| The Pentagon is planning a new generation of weapons, including
huge hypersonic drones and bombs dropped from space, that will allow the
US to strike its enemies at lightning speed from its own territory.|
Over the next 25 years, the new technology would free the US from dependence on forward bases and the cooperation of regional allies, part of the drive towards self-sufficiency spurred by the difficulties of gaining international cooperation for the invasion of Iraq.
The new weapons are being developed under a programme codenamed Falcon (Force Application and Launch from the Continental US).
A US defence website earlier this month invited bids from contractors to develop the technology and the current edition of Jane's Defence Weekly reports that the first flight tests are scheduled to take place within three years.
According to the website run by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) the programme is aimed at fulfilling "the government's vision of an ultimate prompt global reach capability (circa 2025 and beyond)".
The Falcon technology would "free the US military from reliance on forward basing to enable it to react promptly and decisively to destabilising or threatening actions by hostile countries and terrorist organisations", according to the Darpa invitation for bids.
The ultimate goal would be a "reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle (HCV) ... capable of taking off from a conventional military runway and striking targets 9,000 nautical miles distant in less than two hours".
The unmanned HCV would carry a payload of up to 12,000 lbs and could ultimately fly at speeds of up to 10 times the speed of sound, according to Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Washington.
Propelling a warhead of that size at those speeds poses serious technological challenges and Darpa estimates it will take more than 20 years to develop.
Over the next seven years, meanwhile, the US air force and Darpa will develop a cheaper "global reach" weapons system relying on expendable rocket boosters, known as small launch vehicles (SLV) that would take a warhead into space and drop it over its target.
In US defence jargon, the warhead is known as a Common Aero Vehicle (Cav), an unpowered bomb which would be guided on to its target as it plummeted to earth at high and accelerating velocity.
The Cav could carry 1,000 lbs of explosives but at those speeds explosives may not be necessary. A simple titanium rod would be able to penetrate 70 feet of solid rock and the shock wave would have enormous destructive force. It could be used against deeply buried bunkers, the sort of target the air force is looking for new ways to attack.
Jane's Defence Weekly reported that the first Cav flight demonstration is provisionally scheduled by mid-2006, and the first SLV flight exercise would take place the next year. A test of the two systems combined would be carried out by late 2007.
A prototype demonstrating HCV technology would be tested in 2009.
SLV rockets will also give the air force a cheap and flexible means to launch military satellites at short notice, within weeks, days or even hours of a crisis developing.
The SLV-Cav combination, according to the Darpa document, "will provide a near-term (approximately 2010) operational capability for prompt global strike from Consus (the continental US) while also enabling future development of a reusable HCV for the far-term (approximately 2025)". The range of this weapon is unclear.