Hypersonic Conventional Prompt Global Strike: To Ensure It Absolutely, Positively Won’t Be There In 30 Minutes or Less

Posted: November 26, 2010 in Uncategorized
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The Washington Times has an article entitled Pentagon to test 2nd near-space strike craft. The subtitle is Weapon designed for urgent threats.

In the olden days, the ICBM community occasionally offered up Hot and fresh to your door in thirty minutes or the next one’s free as a pretty good capabilities description.

But while nuclear weapons are great for nuclear deterrence and for massive retaliation, sometimes—well, normally—you want something a little more precise. Enter the Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) program.

Short of darkening space with offensive space-to-earth weapons (expensive and impractical) and using non-nuclear ICBMs (not expensive or impractical, but so far, a political orphan), there aren’t too many kinetic strike solutions to an extremely high-value and fleeting targeting opportunity. The government solution? A Rube-Goldberg device, knows as the Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle. In an entry whose impartiality is not disputed, Wikipedia says a Rube Goldberg machine performs a simple task in a complex way which is a darned good description of the CPGS’s Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle.

With that as background, on to the Times article.

Defense Department scientists are set to conduct a second test launch next year of the Falcon HTV-2 experimental superweapon after the first flight this year ended when the autopilot deliberately crashed the unmanned glider into the ocean as a safety measure.

You don’t often see superweapon and glider in the same sentence describing the same program, but that’s what we’re looking at here.

The Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle is designed to skim the top of the atmosphere just below space, and is a key element of the Pentagon‘s Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) capability — a program to build non-nuclear strategic weapons that can strike conventionally anywhere in the world in less than an hour.

Hypersonic vehicles require an assist—a massive assist—to get them started. They have to be going very fast to begin with or else they won’t work. In the case of the Falcon HTV, it requires a rocket to launch it.

The $308 million Falcon HTV-2 is a suborbital near-space vehicle launched on a Minotaur rocket, a solid-fuel booster built from a decommissioned ballistic missile. On the very edge of the atmosphere, in a procedure called “clamshell payload fairing release,” the launch missile deploys the plane, which is then supposed to glide above the Earth at more than 13,000 miles per hour — more than 20 times the speed of sound.

Some might ask if it requires a rocket to launch it, why not just put a warhead on top of a rocket? It’s a legitimate question, although a hypersonic vehicle has the ability to maneuver which gives it a bit of extra capability and flexibility. However, rocket launches have historically been far from responsive, normally taking at least weeks to set up, test, and execute. Unfortunately, this shortcoming is a complete disconnect from the stated purpose of the CPGS program.

The Pentagon is developing a generation of such hypersonic weapons as a way of being able to strike quickly at urgent threats — such as preparations by terrorists or rogue states to use nuclear weapons.

A Congressional Research Service report on prompt global strike stated that the program will develop weapons that can “strike globally and rapidly with joint conventional forces against high-payoff targets” using “attacks in a matter of minutes or hours — as opposed to the days or weeks needed for planning and execution with existing forces.”

Not only is the program (as being currently pursued) inherently incapable of fulfilling its stated mission, it also gets a reflexive pushback from the arms control community. I’d think they (the arms controllers) should embrace CPGS. After all, it could be an enduring and significant jobs program for them.

The issue has been lent urgency by the recent nuclear arms treaty negotiated with Russia. Specialists say the new generation of hypersonic strike craft would not count against the limits the treaty places on strategic weapons, although in treaty negotiations, U.S. officials promised to discuss the new weapons in a treaty consultation commission.

But some other proposals for CPGS systems, such as putting conventional warheads on existing submarine-launched ballistic missiles, would count against the caps set by START.

Arms control advocates fret about the impact of the new generation of CPGS weapons. Congressional and other opposition killed a previous proposal to achieve CPGS capability by fitting conventional warheads to U.S. submarine-launched ballistic missiles. The concern was that other nuclear-armed nations might mistake the launch of such a weapon for the onset of a nuclear war.

Supporters of hypersonic weapons say that they would not be launched from an ICBM site, and that the trajectory would be different from that of a nuclear missile.

“It’s a totally different flight profile,” said Mr. Lewis.

But arms control advocates say the risk of a deadly mistake is still too high.

“There is so much potential for confusion,” said Matthew Hoey, a space weapons specialist and arms control advocate, citing what he called “the very degraded state” of Russia‘s space-based early warning system.

Of course, the potential for confusion exists at all times and incidentally, the Russians have the political will and cash to build out their GPS-like GLONASS system. As the saying goes, if you want better missile warning, all it takes is time and money.

Still, not only is the hypersonic test vehicle a Rube Goldberg device, its ability to perform its mission is far from established. The first vehicle had a major problem about halfway through its test.

In a statement last week, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) revealed for the first time that the first test flight April 20 ended when the autonomous onboard control system — the computer autopilot flying the futuristic superweapon — “commanded flight termination.”

“When the onboard system detects [undesirable or unsafe flight] behavior, it forces itself into a controlled roll and pitchover to descend directly into the ocean,” DARPA spokesman Eric Mazzacone explained in e-mail to The Washington Times.

The DARPA statement said that an independent engineering review board found that the flight was terminated after the plane began to roll so violently that it “exceeded the available control capability” of the onboard autonomous piloting system.

Specialists say such problems are expected in test flights.

Well, if such problems were expected, why weren’t actions taken to fix it before the test?

So it would appear if you want a system that will never be used (and may never work), the hypersonic program fits into that category. It features unproven technologies, inherently high-risk mission profiles, unresponsive methods of employment, and huge costs.

The United States can do better financially, technically, and mission-wise with a handful of conventional, above-ground siloed Minuteman IIIs at the Cape and another handful at Vandenberg. They’ll almost certainly never be used either, but if you’re going to have weapons systems you never use, may as well go with those that are cheap, proven, and do-able. Or even better, a handful of SpaceX delivered Falcon1e vehicles (less than $11 million each), also in above ground silos? You could probably cover the cost of that whole effort with the money being spent for upcoming Falcon HTV-2 test.

Nah, that makes too much sense.

  1. […] As such, maybe we should declare failure on the hypersonic cruise vehicle now and save ourselves some grief. […]

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