'Prompt Global Strike' Weapons Still Years Away

By Stew Magnuson
A program to deliver conventional warheads anywhere on the planet within minutes is moving forward, but must wait for the technology to catch up with the concept, the leader of the Air Force’s nuclear weapons forces said Nov. 9.
The Defense Department, particularly U.S. Strategic Command, has been studying the "prompt global strike" concept for a number of years. The Air Force and Navy have the ability to deliver nuclear warheads on distant targets within minutes through Trident missiles based on submarines, or Minuteman III missiles located in silos.
Since the advent of the so-called war on terrorism, combatant commanders have expressed a desire to have access to non-nuclear weapons that can be dropped, precisely, on targets in hard-to-reach areas. A terrorist leader, or other fleeting targets, may only be in one spot for a few minutes. By the time air strikes are under way, or ships are in place to launch cruise missiles, the opportunity to eliminate a target may be gone.
The Army, Navy and Air Force are all working on separate prompt conventional strike concepts.
Lt. Gen. Frank G. Klotz, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, said the concept is very much alive, but the ability to carry out such attacks may be a number of years away.
Air Force Space Command did much of the early work on the Air Force, but that portfolio has been transferred to the Global Strike Command, which was formed in August 2009.
“We’re still in the very, very early stages in this work,” Klotz told reporters in Washington, D.C.
There is a “technology maturation phase” that has to be completed before a decision is made to move forward with a program of record. The ultimate solution may come from the Army, Navy or Air Force, he said.
A State Department fact sheet on the new Strategic Arms Reduction (START) treaty, currently awaiting ratification by the U.S. Senate, said the document does not prohibit conventional strike. Early concepts would have had Trident missiles armed with conventional explosives rather than nuclear warheads aboard U.S. submarines. However, there were concerns that other nuclear-armed nations would not be able to distinguish between nuclear and non-nuclear warheads, and might mistake the launching of the missiles as the beginning of a nuclear war.
The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency has embarked on a hypersonic technology vehicle program. The Air Force Space and Missile Center is investigating a conventional strike missile using kinetic energy and the Army Space and Missile Command is working on an advanced hypersonic weapon, the fact sheet said.
U.S. Air Force Space Command worked out most of the policy issues and basing concepts before Global Strike Command took over responsibility for the program. U.S. Strategic Command oversees the three services’ efforts.
“The technology we would like to have is not there yet,” Klotz added.
He declined to speculate when a prompt global strike capability could be fielded.  “I ask that same question,” he said. “I think it’s probably some years off now.”

Topics: Bomb and Warhead, Missile Defense

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