Hypersonics: how not to achieve Prompt Global Strike

Posted: August 7, 2011 in Songs of Space and Nuclear War
Tags: , , ,

Prompt Global Strike is the military requirement/program/desire to destroy ultra high-value, very fleeting-opportunity targets.  It requires enabling by exquisite capabilities in at least two areas we’ve never had 1) intelligence (where the target is and how confident we are of such information) and 2) command and control (the authority to launch and release weapons).  However, if those capabilities were in place, technologies–some advanced and unproven like hypersonics, or perhaps some advanced and well proven, like ICBMs with non-nuclear warheads–would be needed to place the weapon on the target. 

It’s possible we might have exquisite intelligence, not as a rule of thumb, but every once in awhile and it’s possible we may have exquisite and decisive command control every once in a while as well, but such capabilities cannot be presumed to exist at all times.  But it we’re going to spend (relatively) big money to address the weapons need prompt global strike might fulfill, we simply can’t use the favored technology, hypersonic launch vehicles, to deliver the firepower.  Why?  It isn’t that the technology is inherently inferior (although that has yet to be decisively shown) or that the technology won’t work (although it hasn’t yet). 

Rather it’s the fact that you either have to deliver the hypersonic from an air-breathing platform which brings up significant anti-access/area denial issues (that is, getting close enough to release the hypersonic weapon), or that you have to launch it on something that requires even more preparation time like a space launch vehicle or missile.  Hours, if not days, of mission prep time are required to generate and prepare to be ready if and when called upon to execute.

Prompt global strike could be fulfilled today by a conventional ICBM which can be stored in a ready configuration, retargeted in a flash, launched in minutes, and is w-a-y faster than a hypersonic.  But there are at least two disadvantages with a conventional ICBM as well.  First, it’s a missile program in what’s still a flying Air Force; second, there’s the political, media, and think-tank ICBM haters who will drop the proverbial red herring and say a conventional ICBM fulfilling a PGS mission will start World War III. 

I’m sure some think prompt global strike is a solution looking for a problem.  The reality is the problem is there, but it’s one of those wicked problems.  Even if the ability to address the problem is out there, it seems hypersonics are not a viable solution.  How much national security benefit/risk-reduction are we going to get from pouring time, treasure, and talent into the square hypersonic peg when a conventional ICBM or two (or ten) could already do the job?

(image: U.S. Air Force photo/Chad Bellay)

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