On Feb. 11, 2010, for the first time ever, at an altitude between 12,000 and 20,000 feet, the Airborne Laser Testbed (ALTB) destroyed a ballistic missile while both were in mid-flight. A new era has begun for military strategy.
Since 1960, the military has dreamt about it. Fifty years later, Americans have done it. At the price of several million dollars, they have succeeded in resolving one of the most difficult technological challenges, one more complex than nuclear weapons. Neutralizing a bullet with another is not easy to do, but destroying a missile flying at nearly six kilometers per second with something traveling at the speed of light (186,000 miles per second) is beyond belief.
The ALTB is alerted by Defense Support Program satellites, which are located around the world and responsible for strategic surveillance and early warning of missile launches. In mere seconds, thanks to six infrared cameras, a laser beam fires at 900 kilometers per hour to locate, identify, pursue, target and destroy the most fragile part of a missile traveling at more than 20,000 kilometers per hour.
All of these actions are controlled by a turret that aims the laser beam of destruction, fired by a chemical oxygen iodine laser module mounted on the plane. It has a telescope lens with a diameter of 1.5 meters, allowing for efficient identification of and focus on the target. Adaptive optics correct for the effects of atmospheric turbulence.
The turret, located in the nose of the plane, can be aimed at ballistic missiles up to 500 kilometers away from nearly all directions, including upward, taking down satellites 36,000 kilometers away and downward against cruise missiles. In short, the extraordinary technological prowess achieved by the United States is the equivalent to a basketball player making a basket 800 kilometers away while moving at several kilometers per second!
The ALTB will be integrated into the architecture of the anti-missile shield, the first layer of defense against missile launches. By 2025, when Americans will have developed a laser fortress hovering over the U.S., capable of engaging five to 10 ballistic missiles over the country that deployed them. The cost of a squadron of laser fortresses would be the equivalent to that of the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle.
If an ALTB is as expensive as a ballistic missile, its marginal usage cost and capacity to nearly instantly deliver forty laser beams will make it difficult to saturate the shield with a massive missile attack. It would be necessary for the aggressor to spend a colossal amount of money in order to succeed. It is the story of the machine gun surpassing the single-shot rifle in one blow.
Thus, Americans and President Obama continue to strengthen U.S. capability for deterrence against others with nuclear weapons and take the risk of nuclear retribution. They continue to build up for themselves a nuclear wall in conjunction with a nuclear double-edged sword and a multi-layered anti-missile shield, taking advantage of a persuasive strategy or a new strategy that forces the opponent to initiate aggressive maneuvers. The joint operation of these two strategic instruments would considerably increase the degree of uncertainty faced by the enemy and deprive them of sufficient time to act.
Indeed, with the shield, the aggressor would refrain from attacking (deterrence by prevention) and moreover, with the nuclear sword, the aggressor would be forced to speculate on the prohibitive risk of an adverse response (deterrence by retaliation). Thus, thanks to their unmatched power, these new walls will become the most efficient way to defend vital interests.
In terms of moving toward a world without nuclear weapons, did President Obama express a false good idea in Prague on April 5, 2009? Certainly, negotiations on disarmament appear successful; Obama and his Russian counterpart Dmitri signed the new START treaty in Prague on April 8, 2009. The review conference of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty in May 2010 should conclude this series of negotiations.
Beyond the fact that these important agreements should be ratified, they are also rhetoric to prepare public opinion for the eventual intervention of Iranian nuclear sites by the United States. Everyone is actually modernizing their nuclear arsenals. The U.S. and Russia have committed to reducing the number of operational nuclear weapons to just 1,550 each.
The United States could also retire the 200 nuclear warheads present in Europe, as certain European countries have asked. Americans will thus demonstrate their willingness to disarm themselves, smoothing the way toward asking potential proliferators to cease their attempts at achieving nuclear capability. Do not be fooled! To conclude that one must close entry into the nuclear club is myopic.
To repeat the words of Bonaparte, Ambassador Francois de Rose and General Pierre Marie Gallois, consider that this decision would revert the world into a situation where “God is on the side with the best artillery.” This would be the return of world wars, detested by pacifists. General Lucien Poirier said, “One cannot shrug off nuclear reality on the basis that one of the reasons used to justify it has disappeared; the pre-eminence of its use by major players is just as powerful. What this creates is a factor of autonomy of decision and stability within its sphere of influence. It is there that their essential and permanent attributes become independent from the state of the world, so that the disappearance of a designated enemy causes the well-off state to eliminate it from their display of weapons. Besides that, they give themselves a political status of exception, testing the efforts of others to force down the door to their club. The probability is high that a new designated enemy will appear in the distant future and create new prohibitive strategies of effective deterrence.”
In short, if a country is born into fear, Raymond Aron would not consider this the first nor the worst trick of reason. The United States does not forget that pride, envy and greed are always the three sparks that ignite the hearts of men, as Dante recounted in his “Inferno.” It explains why they follow their strategic programs to maintain the parity of vulnerability in the face of growing pressure from the political and spiritual masses of Eurasia.
Americans themselves, as written in their Nuclear Posture Reviews, remember the fundamental rule that antagonists must remain equally vulnerable to assure the stability of mutual deterrence. In terms of the current arms race with China, one must remember the Feb. 11, 2010, response to the Chinese anti-satellite demonstrations held on Feb. 11, 2007, and the anti-ballistic exo-atmospheric demonstrations held on Jan. 11, 2010. Economic forces required that the United States suspend the installation of 10 Ground-Based Interceptor (GBI) missiles in Poland and improve the Standard Missile-3 (SM-3) interceptors in Romania, a cheaper but shorter-ranged alternative.
Mr. Obama moves his pieces on the strategic chessboard differently than Mr. Bush did but does not abandon the shield entirely. There are 30 GBI missiles installed in the United States, and 250 SM-3 interceptors in the process of being installed on 15 Aegis destroyers, which will join 23 ships from other nations (Japan, Australia, South Korea, Spain and Norway), not counting the Terminal Defense Segment systems. With the ALTB, this dream born from a nuclear nightmare is, little by little, entering the realm of reality.
What are we doing to reinforce our deterrence capability? Some think that France does not need a shield. This nuclear tool could destroy the political, economic and military centers of power of an aggressor and portends the possibility of a retaliatory strike against us, resulting in millions of deaths.
With a shield, France could ward off this strike, but the president would not have to choose between capitulating or risking total destruction. An aggressor such as China has more than a billion inhabitants. If France should find itself in the middle of a world conflict, knowing French doctrine, we would have made arrangements beforehand to assure political survival by moving the seat of power into the depths of the country.
France could be destroyed by the blow of a thermonuclear bludgeon hidden in the shelter of a submarine. We do not delude ourselves with the game of conformity, established practices and academic influences.
Yes, we would agree to research with Great Britain the best possible synergy for our nuclear weapon and to get along with Germany to resume work on strategic laser arms. Neither Germany nor France has a future without the other. Together, we could work progressively with other European partners that have the same vested interested to produce a European, multi-layered anti-missile shield.
About this publication