other hand, take advantage of the energy stored in a system due to acceleration and use it to destroy a missile on the rise; they are space based.

bpi_conoThis paragraph provides a brief refresher on kinetic energy. One cannot see kinetic energy (or any other type of energy) but one can see the effects of energy so any example given will always illustrate the effects of the energy rather than looking directly at the energy. Kinetic energy derives from motion; orbital motion as in galaxies, stars, planets, satellites, or space stations; linear motion planes, trains, and automobiles; random linear motion illustrated by molecular vibrations, parabolic motion throwing a basketball or shooting a bullet, rotational motion as in wheels in motion, gyroscopes, or rolling balls. It is from measuring the effects of energy that we know that kinetic energy is one half of the mass times the square of velocity. Theoretically, if a relatively small rock can be lifted into space and get itself in front of a missile just going into space, the kinetic energy of that little rock will blow the missile into bits. The computer simulations performed during Project Defender indicated that “…a nose cone traveling at ICBM velocities in collision with one pound of material releases the energy equivalent of 6 pounds of TNT. In a word, the kinetic energy at that velocity exceeds the chemical energy available at that mass.” [2] Okay, now all we needed were smart rocks that would get in front of missiles lifting off the planet.

The Bambi project is straight out of the best of Greek mythology. There would be hundreds of battle stations orbiting the earth, each with special sensors to read the plasma plumes emitted by enemy missiles. It is heady stuff for a Star Trek fan. The weapons from the battle stations would simply smash into the rising enemy missile. Just in case it missed, the weapon would simultaneously release a 60-foot rotating wire net with deadly steel rocklets woven into it.  The Atlas and Titan missiles provided a test bed for parts of this plan. As a 16-year old kid, I worked a veritype machine making wire identification tags for the Atlas Booster rockets being tested on stands at Edwards Air force Base out of Lancaster, CA. As we would wait for the X-15 to land on the dry lake bed at Edwards, I dreamed of all the wonderful things I would do as a space cadet.

Through successive administrations, wire nets led to smart rocks led to smaller and even

Brilliant Pebbles as originally envisioned

Brilliant Pebbles as originally envisioned

smarter brilliant pebbles. I worked at the Nevada Test Site (NTS) when Brilliant Pebbles was brought back there for further indoctrination and rehabilitation. Local gossip had it that when they tested the little guys in space Brilliant Pebbles performed magnificently. Once deployed, those brilliant chips off the old smart rock took note of the speed and other attributes of the deploying space vehicle and tried really, really hard to kill it. Oops, those were the ‘good’ guys.

It was most fortunate that they were able to scoop them all back up and bring them back to earth, and to the NTS. A brilliant pebble was tethered to a tower and its fuzzy logic was reprogrammed to make it socially more acceptable so that it only got in front of and destroyed the bad guys’ rockets. Rumor was that it next developed a mind of its own and refused to sacrifice itself. Not good when committing suicide is its primary function. The will of the brilliant pebbles’ creator won, however, and Brilliant Pebbles was ready for duty, once again. By then President Clinton’s administration denied funding to the project, preferring instead to focus on land based interceptors and regional, rather than global protection The Brilliant Pebbles effort either finally died or went very deep.

Interceptor test in Kwajalein Atoll

Interceptor test in Kwajalein Atoll

Ground based interceptors have enjoyed some excellent successes in tests in the Pacific Missile Range. The technology has advanced smartly and it is clear that ‘our’ bullets can shoot ‘their’ bullets out of the air. Given the reload time for missile launches, I hope we have a lot of them and they can hit their targets the first time, every time.

The political jazz and its patter continue. In the peculiar subject area of defense weapons development, each president and administration in turn has been raked over the coals by the party out of office. Senator Obama was a fierce critic of defense program spending.  Back in Reagan’s day, Senator John Kerry was adamant that Star Wars was a ‘cancer’.  President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry are singing a different tune at the moment. Perhaps they are even grateful to the H.W

All that political jazz

All that political jazz

Bush and Clinton administrations for the regional missile defenses they’ve suddenly discovered and deployed. They are playing that Cold War (1947-1991) favorite Fear Rumble by the Brinksmanship Jazz quartet-US. et. al. versus N. Korea, China and Russia. It is a game and it is played by all administrations. The game is dangerous and somewhere, somehow, now or in the future, some idiot is going to make a misstep and we’ll all be fighting for survival.

Through and over everything, I still like smart rocks, brilliant pebbles and all that jazz.



[1] The Making of the Limited Test Ban Treaty, 1958-1963; William Burr and Hector L. Montford, editors; http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB94/

[2]Harold N. Beveridge, “Defender Introduction,” in Ballistic Missile Defense Program of the Advanced Research Projects Agency, A Review of Project Defender for the Director of Defense Research and Engineering, 25-29 July 1960, Volume I, p. 17 (hereafter Project Defender, 1960, Vol. I).

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