A couple interesting pieces from Wired’s Danger Room blog today.
The first is about a “secretive” space plane, called the X-37B, launched by the U.S. Air Force last night from Cape Canaveral, Florida. It is an unmanned, reusable space craft and part of the X-37 program first developed for NASA in the 1990s by Boeing’s Phantom Works Division. The program got transferred to the Department of Defense in 2004, and pretty much fell off the radar.
According to the article, much of the mission remains classified, but deputy undersecretary for the Air Force for space programs Gary Payton said a top priority is an inexpensive turnaround. The Air Force wants to see how much service is required for the unmanned space craft, and if it is really reusable and able to be turned around and relaunched within 15 days. The article quotes the Air Force description of the project as being:
a flexible space test platform to conduct various experiments and allow satellite sensors, subsystems, components and associated technology to be efficiently transported to and from the space environment. This service directly supports the Defense Department’s technology risk-reduction efforts for new satellite systems. By providing an ‘on-orbit laboratory’ test environment, it will prove new technology and components before those technologies are committed to operational satellite programs.
The second piece from Danger Room deals with potentially reviving of former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s Prompt Global Strike weapons, or putting conventional warheads on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM). The general idea behind them is for the U.S. to have the ability to strike specific targets only half way around the world, like a cave hiding Osama Bin Laden or an Iranian nuclear site, without using nuclear weapons.
As Danger Room points out, ICBMs “look and fly exactly like the nuclear missiles” that the U.S. might launch at Russia or China, in the event of a world war. The Obama administration sees the program as an alternative to nuclear weapons, another way to protect America without causing a nuclear war.
The New York Times reports a provision in the new START treaty recently sighed by the U.S. and Russia that has the decommissioning one nuclear missile for every one of the ICMBs fielded by the Pentagon. The article also quotes Gen. Kevin P. Chilton of the Air Force, the top officer of the military’s Strategic Command as saying that, currently, ““If the president wants to act on a particular target faster than [4, 5, or 6 hours], the only thing we have that goes faster is a nuclear response.” Prompt Global Strike weapons would allow the U.S. to launch an attack in that 4-6 hour window.
Both pieces point to a pressing issue, namely keeping China and Russia from thinking that the ICBM is not a nuclear missile being launched at them. One solution, reported by the Times, allowing Russia and other nations to regularly inspect the Prompt Global Strike silos so they can see that the weapons are nonnuclear.The Times also reports that the Obama administration has asked Congress for $250 million next year for further exploration of the program.