U.S. Military Eyes Fielding "Prompt Global Strike" Weapon by 2015

(Jul. 1) -U.S. Strategic Command head Gen. Kevin Chilton, shown in 2006, hopes to see a long-range, conventionally armed missile deployed within five or six years (Ethan Miller/Getty Images).
(Jul. 1) -U.S. Strategic Command head Gen. Kevin Chilton, shown in 2006, hopes to see a long-range, conventionally armed missile deployed within five or six years (Ethan Miller/Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- A top U.S. combatant commander would like to see rapid-strike, long-range conventional weapons fielded by 2015, according to military officials (see GSN, May 21).

Air Force Gen. Kevin Chilton, who heads U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, Neb., said recently that deploying the first "prompt global strike" weapon within the next five to six years would be a "reasonable" objective, defense officials have told Capitol Hill staff aides.

Last August, the general said he wanted to see a first such missile on alert, with two spares, before the end of 2012 (see GSN, Sept. 3, 2008).

Now expected perhaps up to three years later, the exotic technology would likely be deployed at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., according to sources. Its use would probably be limited to only the most time-critical and important targets outside the range of any other fielded military systems, such as bomber aircraft or ships, senior officials have said.

Despite the top-level priority on deployment, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has repeatedly delayed conducting a first flight test of technologies slated for the first prompt global strike weapon system, the Air Force's "Conventional Strike Missile." The schedule slips have occurred for a variety of reasons, most recently DARPA lapses in test planning, according to sources.

Under the conventional prompt global strike mission, the Pentagon anticipates an ability to hit targets anywhere around the world within just 6o minutes of a launch order. Lacking such a capability, the only long-range attack option typically available to a U.S. president under urgent circumstances would be a nuclear weapon, which military officials have described as unlikely to be used.

Prompt global strike advocates say the conventional capability could be useful in hitting fleeting targets like a terrorist leader in a safe house or a weapon of mass destruction being prepared for launch. Above-ground launch facilities would be easily distinguishable from nuclear missile silos in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota, so potential adversaries like Russia or China would be unlikely to misinterpret a launch as the onset of a nuclear war, according to officials.

"If you have more time, then there are better systems out there and more affordable systems to close" in on a target with conventional weapons, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. James Cartwright told a Senate panel last month. For example, if bomber aircraft are based close enough to a target, they might be used more affordably in place of long-range missiles. Each Conventional Strike Missile could cost tens of millions of dollars to procure -- or to replace after launch (see GSN, Nov. 26, 2008).

"But we do have challenges around the globe with strategic depth and [a] lack of [nearby] infrastructure and basing," said the Marine Corps general, explaining the limitations of using bomber aircraft. "We've got to have a way to address those [urgent targets] credibly for our deterrent postures [to work]."

Like Chilton, Cartwright is urging the prompt global strike developmental process along, according to one consultant on the program. Through a spokesman, Cartwright last week declined comment.

However, Strategic Command "hopes to achieve an initial PGS capability deployment goal" before the end of a multiyear spending plan that concludes in fiscal 2015, according to Navy Lt. Charles Drey, an organization spokesman. "Closing the prompt global strike capability gap as quickly as possible remains a top STRATCOM priority," he said June 24 in a written response to questions.

Once deployed, a Conventional Strike Missile would remain on alert in case a contingency arose. Under order from a U.S. president, Chilton or a Strategic Command successor would presumably command any use of the global-range conventional missiles, which would likely be operated on the ground by Air Force personnel.

Chilton's staff plans to await the results of upcoming flight tests before committing to a firm deployment date. The Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have joined efforts to build a Hypersonic Test Vehicle, an experimental apparatus upon which key technologies for the Conventional Strike Missile can be demonstrated and evaluated.

The two organizations plan to conduct an initial flight assessment, using the Hypersonic Test Vehicle, in December.

"It is prudent to allow" the Air Force and DARPA "flight tests to proceed before committing to a specific PGS development/deployment decision," Drey told Global Security Newswire.

Once it is built, the Conventional Strike Missile is expected to pair rocket boosters with a fast-flying "payload delivery vehicle" capable of dispensing a kinetic energy projectile against a target. Upon nearing its endpoint, the projectile would split into dozens of lethal fragments potentially capable against humans, vehicles and structures, according to defense officials.

The December test vehicle flight demonstration is to launch from a Kwajalein Atoll test site in the Pacific Ocean. During the test, the Defense Department would seek to "show whether or not the HTV can hold together and not fall apart, and that it can glide and [perform] controlled flight" at five times or more the speed of sound, said the prompt global strike consultant, who asked not to be named.

"This is a major step forward not just for Conventional Strike Missile but all hypersonic flight vehicles," the source added. "This will fly faster and farther than anything previously."

In this first demonstration, an unarmed shell is expected to fly downrange in a straight line, according to Pentagon officials. In a subsequent flight test slated for spring 2010, defense officials anticipate demonstrating the Hypersonic Test Vehicle's ability to maneuver, which could allow future combatant commanders to avoid overflying third-party nations.

A first Air Force-sponsored test of the deployable system, the Conventional Strike Missile, would build on the prior HTV demonstration results, according to defense officials. Scheduled for early 2012, a "weaponized" missile would originate at Vandenberg, launching towards a target point at Kwajalein, defense officials said.

The Conventional Strike Missile's first test launch had been planned to take place earlier on the schedule, but a loss of fiscal 2009 funds caused a postponement into fiscal 2012, according to Air Force officials.

The first setback came with the fiscal 2009 defense appropriations bill, which stipulated that "not less than one-fourth" of the $74.6 million in multiservice funds for prompt global strike -- nearly $19 million -- must "be available" for an Army technology, the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon. That Army earmark effectively drew funds away from the Defense Department's higher priority effort, the Air Force's Conventional Strike Missile (see GSN, Nov. 7, 2008).

The Air Force also unexpectedly had to inject additional funds this year into its DARPA partnership on the Hypersonic Test Vehicle, when the research-and-development agency failed to build onto the demonstration technology some data collection devices required by the Kwajalein range, according to defense sources.

Responding to the top generals' desire to see the Conventional Strike Missile move expeditiously toward fielding, the Air Force might propose skipping some of the traditional defense acquisition milestone requirements, which can take years to accomplish.

For example, the service is mulling the possibility of forgoing some traditional demonstration and validation tasks so that the Conventional Strike Missile could enter full-scale engineering and development sooner, according to Air Force officials. Additional details were unavailable at press time.

"The Air Force view has been that you need to keep this a simple program," the program consultant told GSN. "If the DARPA HTV vehicle works, then you put a simple weapon on the front of it, and you've got your deployable solution."

July 1, 2009

WASHINGTON -- A top U.S. combatant commander would like to see rapid-strike, long-range conventional weapons fielded by 2015, according to military officials (see GSN, May 21).