WASHINGTON, Feb. 9 (UPI) -- Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is developing an ambitious and highly controversial new preemptive strategy to try and counter the increasingly formidable measures that nations around the world are taking to protect their missiles from the U.S. ballistic missile defense systems now coming on line.
The new strategy is multi-pronged and is being developed by two of Rumsfeld's most favored and heavily funded institutions: U.S. Air Force Space Command and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).
Curiously, while the concept has received major coverage in British defense publications this week, so far it has not attracted any significant attention in the U.S. media.
A major article published Monday on the British FlightInternational.com Web site documented the far-reaching and long-term scale of Rumsfeld's new vision.
The new program, FlightInternational.com said, is already scheduled to take 14 years to develop: Its goal is to develop a non-nuclear, conventional explosives weapons system that could hit a heavily defended major target such as a weapons of mass destruction launch site within hours or minutes of being ordered to do so.
"Dubbed the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) concept, the initiative will open new opportunities for ballistic or hypersonic vehicle technologies," the article said.
As previously reported in UPI's BMD Watch column, the U.S. Navy is already working on converting several of its Lockheed Martin Trident II D-5 submarine-launched nuclear missiles to carry conventional warheads. "That approach is intended to satisfy the immediate desire of U.S. Strategic Command for a near-term PGS strike option, but the Trident's ballistic trajectory is unlikely to meet long-term accuracy requirements," FlightInternational.com said.
Now Rumsfeld has turned to Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) and asked them to develop more effective delivery systems for such preemptive attacks. Late last month he issued a request to U.S. military-industrial companies asking their input in meeting the challenge.
Just as the Missile Defence Agency has been developing or exploring different anti-ballistic missile systems that could destroy ballistic missiles at different stages of their flights, Air Force Space Command is also seeking to explore simultaneously different options to achieve the PGS goal. Maj. Gen. Mark Shackelford, the command's director of requirements, told FlightInternational.com
These are, Shackelford said:
-- First, a next-generation intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM). This, FlightInternational.com said, would be the technically the least ambitious and least revolutionary system to develop or a "low-end" concept.
-- Second, the most ambitious approach would involve the hypersonic Common Aero Vehicle and Small Launch Vehicle under development by DARPA's Falcon program.
-- Third, U.S. engineers are applying the same principle that Russia's Strategic Rocket Forces are working overtime to give the Multiple Independently-targeted Re-entry Vehicles (MIRVs) on their Bulava and Topol-M missiles maneuverable characteristics.
Shackelford told FlightInternational.com that U.S. forces are seeking develop a new conventional warhead for American ICBMs that can shape its own trajectory on re-entry, greatly improving its accuracy.
FlightInternational.com said the Department of Defence expects to receive responses back to its request from U.S. industry by March 14 and Air Force Space Command would then launch a two-year period of analyzing the different possible approaches for developing the new weapon.
The top officer at U.S. Strategic Command, Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright, reportedly sees this ability as vital if the United States receives fleeting intelligence about an important target, Inside Defense.com Newstand reported Feb. 3. Such a weapon might be used if North Korea prepares to launch a nuclear missile or if intelligence surfaces on a terrorist leader's whereabouts, the Web site said.
The most demanding scenarios under which the president might launch global-strike weapons are in cases of "no warning," U.S. defense officials told the web site.
The two-year review appears to be a setback for DARPA, despite the general strong support and generous budgets with which Rumsfeld has consistently favored it.
DARPA has pursued its Common Aero Vehicle based on the development of a new hypersonic glide vehicle, reflecting the agency's passion for new cutting edge technologies. But as FlightInternational.com pointedly noted, the hypersonic glide vehicle is "still-untested" and currently it "is not the presumed favorite candidate."
However, Gen. Shackelford told FlightInternational.com that "the results from the Falcon demonstration program, which involves a three-year series of flight tests on three increasingly capable versions of a hypersonic test vehicle, will be used to compete with the other candidates identified under the analysis of alternatives."
Although the new PGS system may be nearly a decade and a half away, even the coming debate over the best options to explore in developing it look likely to be charged with controversy.
For the very concept of the PGS, its critics claim, may push potential hostile nations to be prepared to launch nuclear-armed missiles with even less notice than before in order to avoid them being destroyed in any preemptive U.S. first strike. Therefore, they charge, far from making the American people and homeland safer, the development of such weapons could put them at even greater risk from thermonuclear attack.
As long as Rumsfeld remains at the Pentagon, however, the commitment to developing the PGS as energetically as possible looks unlikely to change.