How to Keep PGS From Accidentally Starting WW-III

Prompt Global Strike, the Pentagon’s idea for a weapon that can be launched from the United States and hit a high-value target anywhere on Earth in an hour or less has been around for a while.

Some envision this weapon as resembling an ICBM armed with a conventional warhead instead of a nuclear payload. This makes some sense — ICBMs launched from the U.S. can strike their targets on the other side of the world extremely quickly.

The problem with putting a conventional weapon on an ICBM is that nations like Russia might think the U.S. is lobbing a nuke the second an unannounced ballistic missile launch appears on their radar screens. Needless to say, that wouldn’t be a good situation.

So, how do you make it obvious that your ICBM doesn’t have a nuke on board? It’s all in the trajectory, according to Boeing officials.

Basically, a PGS weapon would cut a much lower and flatter path through the air than a nuclear-armed weapon, something that would instantly show other nations that this isn’t preemptive nuclear strike.

“This is a depressed trajectory and if your were to track [the PGS’] balisttic profile” it’s much lower than a regular ICBM, said Boeing’s Rick Hartle during a briefing on Tuesday at the Air Force Association’s annual conference in National Harbor, Md.

(Click through the jump to see the crude drawing he penned for us that shows the difference in the flight paths of a high-flying nuclear ICBM versus a PGS weapon.)

Furthermore, a ballistic PGS missile would likely be based somewhere like Vandenberg Air Force Base on the California coast while the nation’s nuclear-tipped Minuteman III ICBMs are all based in Wyoming, Montana and North Dakota.

“On an ICBM, they know where the basing is, it’s Montana, it’s North Dakota and if we’re looking at CONUS based [PGS], we’re looking at Vandenberg, it’s several states away [from the Minuteman III missile fields] so there’s no buzz on that if its coming out of Vandenburg and it’s got a different trajectory,” said Peggy Morse, director of strategic missile systems at Boeing.

The Air Force still hasn’t made up its mind as to whether PGS will be a ballistic missile based system or built on some sort of hypersonic scramjet. The scramjet could, in theory, be quickly launched from an aircraft, therefore eliminating the risk of it being mistaken for a Minuteman III.

Boeing is part of the industry-government teams working on both of these types of technology — the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle – 2 program (that’s tried several times to launch a long-range, Mach-20+ glider on top of a missile based on the Peackeeper ICBM — shown above.) and the X-51A Waverider scramjet.

Here’s that very un-scientific drawing showing the PGS’ trajectory versus a nuclear missile. The nuke is the line that curves high up what should be the Y-axis while the PGS is the squiggly line that stays close to the X-axis.

  • asdf

    What’s stopping us from putting a nuclear warhead on it, even a small one?

  • Mastro

    Not a big fan- Russia might figure it out- but Iran, Pakistan, India, etc?

    Too risky- just use a car bomb- save a $$

    Another Military Industrial Money hole.

    • USSHelm

      If your going to use a car bomb that requires agents and equipment to be smuggled into a likely unfriendly country (e.g. Iran, Pakistan, China, North Korea), and then the purchase of car which will probably leave a paper trail. On top of that explosives are generally hard to get and can be tracked if you use explosives made in the USA. Also there is the time consideration, a car bomb takes time to execute, and when you need it NOW you want something like a conventionally armed ICBM.

    • bobbymike

      Iran, Pakistan and India are not capable of detecting a CONUS launch let alone respond to it, moot point.

    • blight

      That assumes that the Russians don’t release that kind of information to the public, or get on the redline to China, which in turn calls Pakistan (or Russia calls India).

      Then again,Pakistan may acquire radars suited to detecting missile launches from their rival (and the same with their rival, India). There’s no reason for Iran to not do the same either, especially if they truly fear the possibility of the United States using conventional BM or being caught in the crossfire of an unforseen war in the MidEast or AfPak.

  • MCQknight

    Well, we likely wouldn’t be launching just one or two nukes at Russia in a pre-emptive strike, would we? So if Russia or China sees us launch just a few PGS, then even if they did carry nukes their second strike capability would be almost entirely intact.

    Now, if we were to launch a couple hundred PGS at once…

  • dark sidius

    The only way for prompt global strike is to develop an hypersonic platform.

  • J.R.

    If you see a launch flare that isn’t announced under START, and you own silo-based nukes, your options are

    (1) Launch all of your silo-based systems immediately, and alert your mobile systems
    (2) Alert your mobile systems and assume your silo systems are forfeit
    (3) Collect the trajectory data and analyze it carefully. Decide whether it’s a nuclear- or conventionally-armed PGS missile within 20 minutes. Cross your fingers and hope that they aren’t targeting your command and control nodes.

    It’s a non-starter. Silo-based ICBMs have made any other silo-based asset a destabilizing liability. Until our silos have had all of the nukes verifiably removed, there is no strategic scenario under which a launch from one of those silos is not a threat to other ICBM owners.

    • Meanmartin1968

      What sort of accuracy would a PGs have? And what sort of conventional warhead? Pure kinetic?!? I don’t get the benefits over hypersonic “cruise” missiles. Ignore costs, of course…

    • kim

      Well, placing a few phone calls about the PGS launch shouldn’t be too hard. I’m no expert on nuclear strikes, but right off I’d assume more than one missile would be needed when starting an all-out nuclear war, and it will take more than one such missile to completely cripple an opponent’s command system.

  • My question here is why are we putting conventional weapons on a ICBM or a IRBM, or a SLBM? Some one is clearly smoking crack at Boeing and at Air Force strike command head quarters. Putting a conventional weapon on a ICBM is suicide for the USA…and would start MAD from the Russians. But yet, these fools are totally going off of the deep end. Prompt global strike? yeah right…..even launching a conventional tipped hypersonic missile or a scram jet and striking inside a sovereign country is a direct act of war that will be eventually decided by direct military action…invasion with a defeat, (LIKE IRAQ, get it?) or destabilizing a whole region. And that my friends is caused by some fool launching a missile to take out a HVT. Currently we are running predator strikes in Yemen, Somalia, and Djibouti. These are black ops controlled by a controller on a the ground. Launch a scam jet missile or a ICBM and you lose that control. You cannot call off the strike. And that could make a crisis worse than it already is…especially when Russia and China, France and Great Britain each have the capability to match our military missile for missile….

  • C-Low

    I still don’t understand how in a China/Taiwan scenario we don’t mistake all those Chinese medium range ballistic missiles inbound to cripple all our airfields in the pacific and naval units in the AOR?

    What about India/Pakistan when those same MRBM fly towards say Diego Garcia or our air facilities in Thailand or the Radar and other facilities in Australia?

    Why can we never do anything without unacceptable risk but everyone else can? Funny how that works.

  • Nick

    The big IF here is that the trajectory is correctly interpreted, don’t think that this couldn’t happen, we’ve come pretty close to WW3 with trajectories that also didn’t look like ICBM stuff. Read about Stanislav Petrov if you want to see how close we all came to being dead from a satellite launch.

  • hillchurch

    No matter what, the scramjet tester can’t fail and get lost somewhere over the Pacific before anyone can confuse it for a nuke.

  • JRL

    I’m betting that China can’t wait to lend the US another hundred billion so the DOD can generate yet another Prompt Global Fiasco ala the JSF.

    A few more of those and the ChiComs will be able to foreclose on ‘their’ new property and boot all the round-eyes out on their penniless keisters.

  • Maxtrue

    I wonder why there is still a self imposed moratorium on the more obvious choice when confronting under ground facilitates. You put a booster on mass and fire it downward. That isn’t a ballistic missile trajectory and is the best way to deliver an EPW with sufficient energy without resorting to a nuclear warhead. So how do you get a rod up that high? Ask Rutan. How do you build the driver? Most of the technology presently exists.

    If the mass is made to split up over the target into spikes the ground will look like Swiss Cheese.

    You can also use surprise if your delivery systems deploys maximum stealth. Cloaking at very high altitude. Waverider is another way for softer targets. If you could fit it in a stealth body, it would be a real threat for advanced air defense. Falcon has its place but only the first suggestion can zip through Fordo like a knife through butter..

  • FormerDirtDart

    How do you keep PGS from accidentally starting WW-III? My guess would be a number of phone calls minutes before launch.

  • STemplar

    This hasn’t got anything to do with starting WW3, this has to do with countries being concerned the US would field the ability to take out their nuclear deterrent with conventional weapons. If we can launch ICBMs with conventional warheads we could do just that, and that’s what has Russia panicked, because at the point the US can do that then Russia matters zero in world affairs. What are they going to do? Not sell gas and oil to people and watch their economy crumble.

    • Cheesed

      How could we do just that, again? I mean the taking out their strategic deterrent part.

    • Nmate

      Sorry, but that’s a non starter. For one thing, counterforce against nuclear weapons with conventional weapons would be exceedingly difficult. It’s already exceedingly difficult with nuclear weapons. Weapons having 120m CEP and 350Kt yields. How you’d penetrate the hardness of an SS-18 silo with a 2-300lb payload is a pretty big question.

      Furthermore, the attack would be seen and Russia could still launch a pretty substantial portion of their land based nuclear assets. Ever heard of ‘launch on warning’? It’s policy. The US and the Russians say that it isn’t, but it is.

  • Cheesed

    Reference TLAM’s comment above please

  • STemplar

    How pray tell do you think Russia justifies unleashing the end of the world over the destruction of some positions in the middle of no where?

    The payload of an ICBM is also substantially larger than 300 lbs. The throw weight on a Minuteman III is almost 2500 lbs. There has never been anything mentioned we would use a Minuteman III either, a larger missile could have a larger payload. Traveling at ballistic missile speeds a simple kinetic penetrator moving mach 10 would strike with the equivalent force of its weight in TNT, which would be the equivalent of a 5000 lbs. bomb’s HE payload.

    Your CEP quote is also old school intertial guidance systems and we are well beyond that and the level of accuracy that could be designed into a weapon.

  • itfunk

    Prompt Global Fiasco is a weapon system that can be made instantly obsolete by the other side simply declaring that they will assume they are nuclear armed and react accordingly.

    In other words it’s just another make work program for the aerospace industry.

    • Blight

      Considering we had the know how to deliver nukes in 155 artillery shells, the Russians can assume any long range platform is nuclear capable.

      TLAM-A? Nuke platform, act o’ war if any Tomahawk seen flying over Russia.
      BMs? Act of war if detected.
      PGS? Act of war if flying over Russia.

  • blackavenger45

    Why not launch cruise missles from subs or B-2s or just surrender and get it over with.

  • michaelgene

    As the ChiComs continue the investment of their US dollars around the third world and build up their global forces we lose the ability to hit anyone anywhere because they will simply will say any strike to “insert dictator” is a direct attack on ChiCom investments and will be seen as a cause belli, just as we would and have if one of our client states were threatened by China/ Russia …

  • Hou

    Well first thing the PGS is not for other countries but mainly for terrorists and high value targets. The US needs the capability to strike anwhere within a half an hour. We could use it against other militaries but that will be unlikely

  • This is crazy. Spending billions of dollars on a weapon system designed for specific and unique hypothetical scenarios is crazy.
    Developing a supersonic LAM in the Tomahawk class would provide much better utility in real world scenarios, would be far easier, and in relative terms would cost peanuts. US military procurement needs to reflect real requirements, you simply can’t afford this white elephant.
    Developing this type of delivery system in conjunction with development of the US missile shield also destroys the US-Russia nuclear status quo. Crazy.

    • blight

      I’ve honestly never understood the need for global strike from a single launch node (Vandenburg?) We have SSBNs that could serve as launch platforms for this kind of thing; and Vandenburg used to have missile fields-which will not reassure /any/ potential adversary, which might be forced to assume that those “test” Peacekeepers launched every so often could be cover to hide a legitimate missile field, especially if we went closer and closer to nation-state war.

      Something less ambitious that used one stage of a Trident to get to altitude before assuming a horizontal trajectory might do the trick.

      Then again, this might be another GLCM/IRBM scheme to draw up arms control concessions from our enemies…but unlike GLCM, this isn’t particularly stealthy. And it isn’t much faster than a BM. So we’re using this against adversaries without nuclear retaliation capability, at which point the “faster TLAMs” makes economic sense.

  • blight

    Anyone remember the solar powered aircraft that was meant to have ultra-long loiter time? Wonder if persistent aircraft at high altitude would be an excellent place to hide PGS missiles: strike from any position in the world and not just Vandenberg (preferrably over the oceans away from ground radar).

  • Tim UK

    An insane idea that needs to be estopped now. There is no target worth risking Nuclear War for. Pure Military folly.

  • Ben

    Tim UK = surrenderism and defeatism right up front.

    • Matt

      Ben= bankrupting the country right up front. Surrenderism isn’t even a word, try thinking about the long-term financial and security implications of spending billions on an esoteric system while our country plunges deeper into debt.

  • Robert

    I think we live in a different atmosphere now than during the Cold War Era. However that’s not to say a PGS delivered to halfway across the globe wouldn’t make several countries uncomfortable. It’s just the relative assocation of ICBM type weapons with nuclear strikes.

    It would take a lot of strict guidelines and more nuclear policy talks to get that one to blow over well.

    I agree on part with Tim, just needs to be worked out with other countries to ensure no issues. Really big iffy situation though..

  • Guest

    Looks like the differences in trajectories are only apparent well after launch. A bit risky hoping that other countries will just wait-and-see before doing anything.

  • Brian

    A lot of people don’t seem to understand this whole thing.

    Prompt Global Strike has its uses. If we’d had it 10 years ago, we could have killed bin Laden and Saddam both without ever sending a guy overseas. This really became something they were pushing for when we launched a few tomahawks at Saddam and he was able to leave before they got there.

    We already have a platform that can do that — the ballistic missile. The problem with the ballistic missile is that everyone knows we keep nukes on those. So if you try to launch anything on that, everyone will assume it carries nukes. It doesn’t even have to be pointed at Russia. So if you’re gonna do this, you need something that won’t immediately make people think it’s a nuke, something with a different trajectory.

    Personally I think a Mach 3 Tomahawk would be more useful. We’ve got ships near every trouble spot in the world. We don’t really need to be able to launch something from Missouri to anywhere in an hour when we’ve got ships everywhere. But we’re going to be spending money researching hypersonic planes anyway. Those are a game-changer if we can get them to work right.

  • chockblock

    The best and cheapest bets are ship and airborne platforms. Russia and CHina would simply warn any nation we target and ICBMs are expensive.

    • Jay

      Technically you are correct.

      However, the political purpose of this system is to allow isolationist politicians to withdraw our troops and assets from around the world. Thats why even democrats like PGS! The politicians will use a working PGS to justify slashing the navy and close our airbases around the globe.
      Then we will be left with the idiocy of sending a billion dollar super missile to (maybe) kill some guys on camels, when a $500,000 TLAM or a SDB from a F18 would have worked – if only we had the assets in theater.

  • Guest

    Huh, here I thought depressed trajectories were ideal for decapitating first-strikes due to the reduced warning time. But we expect Russia to see a fast, low-trajectory ICBM headed their general direction with half the usual time to target and be reassured?

  • Shail

    I’m more curious about the PGS payload:
    -a massive unitary type (greater than half a ton of explosive) ?

    -a large penetrator (obviously we won’t send a MOAB this way, but a ~5000 is realistic) ?

    -a conventional MIRV type composed of multiple JDAMs,
    a dozen or more SDBs,
    or even creating some kind of SLBM-based booster that lobs a bus loaded with cruise missiles (anything SLAM-ER thru Tomahawk) into the global vicinity then deploying them throughout the area…

    The various payload potentials here is very interesting.
    Could we even see an actual decoy module that literally deploys dozens of those new lightweight air launched decoys (MALD types),
    to trick an adversary into depleting their SAMs and AAM reserves?

    I’m more interested in PGS warhead packages moreso than the weapon’s flight profile…

  • CP950

    I hope they use the ICBM platform. The tech is already there, a well as the crews and hands-on knowledge. Waiting for the scram-jet platform will be years, jeers, and millions of dollars away.

  • EJ257

    Dr. Evil got this one right. Just put a freakin laser in space :)

  • Lance

    Just don’t let the machines take over LOL.

    Problem is that Nuclear deterrent is what the US needs more than dumb Army projects to deter Russia China and Pakistan/North Korea. The conventional forces are not as deter-able as Nuclear forces are for larger threats out there, but yes that means Navy USAF should not be cut as much as other services.

  • jason

    I suppose there is no such thing as stealth missiles…

  • John B

    The only problem is this opens up a precedence for other nuclear armed countries including Russia, China to do the same thing. And instead of using PGS equivalents, they can deploy nuclear ICBM instead, and claim otherwise. The countries which most likely do this would be India, Pak, and China against each other in that scenario, the US can be a collateral damage. Who knows what mad men can do when they launch nuclear ICBM. How about their version of PGS with nuclear tips ?

    • blight

      Once all nations pledge to use conventional BMs in their arsenal and reaffirm no first nuke, then what’s really important is how powerful your second-strike capability is. PGS will disappear as a loophole-compliance technology once conventional BMs are accepted without the hair-trigger risks.

  • Elijah

    Give and thou shall recieve. What are we giving and who are we given it to.

  • Elijah

    In times past, say back to the 70’s. Just about every investment the US has made in a muslim country has been taken from us. Just about every weapon we have sold to a muslim country has been turned against us. Are they going to pay for the planes with the billions of dollars we give to them? I just hope you guys know what you are doing.

  • John Rawlingson

    Check out this blog on a similar issue

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