Chilton Shifts Prompt Strike Priority to Air Force

WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. commander for strategic combat, Gen. Kevin Chilton, has newly assigned the Air Force the lead role in developing a conventional weapon capable of hitting targets anywhere around the world on a moment's notice, Global Security Newswire has learned (see GSN, Aug. 15).

The new responsibility, outlined in an Aug. 11 letter to the Defense Department's top acquisition official, comes as Capitol Hill has clearly rejected a Navy concept for a submarine-based ballistic missile for "prompt global strike."  Lawmakers have repeatedly denied funds for all but the most basic research on the so-called "Conventional Trident Modification," citing concerns that launching the look-alike of an atomic weapon could trigger a nuclear response from Russia or China (see GSN, April 22).

The Pentagon wants to develop such a weapon to hit important-but-fleeting targets anywhere around the globe, such as a ballistic missile being readied for launch by a rogue nation.

Defense officials have said that alternatives to the Navy's conventional Trident missile would take longer to develop and field.  However, the Air Force option appears to be more politically viable because its design and flight path could be more easily distinguished from a nuclear weapon, according to congressional aides.

A National Academy of Sciences panel recently estimated that the first conventional Trident could be fielded by 2011, while an Air Force Conventional Strike Missile might not be available until 2016 or later.

However, Chilton -- an Air Force officer who heads U.S. Strategic Command -- intends to put the futuristic missile on a fast track.  His new directive could result in a first deployment of the Air Force weapon as early as 2012, according to military officials.

Along with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Air Force has been exploring boost-glide technologies that could lay the groundwork for the new missile.  The two organizations have developed a Falcon HTV-2 hypersonic test vehicle that, unlike the Trident D-5 missile, would follow a nonballistic trajectory to its target. 

Based in part on the Falcon experimental work, a future Conventional Strike Missile system would ultimately pair space boosters with a hypersonic "payload delivery vehicle" on the front end that dispenses a kinetic energy projectile.  Upon nearing its target, the projectile would break up into dozens of lethal fragments.

The Air Force and the defense agency plan to conduct two flight tests of their Falcon experimental vehicle in fiscal 2009, a senior Strategic Command official said last month.

"After they do that, then we'll be able to have … more of a conversation about where we go next," said the official, interviewed Aug. 21 on condition of anonymity.  "Right now, I could guess -- but you could guess as good as I could -- whether or not this thing's going to work."

If ultimately produced, the Conventional Strike Missile would initially launch like a ballistic weapon from U.S. bases, but then glide to its endpoint at speeds exceeding Mach 5.  It also could be highly maneuverable, allowing the Pentagon to minimize flight over third-party nations, according to its proponents.

Chilton is calling for a first flight test of the Conventional Strike Missile's payload delivery vehicle in fiscal 2010 and at least one more by October 2011, according to sources familiar with his letter last month to John Young, the defense buying czar.

The general also wants the Army to develop an alternative payload delivery vehicle in parallel with the Air Force.  Either service's front-end technology could end up being fielded on the Air Force's future Conventional Strike Missile.

A cooperative effort between the two services might expand the technology options and help reduce the risk of problems in development that could delay fielding, according to those familiar with the general's thinking.

While the Army is also expected to conduct two flight tests during the coming fiscal year, officials from that service have "not settled in on what they're actually going to fly," the Strategic Command representative said in last month's interview.  "They're still studying it."

Either service's weapon system should be able to deliver kinetic energy projectiles developed by the Navy and U.S. national laboratories.  These would be capable of disabling or destroying a range of surface targets including vehicles, ships, aircraft and buildings, according to experts. 

Chilton has directed the Air Force to integrate the projectiles onto a payload delivery vehicle at the "earliest opportunity" for deployment, officials said.

The strategic commander is said to envision fielding squadrons of the land-based weapon system on the East and West coasts.  As a first step toward that end, Chilton hopes to put an initial missile on alert, with two spares, before the end of fiscal 2012.

Congress appropriated $100 million in fiscal 2008 for defense-wide efforts to develop prompt global strike technologies (see GSN, Nov. 7, 2007). 

Lawmakers are considering a Bush administration request to fund the multiservice account at $117.6 million in fiscal 2009, which begins Oct. 1.  To date, the House Armed Services Committee has recommended adding $7 million to the request so that a longer-term, Army hypersonic weapon project might be included.  Its Senate counterpart has advised a $45 million boost for the same purpose.

The Senate Armed Services Committee has also proposed spending an additional $30 million on multiservice efforts, bringing that chamber's prompt global strike mark-up to nearly $193 million. 

Once both bills are finalized, lawmakers from the two chambers will meet in conference to reconcile the differences.

September 3, 2008

WASHINGTON -- The top U.S. commander for strategic combat, Gen. Kevin Chilton, has newly assigned the Air Force the lead role in developing a conventional weapon capable of hitting targets anywhere around the world on a moment's notice, Global Security Newswire has learned (see GSN, Aug. 15).