Pentagon's Superfast Rocket Fails but Could Still Change How We Wage War
August 28, 2014
David Alexander and Andrea Shalal / Reuters & Wilson Dizard / Al Jazeera America
A hypersonic weapon being developed by the US military was destroyed four seconds after its launch from a test range in Alaska. The Advanced Hypersonic Weapon is designed to fly up to 10 times the speed of sound and attack targets anywhere in the world in under an hour. If the tests eventually succeed, the technology could upset weaponry development among major powers.
Experimental US Hypersonic Weapon Destroyed Seconds after Launch
David Alexander and Andrea Shalal / Reuters
WASHINGTON (August 25, 2014) -- A hypersonic weapon being developed by the US military was destroyed four seconds after its launch from a test range in Alaska early on Monday after controllers detected a problem with the system, the Pentagon said. The weapon is part of a program to create a missile that will destroy targets anywhere on Earth within an hour of getting data and permission to launch.
The mission was aborted to ensure public safety, and no one was injured in the incident, which occurred shortly after 4 a.m. EDT at the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska, said Maureen Schumann, a spokeswoman for the US Defense Department.
"We had to terminate," Schumann said. "The weapon exploded during takeoff and fell back down in the range complex," she added.
The incident caused an undetermined amount of damage to the launch facility, Schumann said. It was a setback for the US program, which some analysts see as countering the growing development of ballistic missiles by Iran and North Korea but others say is part of an arms race with China, which tested a hypersonic system in January.
Riki Ellison, founder of the nonprofit Missile Defense Advocacy Alliance, said he did not think Monday's failure would lead to the program's termination. "This is such an important mission and there is promise in this technology," he said. He said officials aborted the mission after detecting a fault in the computers.
Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, said the technology was best suited for use against smaller, less-developed countries with missiles. "The United States has never assumed that these . . . are going to be systems that you can use against a power like China by themselves," he said. "For a country like Iran or North Korea, they could be a very significant deterrent."
James Acton, a defense analyst at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said the Pentagon had never been clear about the mission for the weapon, with some viewing it as an effective tool against terrorists and others seeing it as a counter to China or Iran and North Korea.
While hypersonic weapons are unlikely to be fielded for a decade, Acton said the fact that Washington and Beijing were both testing the weapons indicated there was a real potential for an arms race. "I believe the US program is significantly more sophisticated than the Chinese program," he said.
The weapon, known as the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, was developed by Sandia National Laboratory and the US Army. Schumann said it included a glide body mounted on a three-stage, solid-propellant booster system known as STARS, for Strategic Target System.
In a previous test in November 2011, the craft had successfully flown from Hawaii to the Kwajalein Atoll in the Marshall Islands, she said. On Monday, it was supposed to fly from Alaska to the Kwajalein Atoll. Acton said no conclusions could be drawn about the weapon based on Monday's accident because the launcher detonated before the glide vehicle could be deployed.
Superfast US Test Rocket Fails but Could Still Change How We Wage War
Wilson Dizard / Al Jazeera America
(August 26, 2014) -- A US military test rocket, designed to fly up to 10 times the speed of sound and attack targets anywhere in the world in under an hour, failed spectacularly this week just after taking off from a site on Alaska’s Kodiak Peninsula.
The setback comes as China and perhaps Russia have forged ahead with their own versions, defense research agency IHS Jane’s reported. With some support in the US Congress, the Pentagon has been working on these new rockets for a decade. Analysts say the weapons have the potential to shake up the balance of military might and missile defense among Washington, Beijing and Moscow.
"Due to an anomaly, the test was terminated near the launchpad shortly after liftoff to ensure public safety. There were no injuries to any personnel," the Department of Defense said in a news release.
Officials were overseeing the test remotely when they blew up the rocket after detecting an unspecified problem, Reuters reported. Alaska radio station KMXT cited witnesses as saying the rocket started a nosedive before it exploded.
The hypersonic rocket could give the US military more options when a chance to strike an enemy arises and when no drone, aircraft carrier or other piece of military hardware is nearby, said Elbridge Colby, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank.
Defense officials hope the rocket could be used to bombard faraway targets with nonnuclear explosives and without appearing on radar like a weapon that countries such as Russia could mistake for a nuclear-armed intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) -- a nightmarish mistake that many fear could trigger an apocalyptic response from the Kremlin.
"Right now, if you see a long-range ballistic missile coming from the US, you know it’s a nuclear weapon," Colby said.
But the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW) behaves very differently from a ballistic missile. An ICBM, able to travel thousands of miles around Earth just above the atmosphere, goes up and comes down in an arc.
The AHW can also cross continents but takes a distinctively different path, shooting straight up to the edge of space and then gliding to its target at speeds as high as 13,000 mph. Colby said the unconventional path of the AHW makes it much harder to destroy than ICBMs.
ICBMs, developed in the middle of the 20th century by the US and the Soviet Union, were meant to annihilate an enemy’s civilian and military hubs with nuclear explosions equivalent to millions of tons of TNT. During the Cold War the two nations built up their ICBM stockpiles to the point that the destruction of both countries -- and much of life on earth -- was mutual and assured.
The AHW was first successfully tested in 2011 and remains in development. Colby said it could have big implications for international relations in the coming decades.
For example, the new weapon could affect agreements such as the US-Russia Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which has dramatically reduced the number of nuclear warheads each country holds. The new weapon could require a return to the negotiating table, because by evading missile defense systems, it could give users a new advantage. Furthermore, it is possible to affix a nuclear warhead to a hypersonic rocket.
"The traditional arms control treaties would need to be adapted," Colby said, adding that such moves are "very unlikely" in the near future, given the strained relations between Russia and the US over the ongoing civil conflict in Ukraine between pro-Russian factions in the east and the pro-Western government.
If Washington and Moscow return to the table, talks would be motivated more by fear than by goodwill. "At the end of the Cold War, arms control was done as a sign of friendship," he said. "I don't think that’s going to happen now for a while."
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