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Pentagon Plan: Hit Anywhere on Earth, in an Hour

I’ve had sources ask to meet me in some pretty odd places. But there was one meeting last year that had to be just about the strangest request yet. It wasn’t just that this very-recently retired Defense Department strategist wanted to meet at the Pentagon City Mall — that’s a pretty common place to grab an off-the-record cup o’ joe. It was where in the mall he had in mind: at the Nordstrom’s coffee shop, tucked all the way in the far reaches of the store, just past the little kid’s clothes section.
0107global_main.jpg So I walk past the rows of toddlers’ jumpers, past the blue-haired ladies ordering around their grandkids. I sit down with my source. And he begins to tell me about a Pentagon plan that’s even odder that the place where we’re meeting.
Here’s the goal, as another source — U.S. Strategic Command’s deputy commander, Lt. Gen. C. Robert Kehler — later told me on-the-record: “strike virtually anywhere on the face of the Earth within 60 minutes.“
Sounds… ummm, ambitious, right? So how do you pull off that kind of mission, now known as “Prompt Global Strike?” Well, that’s the subject of my cover story in this month’s Popular Mechanics.
Now, of course, the American military has weapons that can destroy just about anything on the planet in a matter of minutes: nuclear missiles. Which might have been the right answer for containing our Soviet adversaries. But as the Cold War receded into memory, U.S. strategists began to worry that our nuclear threat was no longer credible. That we were too muscle-bound for our own good. Were we really prepared to wipe out Tehran in retribution for a single terrorist attack? Kill millions of Chinese for invading Taiwan? Of course not. The weaker our enemies grew, the less ominous our arsenal became. Military theorists called it “self-deterrence.” “In today’s environment, we’ve got zeros and ones. You can decide to engage with nuclear weapons, or not,” Navy Capt. Terry Benedict told me. “The nation’s leadership needs an intermediate step to take the action required, without crossing to the one.“
Benedict’s option — one of two I explore in the article — is Trident ballistic missiles, armed with conventional warheads instead of nukes. For lots of good reasons (like the better-than-average chance the missiles could start World War III) Congress has negged the idea. But, in the military establishment, there’s still a great deal of interest in using ballistic missiles for the hour-or-less mission. How exactly the nuclear holocaust issue is supposed to be resolved is, at this point, unclear.
Which brings us to option #2. It’s a long-term play. And a long-shot, too. The military’s research divisions are pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into exotic, high-speed weapons like the X-51 hypersonic cruise missile, illustrated on the cover. If it works out as planned, the X-51 will go Mach 5 (roughly 3600 mph) — much, much faster than any equivalent in the U.S. arsenal. Some Pentagon planners see the X-51 as part of a suite of futuristic weapons that can almost-instantly threaten American adversaries everywhere, without threatening the entire planet in the process. But it’s way off in the distance; the X-51’s first test flight isn’t until 2008. I’m expecting several more trips to Nordstrom’s Cafe before then.
UPDATE 11:40 AM: If you want to learn how the Prompt Global Strike concept got started — and how it’s being put into early development, today — I strongly recommend this chronology, from the Federation of American Scientists’ Hans Kristensen.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Amyfw December 21, 2006 at 8:46 am

What??? You trade coffee for facts? All I got were a few phone calls. Next time you want my help, I’m holding out for a trip to Nordstrom. By the way, I think the article came out really, really well. Nice job. I expect the PGS mission and CTM solution to stay on the radar this year. If Congress gets its study and report, they may change their mind about the money. If not, they may start exploring other options in more detail.


Vash December 21, 2006 at 9:12 am

The PM article is making its rounds around blogs, and I have some questions about this concept. Dont get me wrong, developing sub orbital transports is a worthy goal, one that will be beneficial. And if this is just a first step in the line of new technologies, then all is well. However, when looked at by itself, it seems pretty weak.
1. This craft will probably be insanely expensive (I can live with that)
2. It delievers 13 marines! Our marines may be bad-ass, but 13 of them arent going to do much. Any action that requires such an immidiate responce will likely require hundreds, if not thouthands of troops. And since these crafts are expensive, its unlikely that we can send them by the hundreds.
3. No escape. Should our brave find themselves in trouble for one reason or another (say an ambush), what are they going to do? The craft requires a carrier plane to take off, so once it lands, its useless. So you got 13 guys, in the middle of hostile territory, with little ammo, hours away from any reinforcements, with no way out.
4. I’m not sure about this one, but does this proposed craft require a runway to land? If it does, are we supposed to ask our adversaries to build them for us, and leave them unguarded?


J. December 21, 2006 at 9:44 am

Careful, Noah, that place is going to be bugged now… gots to be careful giving out the places where all the deaddrops are being made. The Caribeau Cafe on Crystal Drive is a nice, secluded place to talk also, and convenient to the Pentagon people.


Eric Hundman December 21, 2006 at 11:19 am

Noah, great piece in PM. Balanced, accurate, and well-written. I just want to add a couple things to a comment you make in the post above:
“For lots of good reasons (like the better-than-average chance the missiles could start World War III) Congress has negged the idea.”
This is true, but work continues on Trident conventionalization, both in DoD and at Lockheed. DoD appears to be siphoning funding from other programs to continue researching the problem, while Lockheed is using its own funds in anticipation of future demand.
Also, by some reports, the “backpack” — the steering attachment used to increase the Trident’s accuracy sufficiently to allow for use of a conventional warhead — has already been tested successfully. If true, this means the upgraded Trident likely has a circular error probable of around 10 meters (possibly even less).


Haninah December 21, 2006 at 11:36 am

Thumbs up on the Prompt Global Strike piece, Noah.
I agree wholeheartedly - and I think that most people who think about these things agree - that it’s an important mission in principle. The important thing from my point of view, though, is that you really got across the policy-side problems with the conventional Trident concept


Haninah December 21, 2006 at 1:11 pm

Am I the only one who gets the giggles when I read about “prompt or even preemptive strike planning against imminent threats anywhere on (and under) the face of the Earth”? It just sounds like we’re planning to take out the Mole Men (http://www.defensetech.org/archives/002958.html), of maybe the UnderMiner from The Incredibles. I know, I know, DBHT (deeply buried hardened targets), etc. It’s just the choice of words… :)


BJR December 21, 2006 at 1:39 pm

Thank you for the very informative article. (Although why would the sub “surface” to receive a launch command or launch a D5?)
Also speaking of Simpsons quotes, this line:
“But alternate scenarios being drawn up let U.S. forces act much as they do today, only faster.”
reminds me of this classic exchange:
Marge: But I fell in love with Homer Simpson! I don’t want to snuggle with “Max Power”!
Homer: Nobody snuggles with Max Power. You strap yourself in and feel the “G”s!
Marge: Oh, Lord.
Homer: And it doesn’t stop in the bedroom. Oh, no. I’m taking charge! Kids, there’s three ways to do things. The right way, the wrong way, and the Max Power way!
Bart: Isn’t that the wrong way?
Homer: Yeah, but faster!


Robot.Economist December 21, 2006 at 3:43 pm

I heard that the Trident plan for PGS involved re-entry cones full of cement, so would a CEP of 10m be enough to ensure that the target is destroyed? I imagine its enough if you swarm the target with MIRVs, but what if a PGS mission involves an array of targets?
I’m also still not convinced the Trident option is cost effective. The X-51 just seems like a better investment because its deliverables can be spun off onto other types of cruise missiles in the arsenal.


Noah Shachtman December 21, 2006 at 3:50 pm

Cement is one option. The tungsten flechette is another.


Robot.Economist December 22, 2006 at 8:53 am

Does the Trident option strike anyone else as a poor man’s “Rods from God”?
I’m still not convinced that PGS will every be useful. Even if the nuclear-hot intelligence and tight timeline scenario does occur, I doubt the military bureaucracy will be able to fast track it up to the national command authority in time.
It may have been possible for NORAD to consolidate a single national radar picture, but aren’t as clear as a incoming ICBM’s radar signature. Since most intelligence reporting has to be graded and confirmed before it is disseminated, I can’t a see Big Red Phone for PGS.
Does the successful hit on Qaed Senyan al-Harthi really prove that the PGS concept is ready to return on investment?


pcygnii December 24, 2006 at 5:35 am

The ‘rods fm god’ approach is mostly researched and with the newer technology that can be strapped on by the AF folk, it would be a cheap option and probably quicker to deploy…. The ABM missle approach is self defeating, ’cause these missles are visible to radar and therefore interceptable at range…. The X-51 is an idea, maybe some form of super cruise at a higher speed, but acoustic networks could track ’bout any sonic+ noise-maker. The bigger the bird, more rods, so to speak….


ohwilleke December 26, 2006 at 11:07 pm

As I note on my blog, this is a solution chasing the wrong problem.
The military has real rapid deployment problems that this doesn’t address, and there are legitimate uses for a space plane. But, quickly dispatching Marines from CONUS to assassinate terrorists isn’t a pressing problem for the military because there are better and cheaper alternatives.
Deploying Marines by space plan only makes sense if Marines are as scarce and as lightly equipped as Jedi Knights, which they aren’t.


RHYNO December 27, 2006 at 9:32 am

this cruise missle is a while away. i think tipping sub launched ballistic missles-tipped w/HE might be able to penetrate underground nuclear facilities that TEHERAN may have. a sub, parked in the gulf would give little time for warning, and no risk for U.S. pilots. if the complex is so big, dug so deep that HE won’t work, maybe a low yield sub launched nuke will be our only recourse to stop IRAN.


psyopsvic December 29, 2006 at 5:44 am

13x13x13 ad infinitum… 1 st wave forward observer, SALUTE establish cryptic communication … timing for getting deployment from pt A to pt B essential to get the drop on the enemy. air cover essential for mil trans deployment of X51. establish command post and listening posts. gather info. report info. quietly observe. intercept deflect sabotage diversionary tactics decoy bait + trap capture prisoners maps weapons and comm equipment. make friends demoralize enemy flip enemy to our side. speed and timing essential for combat action and readiness. troop supply and personnel expedited to regions of coordinate interest. if X51 can be used for a medical evacuation Landing Zone ; then wounded , escape and evasion readiness available. X51 is a long way from the Higgins landing craft, the slow boat to China. less time could factor in less incidence of chances on failing a just in time activity. it would be cool to have a Golden Eye type of apparatus to beam down and fry the enemy instead of waiting call Arty for air strikes and drop napalm. it would be cool to use electronic warfare to sound blast or microwave the enemy. as for the deep bunkers in the mountains of enemy targets… if they are not air tight ; maybe ; some micro tech robotic voracious gremlin like mischief makers could hack into the infrastructure and turn everything into a gray goo including the masterminds in their command combat information center. the super sonic speed of the X51 carrying the combatants should be made secure from radar detection, air to air and surface to air interception. a crew of 15 lost in an air mishap is not as costly as losing double the number crammed in the craft. releasing the X51′s with small batches of combat deployable personnel increases the survival and arrival of the troops. the X51 is more reliable than shipping troops on a monorail bullet train. a blast of the rail could shear off the troop transport and exact chaos. casualties would be exacted before the troops entered into combat. X51 any where any time any place. no black hawk down - a 60 min flight , sonic boom and bod d a bing… the bars of gold from the enemy treasury are being fork lifted into the X51 for the return flight to Fort Knox. payback for the cost of the war. deprivation of wealth from the hostile enemy. at least we are not counting on a guppy airbus with a large fraction of the regiment at risk. red crescent, red cross humanitarian supplies could be airlifted and drop shipped to emergency such as the Lake Tanganyika area of the Sudan. swift silent deadly slam boom secure hijack and onto the next hot spot. X51 can deliver far more than the dreams of the Pan Am China Clippers of yesteryear. Belgian Congo saved by star man super troopers… American embassy stormed and recaptured by Americans. enemy H.Q. captured. Bin Laden capitulates. Oceanic drill rig oil workers rescued. Delta forces on q u e with effective expediency. X51 its ah… Go Grease Lightening !


bchep December 29, 2006 at 5:50 am

A fleet of Hypersonic vehicles with HE warheads deployed around the western hemisphere coupled with our current real time intelligence capabilities, would all but eliminate the threat of rogue nuclear strikes and go a long way to deterring China and any unfriendly Russian regime that may pop up in the future. I think it’s a fabulous idea. Let’s get going!


bchep December 29, 2006 at 6:21 am

With hundreds of hypersonic cruise missiles armed with HE warheads deployed in friendly countries around the world, coupled with our real time intelligence, any country or state sponsored organization wouldn’t have a chance to get through the logistics stage preceding a launch before we could wreak havoc on any area or country in the world within time to neutralize the threat. I think it’s a great idea. Let’s get going.


DavidB December 29, 2006 at 8:59 am

Without being a devil’s advocate: we never really will ever need to bomb Iran or North Korea for that matter. All we have to do is sit back and watch them destroy themselves. Didn’t you hear the latest on Iran? They are spending so much of their oil reserve money that they will be bancrupt in 20 years. N Korea? Please, give me a break. China? They are too economically tied to the US to ever want a conflict with us. They just keep playing the bad guy so that we/they can spend some big bucks on “Strategic Defense”. The Hypersonic Vehicles with HE theory will give us one thing: A way to scare the crap out of every country in the world: “We can strike with a HE bomb anywhere in the world w/in 1 hour”. That’s all we need. Just like the nukes during the Cold War. It was the fear factor that helped us win the Cold War without a fire ever been shot. Give me a break.


al espenschied December 29, 2006 at 9:00 am

I say we buy a contract for at least 10,000 of these. Also, hire Haliburton to maintain them at say a trillion dollars for the life of the contract. You might say that that would be too expensive. Well to pay for it, we could get rid of all social programs, everything, that would give the pentagon another $400,000,000,000 billion to work with then make military service mandatory without pay of any sort AND indefinate, that way, we have all the free help we need to protect freedom from the murderous savages outside our borders.


Brett December 29, 2006 at 10:31 am

All of the comments that mention the need for social programs and the better use of our money are well intentioned. The problem with the thought proecess is without a strong and effective military we will not have a free country to have social programs.
It would be better for our country and every citizen if we would get over the diversity programming and get back to the “melting pot” ideal of America. In other words the indivdual needs to become American; learn english, study our history, take personal responsiblity for your education, stop making excuses for your failures, get a job and we all need to stop being so sensative about what others say.


Doug Fingles December 29, 2006 at 11:04 am

Unfortunately, physics still has to be taken into account. While it might get there fast, no material can penetrate deeper than 4 times it’s body length through solid material, no matter the speed of impact. “Rods of God” (tungsten, ceramic, or whathaveyou) 3 feet long impacting at hypersonic velocity will only achieve 12ft of penetration before the “rod” is converted to energy and deflected/reflected away.
So, the target has to be “soft” or on/near the surface. Then, the intel has to be accurate, or we’ve wasted x millions of dollars on a fake, or bad intel, and considering today’s intel, that’s not reassuring. Third, the target needs to be extremely high in value-otherwise we “waste” our resources by killing a cheap thing with an expensive thing. All in all, the limiting factors point to this being a real boondoggle-lots of money and resources spent to achieve…?


Al December 29, 2006 at 11:18 am

And all from the people at 1600 Pennsylvania and in the Five sided building who gave us “Star Wars”. “Everything changes and nothing changes”.


TBird December 29, 2006 at 4:15 pm

DavidB: Awww Come on fella: N.Korea has no oil or anything else of value. Hardly has food. And they managed to build the bomb and missiles to deliver them. So well that they export what they have built. What makes you think Iran will go broke with all the oil money they have coming in?


Clark December 29, 2006 at 5:34 pm

I hear alot about people wanting free this or that, and by the way let the federal government pay for it. That way I can set back and complain while living off the social programs. I think two years of federal service is exactly what we need. No it doesn’t have to be in the Armed Forces, we only take the best anyway. That’s about 2-3% of the entire nation that can even make it in. But let everyone work in the system for two years then I would be more then happy to let them complain. Tell they sed even a drop of blood for there freedom there just parasites anyway.
SGT Clark
438TH MP
US Army


Miguel Salles January 17, 2007 at 10:48 am

Comments to Hit Anywhere in an Hour: In reading this article I became aware that the planners as well as the writer of it forgot a few details along the way. What is the definition of strike in one hour anywhere? What are the methods to be used like force deployment, air strike or missle attack. You only described missle attack because its the only way the requirement can be achieved today. I agree with some of the comments that using a Trident missle is the most expensive way to strike anywhere in an hour. But if instead of spending billions on worthless military hardware programs we could shift our priorities to development of hardware for rapid deployment forces like a supersonic troop transport with VSTOL capability and Mach 5 then you would come close to deploying a strike force anywhere within that time frame. The technology exist to do it but like the man space exploration program we traded it for sattelite reconnaisance of the planets. This has been a grave error and giant mistake because as the planet warms up, millions on people are going to die from heat and lack of oxygen! By the time governments come around to recognizing they have a global problem it will be too late! The most important part of this comment is that we will not have the capability to transport people to Mars or Venus and relieve the pressure on our natural resources. Also save their lives and expand humanity. That is the one single thing the planners at NASA have denied us with their bad decisions….the ability to expand humanity into other planets. This is the same problem with the worthless military hardware programs of today. They are misguided and serve no real purpose. It seems that the Threat identifyers and the hardware designers to meet that threat are not talking to each other. Back in the Thirties we had a choice: Use hydrogen as our vehicle fuel or oil. We chose oil! Now that we need to switch in order to reverse the effects of decades of polluting the world with hydrocarbon emissions, we don


stephen russell December 29, 2007 at 12:07 am

Need this if Russia & China send FBMs off our shores to fire missiles aside those from Iran alone or China.
Must have this capacity.


Rhyno327 June 17, 2009 at 12:56 pm

Submarine launched ballistic missles, parked off the coast of an Asian or African country, with an HE warhead is a good idea. An SSBN with a mix of nuclear and HE is one way to strike quickly.


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