By Walter Pincus
Monday, November 12, 2007
While wrestling with wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Pentagon is preparing weapons to fight the next battle from space, according to information in the 621-page, House-Senate conference report on the fiscal 2008 defense appropriations bill.
The $459 billion bill, which awaits President Bush's signature, provides $100 million for a new "prompt global strike" program that could deliver a conventional, precision-guided warhead anywhere in the world within two hours. It takes funds away from development of a conventional warhead for the Navy's submarine-launched Trident Intercontinental Ballistic Missile and from an Air Force plan for the Common Aero Vehicle.
The new program, dubbed Falcon, for "Force Application and Launch from CONUS," centers on a small-launch-vehicle concept of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency. The agency describes Falcon as a "a reusable Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle (HCV) capable of delivering 12,000 pounds of payload at a distance of 9,000 nautical miles from [the continental United States] in less than two hours."
Hypersonic speed is far greater than the speed of sound. The reusable vehicle being contemplated would "provide the country with significant capability to conduct responsive missions with quick turn-around sortie rates while providing aircraft-like operability and mission-recall capability," according to DARPA.
The vehicle would be launched into space on a rocket, fly on its own to a target, deliver its payload and return to Earth. In the short term, a small launch rocket is being developed as part of Falcon. It eventually would be able to boost the hypersonic vehicle into space. But in the interim, it will be used to launch small satellites within 48 hours' notice at a cost of less than $5 million a shot.
Conferees added $100 million above the Bush administration's request for nearly $200 million to accelerate "space situational awareness." That is code for protecting U.S. satellites in space and being able to attack the enemy's satellites.
"Enhancing these capabilities is critical, particularly following the Chinese anti-satellite-weapons demonstration last January," the conferees wrote in their report. They were referring to a Jan. 11 incident in which a Chinese guided missile destroyed an aging weather satellite in orbit.
"Counterspace systems" that would warn of impending threats to U.S. satellites, destroy or defend against attackers, and interrupt enemy satellites are in the Bush budget for $53 million. Conferees gave them another $10 million.
One research project of $7 million in that category is directed at "offensive counterspace," described in the Pentagon's presentation to Congress as designing "the means to disrupt, deny, degrade or destroy an adversary's space systems, or the information they provide."
Another $18 million would go for research into a second-generation counter-satellite-communications system; it would explore and develop capabilities "to provide disruption of satellite communications signals in response to U.S. Strategic Command requirements," according to the Pentagon congressional presentation. The first-generation system is already operational, and an upgrade of those capabilities is in production.
The conferees want to increase funds for the Rapid Identification Detection and Reporting System, which already had $28 million in the Bush budget. This system is designed to provide "attack detection, threat identification and characterization, and support rapid mission impact assessments on U.S. space systems."
Its first-generation system is scheduled for initial operation at the end of next year, while the new funds will allow continuation of research on a second generation, which began this year.
Part of the funding will also go toward work on integrating this system, which detects enemy threats to U.S. satellites, with the offensive counterspace and counter-satellite-communications programs. Eventually, they would be linked with U.S. command-and-control systems "in support of space control and the counterspace mission areas," according to the Pentagon's presentation to Congress.
Integration of these developing counterspace missions with a current command-and-control system is expected by the middle of 2008, according to documents provided to Congress.
National security and intelligence reporter Walter Pincus pores over the speeches, reports, transcripts and other documents that flood Washington and every week uncovers the fine print that rarely makes headlines -- but should. If you have any items that fit the bill, please send them firstname.lastname@example.org.