Cost of Space-Based Laser Ballistic Missile Defense

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Science  21 Mar 1986:
Vol. 231, Issue 4744, pp. 1387-1393
DOI: 10.1126/science.231.4744.1387


Orbiting platforms carrying infrared lasers have been proposed as weapons forming the first tier of a ballistic missile defense system under the President's Strategic Defense Initiative. As each laser platform can destroy a limited number of missiles, one of several methods of countering such a system is to increase the number of offensive missiles. Hence it is important to know whether the cost-exchange ratio, defined as the ratio of the cost to the defense of destroying a missile to the cost to the offense of deploying an additional missile, is greater or less than 1. Although the technology to be used in a ballistic missile defense system is still extremely uncertain, it is useful to examine methods for calculating the cost-exchange ratio. As an example, the cost of an orbiting infrared laser ballistic missile defense system employed against intercontinental ballistic missiles launched simultaneously from a small area is compared to the cost of additional offensive missiles. If one adopts lower limits to the costs for the defense and upper limits to the costs for the offense, the cost-exchange ratio comes out substantially greater than 1. If these estimates are confirmed, such a ballistic missile defense system would be unable to maintain its effectiveness at less cost than it would take to proliferate the ballistic missiles necessary to overcome it and would therefore not satisfy the President's requirements for an effective strategic defense. Although the method is illustrated by applying it to a space-based infrared laser system, it should be straightforward to apply it to other proposed systems.