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April 29, 2010
Hypersonic Cruise Missiles
The U.S. is developing a weapon capable of striking anywhere on the planet within an hour. The article talks about the possibility of modifying Trident missiles -- problematic because they would be indistinguishable from nuclear weapons -- and using the Mach 5–capable X-51 hypersonic cruise missile.
Interesting technology, but we really need to think through the political ramifications of this sort of thing better.
EDITED TO ADD (5/13): Report on the policy implications.
Posted on April 29, 2010 at 1:28 PM
• 63 Comments
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"problematic because they would be indistinguishable from nuclear weapons"
You see problems, Cold War veterans see a new way to win Global Thermonuclear War: "At this speed, our nuke will detonate and EMP their nukes before theirs hit the atmosphere! Their own nukes will just fall out of the sky!"
Well, geopolitical considerations aside, I'm thrilled to see work starting up again on scramjets. Terribly complicated, but they have no real upper speed limit. An air breathing way to accelerate a craft up to orbital velocities would be a real boon to the space industry.
How about inventing something to stop this oil slick instead of something no one needs: more weapons.
@Nick P: '"At this speed, our nuke will detonate and EMP their nukes before theirs hit the atmosphere! Their own nukes will just fall out of the sky!""
A weapon that would disable nukes rather than just hit targets while the other side's nukes hit theirs would obviously be a good thing. Problem with that is an EMP could send technological nation back to 18th century lifestyle for a while. (Like the Al Yankovic song: "tonight we're gonna party like it's 1699.")
Nuclear weapons are the kind of things I wish would have never been invented. Unfornately, they have been, and having them is sometimes the only deterent one has. If there is ever a technology to disable them, rather than deter their use by blow up everyone, that would be nice.
The technology in the article is very interesting, though.
So, we're going to spend gigabucks researching and developing high-tech aerospace hardware with questionable arms control implications instead of creating the sort of human intelligence capability we'd need in order to know a particular high value target (whose death is pre-authorized) is in a particular place (where a quasi-discriminate kinetic energy kill is pre-approved) for less than one hour? Can't we just use some fission-pumped x-ray lasers left over from the SDI? Oh wait, they were never built...
Um, perhaps this, the new nuclear arms policy, and Russian treaty are all related?
Impressive....except the prototype crashed into the Pacific last week, didn't it?
The old "Let He Who has the best club be always right" Syndrom
What? Checking the political ramifications before military actions like developing new weapons systems? What in the US provides an incentive structure for that?
@HJohn: "Nuclear weapons are the kind of things I wish would have never been invented."
Nuclear fission and fusion are fundamental to nature. Wishing they hadn't been "invented" is like wishing that fire had never been "invented".
You are assuming that this technology will actually work...
Ryan: nuclear weapons are not fundamental to nature. I, too, wish they hadn't been invented.
The article states: "The military is convinced that in the coming years it will need to act with this kind of speed against threats -- terrorist leaders, smuggled nuclear or chemical arms"
Ahh, yes. Most bad ideas these days seem to be pimped on the threat of "terrorists." Typical justification, throw it on the pile with the others.
And we know this is a valid target? How?
Perhaps this flight research could have been targeted to help further improve engines for civilian flight...
Fly to/from Europe in a fraction of the time with no risk of being grounded by volcanoes?
Hit the pirates from home?
With all the talk of travel and flight of hypersonic aircraft into space and then returning saving time and fuel, this is another extension of the technology and ideas.
dropping bombs that quickly is bound to have an interesting impact on foreign relations, but what would be more interesting is investigating a craft that could move that quickly, then deploy a vehicle that contained something useful like a first response team or some such.
Imagine if the next time there was a major earthquake or disaster an emergency team could be deployed in minutes instead of hours?
@HJohn: A weapon that would disable nukes rather than just hit targets while the other side's nukes hit theirs would obviously be a good thing
Are you insane? Anything that makes people's fingers itchier -- anything that would make one think that one's opponents have a rational basis for first strike -- guarantees nuclear war.
The only defense is that no one has a defense.
To be fair to HJohn -- yes, nuclear fission is a part of nature. But there is no evidence, that from the moment of the Big Bang (more than 10 billion years ago, we are told) to July of 1945, a supercritical mass ever promptly fissioned at high energy -- anywhere in the Universe!
Although we can't say that it's absolutely impossible (a la Schrodinger's cat), it is absolutely implausible that anything akin to a fission bomb could ever have occurred, except by deliberate and intensive intentional arrangement. Jamming very pure masses of these rare special heavy isotopes into minute volumes in a tiny fraction of a second, is not likely to happen by accident!
And all of Earth's fusion bombs, require a fission bomb for ignition.
The security principle I see here has to do with a weapon that one will actually use, as opposed to those which gather dust because they are too expensive or too horrible to employ.
One reason we have perennial debates about firearms in this blog is that a firearm is a weapon that can and will get used -- whereas a nuclear bomb is overkill even for a major power.
This is a Chekhov's Gun aimed at a subnational power, or a global .50 caliber sniper rifle targeting non-state actors.
Presumably we would make courtesy notifications before aiming it over the Pole or in any way that a nuclear power could mistake for a first strike. This is one reason why it needs the extended range -- there is an unwritten agreement that anything nasty should be launched into a south polar orbit to avoid potential Armageddon.
@Jared, there is a considerable volume of opinion that air-breathing boosters are not particularly useful for the vast majority of orbital missions.
Seems like the best rocket really is a rocket. Your goal is to get out of the atmosphere as fast as you can, not loiter inside of it.
The drag on the airframe as it scoops up air to use as an oxidizer costs you more than you save by lifting less mass to altitude.
Flagged within the 1st paragraph.
"In the Pacific, a nuclear-powered Ohio class submarine surfaces, ready for the president's command to launch.
They don't need to surface for anything let alone a simple communication and definitely not to launch a missile.
No one else recall about a similar project developed during the Cold War?
I remember watching a show in Discovery Channel about a super sonic nuclear weapon delivery system that can attack multiple targets. Basically, it's a supersonic, unmanned craft that has multiple nuclear weapons. Upon nearing its target, the craft would fly low level, low enough for the supersonic to wreak havoc on the ground.
When the craft reaches its target, it pops a nuclear device from its back. By the time the nuclear weapon explodes, the craft would have been far enough to escape most, if any, damage from the nuclear explosion (heat, pressure, emp, etc). It'll then proceed to its next target.
It was scrapped due to concerns that it completely distorted the balance of power. Of course, I'm not sure on the details since it's been sometime since I last watched that show.
Much appreciated if anyone can confirm/provide more details on this.
I remember now. It was called Supersonic Low Altitude Missile, or S.L.A.M.
>And we know this is a valid target? How?
I think anyone that you drop a hypersonic projectile on tends to become your enemy very soon afterwards even if they weren't before.
I believe that this Prompt Global Strike initiative was addressed in the arms reduction treaty that Obama and Medvedev recently signed. The key to Russian support of the new US system was that launch vehicles for the PGS would count the same as nuclear launch vehicles in terms of each side's total fielded weapons.
Other options to prevent a nuclear confusion included using non-ballistic launch systems or placing ballistic launch systems only on land-based missiles located at specified areas subject to Russian inspection. I believe that Gates stated that they would not place non-nuclear weapons on the trident launch vehicles because it would be impossible for Russia and China to rule out a nuclear weapon launch quickly enough to control their own counter-strikes.
tbytes, sounds like this:
I have seen a fair bit about this, but in no way byuy the "too provocative" line. It was rife with technical issues, spat severely radioactive debrid out the tailpipe so could not be launched anywhere we liked, or tested, etc. etc. etc. A boondoggle. Good article about it:
> problematic because they would be
> indistinguishable from nuclear weapons
We've been down this road before. Hopefully, once again, cooler heads will prevail. This time, I cannot recall the project name, but the clever plan was to stick 20-30 long-rod penetrators (tungsten, I believe) on the tip of a Pershing missile. Use it to attack WARPAC airbases during the opening minutes of a war. The trajectory gives the penetrators enough energy to defeat any HAS, and crater the runway and even the adjacent dirt fields enough that it's no longer an airfield. We get air superiority.
Except we're all dead because they look /exactly/ like nuke-tipped Pershings when flying at the commies, who presumably retaliate with, at least, their IRBMs. Stupid. And never got past the pencil and paper phase, luckily.
Will they be able to fly through volcanic ash?
"A weapon that would disable nukes rather than just hit targets while the other side's nukes hit theirs would obviously be a good thing."
Sure, that would be nice, but in this case the EMP comes from the detonation of the nuke on foreign soil and the probable murder of thousands to millions of civilians. So, maybe it's not so great, eh?
"could send... back to the 18th century"
Well, it *could* but our infrastructure is very resilient... discounting the power grid. Generally, the EMP will just fry all the electronics in a particular area, perhaps devastating that area but the rest of the country is fine. If the area that's fried has nationally-critical systems and there are no offsite backups, then the country is screwed. Otherwise, damage is isolated, money begins to flow, and rebuilding occurs by ordering/installing new electronics.
Well, the situation might be more severe for nuclear control systems, first responder radios or people in hospitals hooked to life support machines. A friend of mine showed me an illustrative EMP scenario in the game Modern Warfare 2. A Hind is about to kill the main characters when a Russian nuke explodes in the sky over Washington. It kills all comms, lights, and planes/choppers drop around you as you move to cover. The games realistic & imaginative rendering was a nice surprise, but I imagine a similar real-life scenario wouldn't be as pleasant.
@ Paul Vincent
"Will they be able to fly through volcanic ash?"
lol. I'm sure they will during the first pass around the earth, but not the fourth or fifth. So, firing an hour or so before the target location is confirmed is not advised. ;)
There's never a recession for arms manufacturers in the US.
Isn't there a treaty cap on the number of cruise missles? I thought I read that when we were throwing them away (at a million a shot) at Sadam in 03.
@kangaroo " makes people's fingers itchier "
Surprising. I think I agree here with kangaroo. MAD worked because it was mutual. Take that out and let one or another side believe it could have a sucsessful first strike with no retaliation and there would be considerable pressure on the disadvantaged side to strike first. (witness how tense the Russians got about the "missle shield" in Poland)
@MarkH "supercritical mass ever promptly fissioned at high energy "
Leaving aside nova's and the like because I don't know if they fit your definition...there is a really cool phenomenon going on in Gabon. 3 separate natural fission reactors have been found in the Oklo Mine there.
@Andrew "is overkill even "
There is no weapon too horible that man won't use it. As recently as the Vietnam war Westmoreland and the JCS were pressuring Johnson hard to deploy tactical nukes to defend a marine outpost. There is speculation that they, the JCS, intended/wanted escalation into N Vietnam up to and into China. An escalated war with the Chinese would have made the logic of tactical and strategic nuke use seemingly obvious.
I know it has to be someone's job to sit around thinking about doomsday scenarios and how to defeat them but I think it bends/malforms/distorts that persons thinking/cognitive processes/Weltanschauung making them appear, if they aren't in fact, to be quite mad. Some thoughts can never be unthought. Cuts may heal but will leave a scar.
@kg "CRS report"
thanks. These things are fascinating.
Okay, so how many other countries would the US want to have such a weapon system? France? Russia? China? Iran?
And, on the other hand -- do the US really want other countries to protect themselves against such an attack, e.g. by building and establishing weapon systems which are located closer to the US, aiming to destroy "virtual" infrastructure, or the like?
As above - vehicle fail. Also, article fail since the "X" designator is for test rather than production units.
Not so sure about that. There IS a fission cycle somewhere in the lifecycle as I recall I think it's when the star starts burning He or Pb. I'd have to check my notes.
Also fusion boosted fission bombs were made and tested by both the US and USSR.
But too...all that U comes from some where don't it? Given the amount synthesized during a super-nova wouldn't there be sufficent quantity undergoing sufficient pressure to produce thermonuclear explosions. Granted such an event would probably be unnoticable in the uh, larger, event.
The greater the disparity in technology between (potential) hostiles, the more likely the less advanced party will resort to unconventional warfare. ("Terrorism", if you want to call it that.)
@Glenn: Your goal is to get out of the atmosphere as fast as you can, not loiter inside of it.
Well, get out of the atmosphere as efficiently as possible, anyway. And yes, I'm aware of the drawbacks of scramjets, most notably the fact that it needs rockets to get going and then more rockets to work in space.
Completely inverting this line of thought are orbital airships, which would take _days_ to work their way up to the requisite speed and altitude, using electric rockets and playing increasing speed against decreasing buoyancy.
The trajectory of an air-breathing scramjet is entirely different from an ICBM. Definitionally, those are ballistic. They go through a boost phase, then attain a desired trajectory, and let gravity do pretty much of the rest. An air-breather is continually applying thrust, cannot go exoatmospheric, and does not look like an ICBM launch. That's the point. The non-orbital path is supposed to flag the other nuclear powers "Hey- not a nuke".
Yes, it could become another weapon, but it's supposed to be a much less politically provocative weapon. Nobody blinks when you launch a Tomahawk, and that's more where this guy is supposed to go.
Mark, the defenders don't care about the launch of an ICBM because it's an ICBM, they care about it because it might be carrying nukes. Similarly, if this scramjet vehicle could carry nukes, they'd care just as much or more about a scramjet launch.
"An air-breather is continually applying thrust, cannot go exoatmospheric, and does not look like an ICBM launch...The non-orbital path is supposed to flag the other nuclear powers 'Hey - not a nuke'."
Yep, nothing says "Not to worry" like an half-ton tungsten penetrator doing Mach six through your airspace.
A couple of quick points.
1. a warhead coming down from the atmosphere is only relying on a country's good will. It's only a conventional weapon. the target has no way to verify.
2. This thing is coming down at supersonic speed. Good luck with the russians or iranians verifying or trusting us.
3. Mach 10???
4. the purifying and extreme machining required is the only thing preventing the Chechens (sp) or al qaeda having the weapons.
5. A couple of thoughts. Israel will do our dirty work and a terrorist will figure out or buy a weapon.
6. This is a trial balloon. There are risks to this idea that other countries will have to adjust or tell us what they think.
7. I am limited in what I can say for another 20 yrs.
"we really need to think through the political ramifications of this sort of thing better."
Quite simple, really. The USA is already stronger, militarily, than all the other countries on Earth combined. That means that if all the other countries on Earth formed an alliance with each other to wage war against the USA, the USA would win.
Current US defense expenditure only makes any sense if US leaders regard every other nation on earth as a likely enemy.
Now: if you treat somebody as an enemy, sooner or later he's going to become one.
@Nostromo: 'The USA is already stronger, militarily, than all the other countries on Earth combined. That means that if all the other countries on Earth formed an alliance with each other to wage war against the USA, the USA would win.'
I'm trying to think of a nicer word to use than absurd.
Last year there was a Euro-movie DVD about Secret Asssasins as cogs using such man-portable mini-devices, launched locally, guided close to target by a Marker-agent, then steered into a hit by sat-cam.
Showing restraint. Good on yeh. But remember while moderator says we ain't to pick fights based on size or political view; stupid is open season.
"Quite simple, really. The USA is already stronger, militarily, than all the other countries on Earth combined. That means that if all the other countries on Earth formed an alliance with each other to wage war against the USA, the USA would win."
I'm having a hard time imagining any plausible scenario by which this could even come close to being true.
For some reason, the US military seems to really like these kinds of ambiguous delivery systems. We've got all kinds of bad ideas along these lines - nuclear warheads for tomahawks, nuclear artillery rounds, nuclear torpedoes and anti-ship weapons - no wonder verification is such a difficult job.
@ dob, HJohn, and BF Skinner on Nostromo
Don't jump the gun. She might be right: we could draft everyone, scramjet nuke major areas, convert entire economy to military and strategically knock down the competition. Perhaps a 0.01% chance under ideal conditions. Possible. Probability seems similar to elephant nearly dying from huge drop but saved by grabbing a flower with its trunk.
Real issue: it would never come to that. They'd just hit us where it hurts without launching a single missile before our war even began: embargo of all electronics, cheap materials, etc.; make infowar a reality; asymmetrical warfare by some of the millions of Eastern immigrants; offering ten million job openings in China for Hispanic "guest workers" willing to emigrate from US; liquidate US holdings/investments. These and other tricks would crash the US economy and level it overnight.
So, *realistically*, you guys are on the mark: even among semi-retarded trolls like herself, Nostromo's radical views would hold no water. If it didn't work for the old Rome, it won't work for the "New Rome"... ;)
Information gleaned from an article in Popular Science should be taken with several grains of salt.
I'm all for love of country. The US is a great place with, mostly, great people who are nice. There are those who give the word patriotism such a rank odor so many don't use the word anymore.
But you hit on what I was thinking. We're a net importer on too wide variety of strategic raw material; including food. Even if we had the resources like driving our cars on coal our industrial forges have been cold for a long time. Does anyone know how to restart them fast?The rest of the world could just starve us out.
What are the levels of survival we'd be willing to accept? Like rededicating the 90% of our urban/suburban workers back to growing all of our own food within the continental US?
Still 300M against 5.7B? Even those blinded by hormonal rush should be able to do basic math.
Ahem. As peculiar as Nostromo's claim was, please keep your replies civil.
I'm happy to see that the world is going to be protected by a new sort of American peace weapons. Our bright future is assured.
"like rededicating the 90% of our urban/suburban workers back to growing our own food"
Yeah, this was what I was thinking about. Dependence was a strategic move where we accepted the risks to get the benefits of globalization. The only way to mitigate the risk is, as you pointed out, total self-sufficiency. In one light, we'd go back to what China was 20 years ago. ;)
"300M against 5.7B? Even those blinded by hormonal rush should be able to do basic math."
Idk, BF. Your battle numbers look eerily similar to those of a past battle. I think I know some Greeks in a perpetual hormonal rush who might like those odds. This time they'd say, "This... is... AMERICA!" then kick the enemies off the Grand Canyon. HELL YEAH!
With regards the US and weapons spending...
Last time I cared to look the US spent something like 20 times that of the next closest nation on conventional weapons of offense and defense.
However what you need to remember is it is not the raw spend or the raw numbers of weapons that actually counts.
In aircraft and submarines a performance increase of less than 1% over your enemy can be a very very significant tactical advantage.
Take the old navy problem of guns and torpedoes that can "reach beyond" the nautical horizon. At one time it was considered not worthwhile to have such weapons on navy vessels simply because they out ranged what you could target. There was the idea of a heavy cruiser flanked by high speed lightly armored vessels that effectively acted as "target spotters" however it had issues. The whole argument should have become mute when the first aircraft got put on a cruiser. But it did not and many navy vessels where still made at what was now a disadvantage for some time afterwards.
This fixed mind set or even vested interest can cause significant issues. Winston Churchill had a problematic time getting coal replaced by oil when Lord of the Admiralty even though it easily improved bunkering times by an order of magnitude and the boilers could be smaller and lighter for any given power rating and most importantly the time to steam was more than halved...
Often it is the little almost invisible differences that make the biggest differences to a weapons capability and thus if it punches above or bellow it's opponent in reality not just "on paper".
Even in more conventional weapons such as mainline battle tanks very tiny advantages quickly mount up. Things like the slope of the armor, position and size of fuel tanks, drive chain gearing and position of the driver can be more important than the speed of auto laying, type and location of primary and secondary armament etc.
All of which makes an assessment of who is going to win what problematical.
Also the more developed a weapon is the more likely it is to fail either due to to tight design tolerance or technical oversight giving Achilles heals.
Classic example of the latter are an APC which fills the crew compartment with monoxide if the exhaust system gets partially blocked, and field guns that rapidly overheat due to the "wrong kind of fillter" when used in arid dusty areas.
Achilles heals usually favor those who practice irregular battle field warfare in a way that exploits them in the enemy. As our battle fields become more dependent on information and it's communication you can expect to see more battles turning on it's exploitation.
Also the issue of low tech attacks against high tech equipment. It has been noted that some UAV's are overly susceptible to "bird strikes", thus something very low tech like a flock of well trained pigeons could be a significant threat...
The real WTF is not that it could be mistaken for a nuclear attack. That really doesn't matter; the sort of enemies who might be on the receiving end of this sort of thing, don't have any such capability as massive thermonuclear retaliation with "launch on warning."
They might say "Holy Cow, those cursed Yankees are nuking us! If we survive, we must retaliate furiously!" followed, 10 minutes later, by "Oh. It was a conventional warhead, not a nuke. But we're still pissed off, a bit!"
No, the real WTF is that no-one seems to be asking "what the hell is this thing FOR?!" If we look at all the most recent military problems the USA has had, nowhere on that list do we see "It sometimes takes a few hours to strike new targets at arbitrary locations on Earth that are not already covered by conventional forces. We really need to speed that up a bit."
Please remember that this is a security blog, and keep your comments focused on security. I've removed several comments that went too far off-topic.
It's dangerous to assume our enemies won't have that capability. For one, this is a generic weapon that may be used in non-nuclear or nuclear applications later on against any potential adversary. We can't assume they won't target someone capable of retaliating quickly and massively. The Pentagon doesn't always make logical decisions, such as their winnable nuclear war strategies.
Additionally, there actually is a need for a weapon like this. It's not our most pressing need right now, so it's probably counterproductive. But, there is a need. We have been using missiles like the Tomahawk cruise missile during the past ten years. It's a nice strategic weapon that lets us take a site out without getting close to them. Doing it quickly isn't always about radar warnings: the target may leave during the flight of the slow, traditional missile. This solves both of these problems.
Alas, it creates a new one: cost. I've noticed a trend in the US military that costs keep going up. Enemies that used to take about ten thousand dollars to kill now take millions. Considering the dead tangos are replaced quickly, I don't think it's productive. Now, they want to be throwing supersonic missiles at this problem? I think UCAV's are more productive: they reduce costs to fuel and cheaper missiles, plus a fixed overhead. The costs of operating the UCAV are amortized over all of its missions. The real world anecdote is the success of Predator drones outfitted with Hellfire missiles. Using them on a target is a *lot* cheaper than a multi-million dollar cruise missile.
Loathe though I am to defend this proposal, it is said that in August 1998 when Bill Clinton targeted ObL in an Afghan training camp with a cruise missile, we missed by 3 hours because our intel was stale. Perhaps with this system, we would have eliminated bin Laden prior to 9/11?
I think others have given sufficient reasons to question the wisdom of building such a weapon system, however.
A weapon based on US Intellegence quickly identifying a threat .........
The current state of the art
A New Zealand National murders his wife, dumps his daughter in Australia and flies to the US. Given the flight number, seat number, day of travel etc, he's located by America's Most wanted 12months later.
The times square bombing was foiled by a cop on a horse
Ya gotta love high tech, but as bruce keeps banging on "Basic security works" and will continue to work highly pecialised security will not
Don't forget to pay your taxes.
The guys who recently managed to lose two wars in a couple of dusty places nobody cared about - despide a hundred-thousand-fold advantage in funding over adversaries - want new toy. And your money, of course, which is exactly the point of exercise.
Mind you, it's totally useless against a guy with el-cheapo AK-47 knockoff stashed under his bed. But that AK-47 is quite deadly when you actually come to the guy's town, and none of the fancy hypersonic toys are going to save you from a bullet which may come at any moment, from any seemingly peaceful local.
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