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FALCON Flies Falls Again

Falcon a word that evokes power, speed, lethality. Then why did the Air Forces latest FALCON fall out the back of a C-17 at 32,000 feet?The answer: drop tests. The drop from the C-17, which proceeded according to plan, was part of DARPAs efforts to develop a Small Launch Vehicle (SLV) as part of its FALCON program. This particular FALCON is the Force Application and Launch from the CONtinental United States program -- and shouldnt be confused with the rocket, the satellite, the fighter jet, the supercomputer, or any of the other pieces of hardware which undoubtedly bear the same name in the defense tech community.The SLV is a small rocket (still over 60 feet in length) that, if successful, will be able to quickly place a lightweight military satellite into orbit. I guess dropping a 72,000 pound rocket out the back of a plane is easier than waiting for a launch pad at Vandenberg.The SLV would allow for the rapid replacement of failed assets, provide supplemental reconnaissance for a hot zone, etc. Rapid launch could also be applied to space weapons, providing the Air Force with the ability to quickly deploy either passive or active weapons systems without providing the public and international community the opportunity to protest.The SLV also has another objective - to boost a scramjet-powered hypersonic bomber to its target halfway around the world. This is part of FALCONs other aim, to provide Prompt Global Strike capability to any location in the world in under two hours. Prompt Global Strike is basically the always-ready, rapid response system behind our ballistic missiles. Except in this case, you cant use missiles, and you cant use nukes.The hope is to drop conventional bombs on far-flung targets quickly without the showstopper issues associated with using a Trident II. The problem with the Trident is, you dont want to place the worlds nuclear second-strike forces on alert as you send a conventionally-tipped Trident II toward Osama bin Laden.FALCON has lofty goals by attempting a truly global reach and a 12,000 pound payload. You could send more than just bombs deploying Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVS) are certainly possible. It can, in fact, carry so much that some people want to use it to rapidly deploy a Marine squad. However, it is unlikely that even hardened Space Marines (OOO-RAH!) could sustain the necessary G forces in their potential drop ship.FALCON is centered on the Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle (HCV), a reusable unmanned bomber. Traveling at over Mach 5, the HCV will use a scramjet engine, a significant departure from the rockets traditionally used in long-range weapons systems. Since a scramjets trajectory is markedly distinct from an ICBM it will also be readily identifiable.What is not clear is, given the HCVs proposed range and payload, is whether the international community would consider it any less of a threat than a Trident. It doesnt even have to be nuclear-tipped to scare the heck out of you 12,000 pounds of munitions in the right place can be devastating. In fact, FALCON could be a bigger threat than the nuclear arsenal since there is a much greater chance of its use in non-apocalyptic scenarios.But then, thats the point.Learn more about FALCON at CDIs Fact Sheet.-- Ryan Caron

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