25 April 2010
A weapon that can strike anywhere on Earth in 30 minutes
The next generation of star wars
By Sharon Weinberger
New York Post
That’s the message from the Air Force after last week’s launch of its X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle, which can stay on orbit up to 270 days. The Air Force won’t say what, exactly, the robotic space plane will be doing there, how long it will linger this time, or even how much it costs. But the military is already in the process of building a second aircraft, which will fly next year.
Officially the Air Force has described the X-37B, which is lofted into orbit by a rocket and then can land like an aircraft on a runway, as a test vehicle. As for the secrecy surrounding it, Gary Payton, the deputy undersecretary of the Air Force for space programs, says simply that the aircraft’s experimental payloads are classified “like in many of our space launches.”
The launch of the X-37B comes at a busy time for the Pentagon’s extraterrestrial ambitions, and the space plane’s debut nearly overshadowed another military program that was tested that same day: a hypersonic test vehicle built by Lockheed Martin, which was launched on a Minotaur IV rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. That test could lead to a weapon that can strike anywhere on Earth within 30 minutes — an ideal option for taking out a terrorist leader like Osama bin Laden.
With the tests of the X-37B and the hypersonic vehicle, the Pentagon is pushing for capabilities that were once regarded as so controversial that they had to be hidden deep within the defense budget, if they were funded at all.
In a 2003 report for the Air Force that recounted the troubled history of the Common Aero Vehicle, the predecessor to the hypersonic vehicle, analysts recalled just how hard it was to fund the program.
At one point, money that was supposed to fund the Common Aero Vehicle was moved to another program, for fear of being identified with space weapons. “For the next 2-3 years, any public mention of [Common Aero Vehicle] CAV or other space weapons was not allowed, and work performed on CAV was done quietly and out of the limelight,” the analysts wrote.
Now, these weapons are being enthusiastically pushed forward. The Obama administration has advocated looking at weapons, like the hypersonic vehicle, as part of something called Prompt Global Strike — a weapon that can strike anywhere in the world within two hours. The State Department even issued a fact sheet this month on Prompt Global Strike, noting that a new nuclear weapons treaty with Russia “does not contain any constraints on current or planned US conventional prompt global strike capability.”
Given this new push for long-range weapons and military space planes, some have wondered whether the administration is going to revive the long-simmering debate over space weapons. That would be ironic, since the Obama administration came in with a seeming determination to make space more peaceful and the perhaps-Quixotic goal of “seeking a worldwide ban on weapons that interfere with military and commercial satellites.”
Critics pointed out that such a ban was simplistic. Perhaps acknowledging that point, the White House has since quietly eliminated the “ban” reference from the White House website, replacing it with the more mild promise to “cooperate with our allies and the private sector to identify and protect against intentional and unintentional threats to US and allied space capabilities.”
What even constitutes a space weapon is unclear. A number of attempts have been made to define space weapons, ranging from any weapon that transits space (which would include intercontinental ballistic missiles) to more restricted definitions to include only those weapons that destroy something in space, like the anti-satellite weapon tested by the Chinese in 2008.
In the meantime, the Air Force’s refusal to elaborate on the X-37B’s mission doesn’t make it any easier to understand the administration’s views on weapons and space. In fact, the X-37B elicited little interest beyond specialized aerospace and defense publication until the Air Force suddenly started saying it couldn’t talk about it. That transformed the esoteric test vehicle into the headline-grabbing “secret military space plane.”
The most likely role for the X-37B is also the most obvious: as a replacement for the classified missions once performed by the NASA Space Shuttle, which is now slated for retirement. It’s sometimes forgotten that the Space Shuttle once also carried secret payloads into orbit. But by avoiding the need for astronauts, the Air Force is able to build a smaller spacecraft dedicated solely to military missions.
Pentagon officials, for their part, are determined just to avoid the weapons issue altogether, by calling it something else. “Truthfully, I don’t know how this could be called weaponization of space,” Payton, the Air Force official, said when asked about the issue, just prior to the launch of the X-37B. “It’s just an updated version of the Space Shuttle kind of activities in space.”
Sharon Weinberger is a national security reporter for AOL News.