US Ballistic Missile Plan Back

The US has revived the Prompt Global Strike missile plan. It may well be another new system with China in mind.

It was one of the worst ideas of the George W. Bush administration. In the early 2000s, the US Defence Department under Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld proposed fielding an arsenal of non-nuclear ballistic missiles meant for quickly targeting fleeting terrorist targets, such as training camps and leadership meetings. The so-called ‘Prompt Global Strike’ initiative initially envisioned replacing the nuclear warheads with conventional explosives on existing Navy Trident ballistic missiles or Minuteman missiles belonging to the Air Force.

It was a very, very bad idea, for one very simple reason. To the early-warning radars of other nuclear powers (Russia and China, especially) a non-nuclear ballistic missile launched from the United States would look just like a nuclear version — and could spark World War III. ‘The launch of such a missile could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces,’ then-Russian President Vladimir Putin said in response to the plan.

Bush wisely shelved the Prompt Global Strike idea. Then, in 2010, the Barack Obama administration dusted it off. The new, revised, Prompt Global Strike plan features a slightly different missile system meant to differentiate it from ballistic nukes. The Obama missile design has two stages: a first-stage Minotaur rocket booster and, atop that, an unpowered, hypersonic glider with a conventional warhead. The Minotaur would be fired at a distinctive, low angle, according to government descriptions — and that should ensure no other nation mistakes the conventional launch for a nuclear one.

‘Our focus is on boost-glide capabilities, including the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle concept,’ Maj. Gen. David Scott said. ‘We have no plans for conventionally armed sea-based missiles such as a Conventional Trident Modification or conventionally armed ICBMs.’

At the moment, the Obama Prompt Global Strike weapon is still mostly theoretical. The first firm discussion of design and testing began with the ongoing 2012 budget cycle. But most of the hardware elements are already flying, albeit separately. The Minotaur is a proven, widely-used rocket in US service. And the hypersonic glider — capable of Mach 20 — had its first test in the spring of 2010. That test was a failure: a control error caused the glider to oscillate and crash. The Air Force plans to test another glider this year.

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While originally conceived of as a means of striking terrorist targets, the revived Prompt Global Strike system is more likely to figure in the Pentagon's growing arsenal of weaponry for countering China. Beginning this year, the Air Force shifted billions of dollars in funding toward building new missiles, drones and bombers intended to preserve US strike capability in the Pacific.