I've had sources ask to meet me in some pretty odd places. But there was one meeting last year that had to be just about the strangest request yet. It wasn't just that this very-recently retired Defense Department strategist wanted to meet at the Pentagon City Mall -- that's a pretty common place to grab an off-the-record cup o' joe. It was where in the mall he had in mind: at the Nordstrom's coffee shop, tucked all the way in the far reaches of the store, just past the little kid's clothes section. So I walk past the rows of toddlers' jumpers, past the blue-haired ladies ordering around their grandkids. I sit down with my source. And he begins to tell me about a Pentagon plan that's even odder that the place where we're meeting.Here's the goal, as another source -- U.S. Strategic Command's deputy commander, Lt. Gen. C. Robert Kehler -- later told me on-the-record: "strike virtually anywhere on the face of the Earth within 60 minutes."Sounds... ummm, ambitious, right? So how do you pull off that kind of mission, now known as "Prompt Global Strike?" Well, that's the subject of my cover story in this month's Popular Mechanics.Now, of course, the American military has weapons that can destroy just about anything on the planet in a matter of minutes: nuclear missiles. Which might have been the right answer for containing our Soviet adversaries. But as the Cold War receded into memory, U.S. strategists began to worry that our nuclear threat was no longer credible. That we were too muscle-bound for our own good. Were we really prepared to wipe out Tehran in retribution for a single terrorist attack? Kill millions of Chinese for invading Taiwan? Of course not. The weaker our enemies grew, the less ominous our arsenal became. Military theorists called it "self-deterrence." "In today's environment, we've got zeros and ones. You can decide to engage with nuclear weapons, or not," Navy Capt. Terry Benedict told me. "The nation's leadership needs an intermediate step to take the action required, without crossing to the one."Benedict's option -- one of two I explore in the article -- is Trident ballistic missiles, armed with conventional warheads instead of nukes. For lots of good reasons (like the better-than-average chance the missiles could start World War III) Congress has negged the idea. But, in the military establishment, there's still a great deal of interest in using ballistic missiles for the hour-or-less mission. How exactly the nuclear holocaust issue is supposed to be resolved is, at this point, unclear.Which brings us to option #2. It's a long-term play. And a long-shot, too. The military's research divisions are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into exotic, high-speed weapons like the X-51 hypersonic cruise missile, illustrated on the cover. If it works out as planned, the X-51 will go Mach 5 (roughly 3600 mph) -- much, much faster than any equivalent in the U.S. arsenal. Some Pentagon planners see the X-51 as part of a suite of futuristic weapons that can almost-instantly threaten American adversaries everywhere, without threatening the entire planet in the process. But it's way off in the distance; the X-51's first test flight isn't until 2008. I'm expecting several more trips to Nordstrom's Cafe before then.UPDATE 11:40 AM: If you want to learn how the Prompt Global Strike concept got started -- and how it's being put into early development, today -- I strongly recommend this chronology, from the Federation of American Scientists' Hans Kristensen.
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