Thursday, February 02, 2006

Air Force To Weigh Rapid-Strike Options For Global 'No-Warning' Threats

Inside The Pentagon
February 2, 2006

The Air Force in March will launch a two-year review of weapon concepts that could allow the United States to respond to surprise threats by destroying targets halfway around the world within 60 minutes of an order to strike, according to defense officials and documents.

The Pentagon effort to field a new “Prompt Global Strike” capability by 2020 comes as defense officials also prepare a nearer-term project to equip the Navy’s submarine-launched Trident D-5 nuclear missile with a conventional warhead (Inside the Pentagon, Jan. 26, p3). If Congress allows the Defense Department to begin work this year on the $500 million conventional Trident effort, a small number of the interim weapons could be fielded on submarines within four years, according to defense sources.

For the longer term, the Air Force last week asked industry representatives to submit concepts for new weapons that could “strike globally, precisely and rapidly with kinetic effects against high-payoff, time-sensitive targets in a single or multi-theater environment.”

A Jan. 27 “request for information” on Prompt Global Strike technology options describes a desired capability to hit valuable targets quickly from the United States even if the military lacks troops, aircraft or ships in the region, according to service officials.

The top officer at U.S. Strategic Command, Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, reportedly sees this ability as vital if the United States receives fleeting intelligence about an important target. For instance, such a weapon might be used if North Korea prepares to launch a nuclear missile or if intelligence surfaces on a terrorist leader’s whereabouts.

The most demanding scenarios under which the president might launch global-strike weapons are in cases of “no warning,” according to defense officials.

The risk posed by such surprise threats has been of concern to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for years, dating back to a congressionally mandated panel he chaired during the Clinton administration (ITP, June 25, 1998, p1).

In its upcoming analysis of alternatives, the Air Force will study first how effective the proposed technologies might be against no-warning threats, according to Maj. Gen. Mark Shackelford, director of plans and requirements at Air Force Space Command in Colorado Springs, CO.

“This is a situation where national security demands an immediate response, such that we have to be able to respond quickly, potentially in an anti-access environment,” he told ITP in a Jan. 31 telephone interview. “Anti-access” is Pentagon terminology for a U.S. inability to gain rights to use bases, airspace or waterways in a given region.

This is the more “pressing need” because the United States cannot yet launch long-range, conventional weapons on very short notice, he said.

“We don’t have the ability right now to respond in a shorter time line” -- in “hours to days” rather than “days or weeks,” Shackelford said. “So what we would like to do is take a look at this shorter time-line situation, where we have not had an opportunity to forward-deploy forces [and] where we must respond quickly to ward off any potential attack that otherwise we would not be able to deal with.”

That phase of the service’s analysis of alternatives will last one year, he said.

In the study’s second year, the Air Force will consider how such weapons might perform in cases where national leaders have “unambiguous warning,” implying the United States has more time to consider its response, the general said.

Last week’s request for information says unambiguous warning “occurs when the president decides, based on intelligence received, that a hostile government [entity] has decided to initiate hostilities.” The bracketed word appears in the original solicitation.

“In an unambiguous-warning case, given enough time . . . we can preposition forces to satisfy the need,” Shackelford said. “If we have forward-deployed forces, they can react in a days-to-weeks time frame.”

Candidate systems for Prompt Global Strike likely will include conventional variants of existing land- and sea-based strategic ballistic missiles, according to defense and industry officials. They are also expected to include ideas for new conventional ballistic missiles or hypersonic vehicles that require more development, officials say.

Cartwright and other defense leaders are said to be particularly interested in technologies that allow a conventional payload greater accuracy, such as hypersonic weapons that can adjust direction en route to a target.

A Prompt Global Strike weapon is expected to have as much as 7,000- to 8,000-mile range, according to sources.

Although the Pentagon has settled on the Trident modification for the near term, Shackelford says he hopes the longer-term solution for global strike could be fielded even before the 2020 target date.

“We would be more than interested in having the capability sooner than that if we can technologically support it,” Shackelford says. Thus his command may favor a solution “that is more mature” over “something that is less mature,” taking into account “potential life-cycle costs,” as well, he said.

The Air Force is directing the effort to develop this long-term capability as U.S. Strategic Command’s lead on space and global strike.

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