HAUNTED by the memory of a lost opportunity to kill Osama Bin Laden before he attacked the World Trade Center in New York, US military planners have won President Barack Obama’s support for a new generation of high-speed weapons that are intended to strike anywhere on Earth within an hour.
Obama’s interest in Prompt Global Strike (PGS), a nonnuclear weapons programme, has alarmed China and Russia and complicated nuclear arms reduction negotiations.
White House officials confirmed last week that the president, who won the Nobel peace prize last year, is considering the deployment of a new class of hypersonic guided missiles that can reach their targets at speeds of Mach 5 — about 3,600mph.
That is nearly seven times faster than the 550mph Tomahawk cruise missiles that arrived too late to kill Bin Laden at an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan in 1998.
“The ability to attack a wide range of targets at intercontinental range, promptly and without resort to nuclear weapons, is of central importance to US national security,” said Daniel Goure, a defence analyst at the Lexington Institute in Virginia.
The White House has requested almost $250m in congressional funding next year for research into hypersonic technologies, some of which harness the shock waves generated by a fast-moving missile to increase its speed further.
The new weapon could be launched from air, land or sea on a long-range missile travelling at suborbital altitudes above 350,000ft. The missile releases a hypersonic pilotless plane that receives updates from satellites as it homes in on its target at up to five times the speed of sound, generating so much heat that it has to be shielded with special materials to avoid melting.
Depending on the version the Pentagon chooses, the warhead would either split into dozens of lethal fragments in the final seconds of its flight or simply smash into its target, relying on devastating kinetic energy to destroy anything in its path. As a precision weapon its effects would be quite different from the mass destruction inflicted by nuclear warheads delivered by intercontinental ballistic missiles that can reach 13,400mph.
The development of PGS has won praise and criticism as the president seeks to reduce the strategic US nuclear arsenal in favour of tactical weapons that can be used swiftly to counter terrorists or rogue states. “Conventional weapons with worldwide reach … enable us to reduce the role of nuclear weapons,” said Joe Biden, the vice-president, recently.
Sergei Lavrov, the Russian foreign minister, warned earlier this month that “states will hardly accept a situation in which nuclear weapons disappear, but weapons that are no less destabilising emerge in the hands of certain members of the international community”.
General Yuri Baluyevsky, a deputy secretary of the Russian National Security Council, complained that US concessions at nuclear arms reduction talks were not because of America’s love of peace, but because “they can kill you using conventional high-precision weapons”.
US analysts have also warned of the risk that Chinese or Russian monitors might mistake a hypersonic launch for nuclear attack. “The short flight time … leaves very little time for an assessment of the situation, putting an enormous strain on national decision-making mechanisms and increasing the probability of an accident,” argued Pavel Podvig of Stanford University.
General Kevin Chilton, the US air force commander supervising the PGS programme, told The New York Times that the Pentagon’s current options were not fast enough.
“Today we can present some conventional options to the president to strike a target anywhere on the globe that range from 96 hours to maybe four, five, six hours,” he said. “If the president wants to act faster than that, the only thing we have that goes faster is a nuclear response.”
The Pentagon has already begun testing missile systems that might be used in a PGS programme. Last week the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) launched a test flight of a prototype labelled the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), also known as the Falcon.
The prototype was launched from Vandenberg air force base in California on a solid-fuel rocket booster made from a decommissioned ballistic missile. There was no comment from US Strategic Command, which controls the programme, on either the success of the test or a timetable for future deployment.
“It is premature to discuss the actual implementation of this capability until the technology has sufficiently matured,” a Pentagon statement said.
The Washington Times reported last week that Darpa is building two Falcon vehicles, the second of which is scheduled for launch early next year.
US officials have sought to reassure Russian and Chinese authorities that the new weapons will be developed in small numbers and will be kept well away from US nuclear launch sites so there is no confusion that might trigger an accidental nuclear war.
The new arms reduction treaty signed by Obama and Dmitri Medvedev, the Russian president, in Prague two weeks ago also contains a provision that Washington will reduce its arsenal by one nuclear missile for every PGS weapon that it deploys.
Obama’s efforts to placate Moscow and Beijing have been criticised by US arms control hawks. Dean Cheng, a China specialist at the conservative Heritage Foundation, accused the administration of “pursuing a strategically incoherent policy, one that is ostensibly aimed at reassuring other nations but will more likely lead to greater instability and uncertainty”.
Cheng added: “This is not the path to another Nobel peace prize.”