Brilliant Pebbles

Wake launch While researching the postwar Wake era I came upon some interesting information about Wake Island’s role in missile defense programs over the years. Of the unclassified missions and operations that are open to public inquiry, the one called Brilliant Pebbles caught my attention. The oddly festive and evocative name seems reason enough to use it for a December blog post. Sadly, history has not recorded who in the Reagan Administration came up with “Brilliant Pebbles” to name the space-based anti-missile program known in its formative stages as . . . Smart Rocks.

Early in the Cold War the Air Force Systems Command designated Vandenberg AFB in California as the western range center for ICBM and space support functions. The United States’ Pacific island possessions, including Wake Island, were to serve as range sites, a function that continued under the realignment of west and east (Cape Canaveral) under unified command in 1970. Many sources cite frequent tests and missile launches at Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral through this period, though what the outlying islands or other range sites provided is not clear.

Wake Island was a busy with commercial and military air operations from 1946 to 1972. Pan American and Transocean Airlines established operations shortly after the end of World War II, and other commercial airlines scheduled regular refueling stops on Wake. Military aircraft and, during the Korean and Vietnam War years, the Military Airlift Command, made heavy use of Wake. By the early 1970s, however, advances in aircraft technology enabled faster, longer-range aircraft to bypass this once-essential refueling stop and called Wake’s usefulness into question again. Wake remained viable for other users but its heyday was over.

The Strategic Defense Initiative, proposed by President Ronald Reagan in 1983 to shield the United States from ballistic missile attack by use of ground and space-based defensive systems, would breathe new life into Wake Island, albeit briefly. Called “Star Wars” by its many critics, SDI focused on research and development of space-based anti-missile programs, including Brilliant Pebbles and the more mundanely named but better-known STARLAB/STARBIRD project. STARLAB hardware, carried into orbit by the space shuttle, would acquire and track ground-launched STARBIRD vehicles. In 1987 Cape Canaveral and Wake Island were selected as the two launch sites for STARBIRD.

Two launch pads were constructed on Peacock Point (the easternmost point of Wake Island) for the eight-ton, sixty-foot, multi-stage STARBIRD test missiles with nearby support facilities. Plans for the operation forecast for 1992 called for firing a single missile in synch with the orbiting shuttle that would use sensors to track it as a test. A mid-1990 comparative study determined there was no adverse environmental impact to the flora, fauna, and fish of Wake Island, but concluded that the Complex 20 location at Cape Canaveral was the optimal launch choice. On December 18, 1990, the first STARBBIRD test launch occurred at Cape Canaveral.

Meanwhile, the Brilliant Pebbles experimental program moved onto the Star Wars agenda in 1989. This SDI plan called for some four thousand permanently orbiting satellites to fire melon-sized tungsten projectiles at targets from space. These space-based missile interceptors would be equipped with sensors to locate, intercept, and collide with incoming enemy ICBMs, thus avoiding the altitude limitations of conventional ground-based weapons. Wake Island was chosen to test the system using existing STARBIRD facilities. Poised to launch vital SDI test components into space, Wake Island was ready to step onto the big stage. And then the USSR imploded: the “evil empire” that justified this new and expensive Cold War defense system was no more.

The Cold War ended with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991. However, Brilliant Pebbles remained (and the technology possibly still remains) a component of the US missile defense structure during the first Bush administration, including potential applications in the Persian Gulf and Middle East conflicts with interceptors enabled to enter the atmosphere against shorter-range missile targets. In 1993 the Clinton Administration eliminated the program and it is officially shelved. The nation’s resources and attention have been diverted from space to ground-based defenses, and threats have come from many different global quarters in the last twenty years.

Wake Island’s role in missile defense did not end with the Cold War. In 1994 administration of Wake was transferred from the air force to the army, which operated it as a launch center adjunct to US Army Kwajalein Atoll (USAKA) for Theater missile operations: targets launched from Wake were to be intercepted by defensive missiles from the Reagan Test Site at USAKA. Kwajalein lies about 690 miles south of Wake and has utilized the Wake launch center for numerous applications over the years. The air force resumed administration of Wake Island in October 2002 with limited operations. Recurring missions of the US Army Missile Defense Authority occur on Wake and the population ebbs and flows accordingly. The North Korean missile threat in the spring of 2013 spurred a flurry of activity on the quiet atoll.

The heightened alerts and recent reports of declining standards at US continental missile sites (including the removal of seventeen officers at Minot AFB last spring) highlight the dangers of the “culture of indifference” in our volatile world. Perhaps the far-fetched space-based technology of years past will have renewed relevance. The Brilliant Pebbles on the shelf may still have some shine to them.