Brilliant Pebbles was a part of the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI) in 1989. The idea was first pitched in the early 1980’s and it was called “smart rocks.” It was re-named “Brilliant Pebbles” in 1988 by the Reagan Administration and it has been known as that since. It was a non-nuclear, space-based, boost phase anti-missile program. The concept was to deploy 4,000 satellite constellations in low-earth orbit that would fire watermelon sized projectiles made of tungsten to intercept targets.
As a space based weapon, it would allow the U.S. to target objects from an altitude un-reachable to conventional weaponry. Since the system is in space, it would be vulnerable to anti-satellite weapons.
Brilliant Pebbles made significant progress between 1988 and 1990, and received a lot of support from the first Bush Administration.
In March 1990, George Monahan, Director of SDI, announced that Brilliant Pebbles would be the first-deployed U.S. missile defense system. His successor, Henry F. Cooper, streamlined the Brilliant Pebbles contractor team to two companies, TRW-Hughes and Martin Marietta, and lobbied aggressively on Capitol Hill for more funding and support.
In 1991, following several years of inner turmoil, the Soviet Union imploded. Despite the end of the Cold War, Brilliant Pebbles remained an essential part of the U.S. missile defense architecture. That same year, computer simulations demonstrated that, if it had been deployed during the Persian Gulf War, Brilliant Pebbles would have shot down every Scud missile launched by Saddam Hussein, including the salvo attack on Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Following the Middle East crisis, Brilliant Pebbles was enhanced to give its interceptors the ability to enter into the atmosphere, thus improving its overall effectiveness against Scuds and cruise missiles.
In 1993 the Clinton Administration eliminated the Brilliant Pebbles program through a series of budget cuts. The technology itself would continue to be tested for a short time: one year later, NASA launched a deep-space probe known as “Clementine,” which had been built using first-generation Brilliant Pebbles technology. Clementine successfully mapped the entire surface of the Moon. The mission, which cost $80 million, effectively “space qualified” Brilliant Pebbles’ hardware. However, the Clinton Administration did not take any steps to resurrect the program.
Brilliant Pebbles remained on the shelf and out of the public eye until 2002, when President George W. Bush withdrew the U.S. from the 1972 ABM Treaty. Although Brilliant Pebbles was a focus of President George H.W. Bush’s administration, George W. Bush’s administration did not resurrect the program. The second Bush administration did not focus on space-based interceptors and focused on ground-based ones instead.
Although the program was ended in the Clinton administration, there are still many missile defense advocates who are in favor of space-based missile defenses for U.S. homeland defense.
American Foreign Policy Council, Summary of Remarks by Ambassador Henry Cooper, 18 December 2002.
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High Frontier, 2002 Strategic Policy Issue Briefs.
Hoffman, Ian. “Physicists’ War Games Led To Brilliant Space Defense Plan.” Oakland Tribune, 10 September 2002.
Miller, John J. “Our ‘Next Manifest Destiny.’” National Review, 15 July 2002.
Miller, John J. “The High Ground.” National Review, 24 May 2004.
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Singer, Saul. “Brilliant Pebbles Now.” The Jerusalem Post, 9 November 2001.
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