House Panel Urges Competition for Conventional Prompt-Strike Weapons

The U.S. Army last November conducts the first flight test for its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, a technology seen as potentially useful in developing a capability for nonnuclear attack on any location in the world in under one hour.  A key congressional panel appears set this week to mark up legislation aimed at encouraging competition in meeting the mission goal (U.S. Army photo).
The U.S. Army last November conducts the first flight test for its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, a technology seen as potentially useful in developing a capability for nonnuclear attack on any location in the world in under one hour. A key congressional panel appears set this week to mark up legislation aimed at encouraging competition in meeting the mission goal (U.S. Army photo).

WASHINGTON -- The House Armed Services Committee this week is expected to mark up a defense spending bill that encourages competition in the Defense Department’s “conventional prompt global strike” mission arena, among other initiatives (see GSN, June 24, 2011).

The panel’s Strategic Forces Subcommittee last month recommended full funding for global strike in its fiscal 2013 defense authorization bill, granting the Obama administration’s $110.4 million request. At the same time, the lawmakers pressed the Pentagon to pursue an array of technologies that might someday result in a fielded system.

Action on the bill by the full House Armed Services Committee is expected on Wednesday.  The panel’s Senate counterpart is slated to mark up its version of the bill on May 23, following subcommittee activity that begins the prior day.

Under the prompt global strike mission, U.S. military leaders hope to gain a capability to attack targets anywhere around the world with nonnuclear weapons on less than one hour’s notice. Currently, only atomic-armed ballistic missiles can reliably meet this challenging time constraint.

Defense brass has said that a small number of conventional prompt-strike weapons are needed for the highest priority and most urgent targets, such as a North Korean ballistic missile being readied for launch or a terrorist leader spotted at a safe house.

The legislative measure follows a pair of test failures and mounting questions about the way ahead for a key technology, the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 (see GSN, Aug. 18, 2011).

HTV-2 flight tests in April 2010 and August 2011 resulted in crashes. Nonetheless, military engineers said valuable progress was made during the flight trials in understanding Mach 20 aerodynamics and refining the advanced technology.

The Air Force is developing a Conventional Strike Missile that is to feature on its front end a technology based on the hypersonic vehicle, but some defense experts have said the future of the service effort is now in doubt following the botched test flights.

By contrast, the House panel noted, a first Army flight test of its Advanced Hypersonic Weapon last November was successful (see GSN, Nov. 18, 2011). The Army technology is widely seen as a potentially useful research and development tool, but still too futuristic for fielding anytime soon.

“The committee encourages the Department to continue cost-effective technology development and demonstration by leveraging the successful flight test of the AHW FT-1A glide body and by utilizing this ongoing program that can support prompt global strike acquisition programs across the Department,” the subcommittee report states.

Pentagon leaders signaled early this year that they hope to develop a new conventionally armed ballistic missile for Navy attack submarines (see GSN, Jan. 27). Details of the plans remain difficult to pin down, though.

In addition, some issue experts voice concern about whether Russia -- or someday China -- might misinterpret the launch of a conventionally armed ballistic missile from an undersea vessel as the first salvo in a nuclear war.  U.S. Ohio-class submarines continue to carry arsenals of Trident D-5 nuclear-armed ballistic missiles at sea. 

It is unclear whether these worries about strategic ambiguity might prevent the Navy from developing the new missile for Virginia-class submarines.  Pentagon leaders have said they believe an effort at confidence-building and information-sharing with other world nuclear powers might allow for the Navy technology development program to proceed.

Yet, with the Defense Department seeming to cast about for a conventional prompt global strike weapon system suitable for deployment in the near- to mid-term, the House subcommittee said the Pentagon must take a fresh look at the possibilities.

“The committee encourages a broader examination of the trade space of CPGS capabilities and concepts to meet warfighter requirements,” according to the recent legislative report.

The panel commended a Pentagon commitment, made in May 2011, for “using industry competition for driving productivity and managing program risks and costs.” However, it remained uncertain what the next steps in conventional prompt global strike competition would be or when they would occur.

The House panel directed the Defense secretary to submit a report to the congressional defense committees by Dec. 1, “detailing how the Department plans to use competition and integrate verification and transparency measures as it develops and deploys CPGS capabilities.”

May 8, 2012
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WASHINGTON -- The House Armed Services Committee this week is expected to mark up a defense spending bill that encourages competition in the Defense Department’s “conventional prompt global strike” mission arena, among other initiatives.

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