U.S. plans unmanned space-based bomber: Falcon program: Would eliminate need to use foreign bases for air strikes
SOURCE: The Daily Telegraph, with files from Agence France-Presse
By David Rennie
WASHINGTON - Pentagon researchers are soliciting bids for a new breed of space-based unmanned hypersonic bomber, capable of lifting off from bases on
U.S. soil and striking targets on the far side of the globe within two hours.
The motive behind the Falcon program is a "critical need" to project U.S. power worldwide without waiting for permission to use overseas bases, or
for overflight rights, says a draft bid document.
The document, jointly issued by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency and the U.S. Air Force, says "recent military engagements in Bosnia,
Afghanistan and Iraq have underscored both the capabilities and limitations of United States air forces in terms of placing ordnance on military
A key limitation, it says, is diplomatic.
"The current and future international political environment severely constrains this country's ability to conduct long-range strike missions on high
value, time critical targets from outside" the continental United States.
This has left the United States reliant on its fleets of subsonic stealth bombers or long-range B-52 bombers, which must fly for many hours from their
home bases in the United States.
The end result, the Falcon bid document declares, has been a failure to hit high-value targets, especially deeply buried or hardened targets, in time,
and a "severe reduction in the tonnage of ordnance that can be placed on targets."
The Falcon document paints a picture of a 21st-century United States that needs to deter possible threats from anywhere on Earth, at any time, without
resorting to the threat of nuclear deterrence.
The ultimate aim is for a re-usable Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle -- an extraordinary gigantic space drone "capable of taking off from a conventional
runway and striking targets 9,000 nautical miles distant in less than two hours," while carrying a 5,400-kilogram payload of cruise missiles, bombs
and other munitions.
Such a space-bomber would not expect to fly until at least 2025, agency officials said. But in the meantime, say by 2010, the agency wants a Common
Aero Vehicle: a small, unpowered, manoeuvrable, hypersonic glider carrying a mere 450 kilograms in munitions, that could be carried into orbit by a
rocket, before swooping back down to earth, its payload accelerated by gravity to astonishing speeds.
The U.S. quest for hypersonic technology goes back to the long-forgotten Copper Canyon project launched by Ronald Reagan in 1982.
It called for building an aerospace plane that would fly at 25 times the speed of sound, covering the distance between Washington and Tokyo in under
two hours by flying part of the trip in low orbit.
The aircraft was supposed to use an air-breathing ramjet engine, where thrust is created by water vapour ejected as a result of burning a mix of
liquid hydrogen and compressed hot air sucked in from outside into the combustion chamber.
Technical problems and cost overruns eventually forced the U.S. government to put the ambitious plan on the back burner.
But recent advances in propulsion technology and the availability of new materials have prompted the United States to dust off the old designs.
"I think that their conclusion from that exercise was that a Mach 12 suborbital air-breather might be within the realm of possibility," said John
Pike, director of GlobalSecurity.org, a Washington-area think-tank.
The Pentagon gave a hint of its new project on March 31, when Michael Wynne, the deputy undersecretary of defence, asked the Senate Subcommittee on
Emerging Threats for a US$150-million increase in funding for hypersonic strike capability.
"Technology has progressed to the point where we believe that demonstrations of Mach 12 by 2012 are within reach," he said.
Now this would be awesome, it would keep the US bases out of harm and reduce the military load and expand reach. We might even close some US bases if
this system could come into play.