In response, the Defense Department in 2008 shifted its main emphasis in the conventional prompt global strike effort to developing an Air Force ground-based weapon called the Conventional Strike Missile (see GSN, Sept. 3, 2008). The maneuverable weapon system was imagined as a hypersonic dart that would initially boost aboard rockets but transition to flight just inside the atmosphere and glide into its target at Mach 20 speeds (see GSN, June 24, 2011).
Lukewarm Air Force support for development of the strike missile, though, and flight test failures by a developmental front-end system -- the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency’s Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 -- have thrown into question whether the Pentagon would continue to invest in the ground-based approach, according to defense insiders (see GSN, Aug. 18, 2011).
“Throughout this 10-year process, the Air Force has never gotten enough money to flesh out their designs,” said one retired service officer, ruing the failure to fully explore simpler weapon technologies that might have resulted in a fielded system by now.
“The Air Force money [for this] is actually DARPA money,” and the research agency’s strong role in the effort resulted in highly ambitious technology objectives that proved challenging to attain, according to the former official, who requested anonymity in discussing a politically charged issue.
Before his military retirement, Cartwright last July indicated that if a prompt global strike system is needed urgently to address an emerging threat, ICBM rockets could launch simple conventional payloads at high speed against virtually any target.
"I mean, we use cement to test with today," Cartwright said. "It makes a very big hole."
Other fairly straightforward options eyed under the Air Force missile effort have involved off-the-shelf munitions installed on the front end of the hypersonic boost-glide missile, according to officials.
Panetta’s effort to reduce the defense budget by $487 billion over the next decade -- mandated by a deficit-reduction law passed last year by Congress -- has affected more than just the Air Force missile, according to defense insiders. The entire conventional prompt global strike initiative will be getting significantly less funding than anticipated, sources said.
In internal Defense Department deliberations, the multiservice prompt global strike effort lost roughly two-thirds of its projected budget for fiscal 2013 through 2017, GSN has learned.
Congress funded the multiservice Pentagon account for prompt global strike at $180 million in fiscal 2012. Of that amount, the Pentagon directed $10 million to the Navy to study the medium-range missile concept, according to defense sources.
An intriguing twist to Thursday’s announcement is that the Pentagon leaders and documents referred to the new submarine-based missile effort as “a conventional prompt strike option,” dropping the word “global.” That more-limited description dovetails with reports that the missile would be designed with intermediate range, generally understood to be about 1,800 to 3,500 miles of flight.
That contrasts with a long-range missile, such as today’s nuclear-armed ICBMs, capable of hitting targets on the other side of the world from bases in the continental United States.
It appears that the midrange missile would continue to use prompt global strike funding, though the fate of the Army-, Air Force- and DARPA-led efforts in the president’s upcoming fiscal 2013 budget remains unclear.
Cheryl Irwin, a Pentagon spokeswoman, would not address directly any implications that funding the submarine missile design effort might have for the seemingly ailing Air Force-DARPA Conventional Strike Missile.
“This budget will focus this development on a submarine-launched option,” she said in written response to a reporter’s questions. “There are other efforts that are ongoing.”
Asked whether fielding the missile aboard submarines might raise the same hackles on Capitol Hill and elsewhere that the earlier Trident-modification effort did, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey said differences in the technology should afford the new approach broader acceptance.
Compared to the prior Trident missile-based concept, “the technology and therefore the trajectory that would be required to deliver it” would be different for the medium-range missile being sought today, the Army general told reporters at the Thursday event. “There's [also] the speed at which these delivery systems can move.”
He added, “You can lower the trajectory and therefore avoid the confusion you're talking about in terms of it being mistaken for an ICBM with a nuclear warhead.” Dempsey also alluded to additional factors that could differentiate this new missile from existing nuclear-armed weapons, but did not identify them.