By Colin Clark Defense Tech Chief Pentagon Correspondent
Cruise missiles are highly accurate but they have to be fired from a distance and they take a fair amount of time to get where they are going. So they are great for fixed targets, but their limitations have left the Pentagon scratching its head for half a decade trying to find something that can be launched and hit its target anywhere in the world within an hour or so.
One of the key drivers behind this effort has been to develop a weapon that could kill a terrorist like Osama bin Laden anywhere in the world without having to send in special operators or deploy a big ship. The concept, pushed hard by vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Hoss Cartwright, is called Prompt Global Strike and the budget contains $240 million for development programs.
But one of the more promising efforts, DARPA’s Falcon Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), made it part way through a test and then vanished. A review board has been formed to find out just what went wrong. No word yet on when their findings might be available.
DARPA said the launch vehicle, known as the Minotaur Lite, got the HTV-2 up. “The launch vehicle executed first of its kind energy management maneuvers, clamshell payload fairing release and HTV-2 deployment. Approximately nine minutes into the mission, telemetry assets experienced a loss of signal from the HTV-2. An engineering team is reviewing available data to understand this event.”
But the test is not a complete failure, as the DARPA release makes clear. “Three test ranges, six sea-based and two airborne telemetry collection assets were employed and operational on the day of launch. Technical data collected during the flight will provide insight into the hypersonic flight characteristics of the HTV-2,” the release said. A congressional aide said HTV-2 is the only PGS alternative anywhere close to the glide path for combat use. What makes the HTV-2 particularly appealing is its hypersonic speed — up to Mach 20 — and its angle of descent, which makes it easily distinguishable from an ICBM.
That angle of ascent of and descent was a key factor in why Congress killed the first PGS effort, the conventionally armed Trident missile. Defense Secretary Robert Gates caused a minor stir last Sunday when he appeared to say that the U.S. might possess Trident missiles with conventional warheads. It would certainly have riled a watchful Congress which expressly forbade the department from developing such a strike tool.
Speaking on Sunday’s Meet The Press, Gates said: “We have, in addition to the nuclear deterrent today, a couple of things we didn’t have in the Soviet days… And we have prompt global strike affording us some conventional alternatives on long-range missiles that we didn’t have before.”
So I checked with the Navy. “The Navy currently has no program of record to develop a conventional (non-nuclear) warhead for the Trident missile System,” a Navy official said. And just to make sure the message was received clearly, the official added that, “There has been no development of a conventional (non-nuclear) warhead for the Trident missile System.”
As for Gates, it looks as if he misspoke. True, he didn’t say ICBM, but his language was a bit wobbly.