A tip sets the plan in motion — a whispered warning of a North Korean nuclear launch, or of a shipment of biotoxins bound for a Hezbollah stronghold in Lebanon. Word races through the American intelligence network until it reaches U.S. Strategic Command headquarters, the Pentagon and, eventually, the White House. In the Pacific, a nuclear-powered Ohio class submarine surfaces, ready for the president’s command to launch.
When the order comes, the sub shoots a 65-ton Trident II ballistic missile into the sky. Within 2 minutes, the missile is traveling at more than 20,000 ft. per second. Up and over the oceans and out of the atmosphere it soars for thousands of miles. At the top of its parabola, hanging in space, the Trident’s four warheads separate and begin their screaming descent down toward the planet. Traveling as fast as 13,000 mph, the warheads are filled with scored tungsten rods with twice the strength of steel. Just above the target, the warheads detonate, showering the area with thousands of rods-each one up to 12 times as destructive as a .50-caliber bullet. Anything within 3000 sq. ft. of this whirling, metallic storm is obliterated.
If Pentagon strategists get their way, there will be no place on the planet to hide from such an assault. The plan is part of a program — in slow development since the 1990s, and now quickly coalescing in military circles — called Prompt Global Strike. It will begin with modified Tridents. But eventually, Prompt Global Strike could encompass new generations of aircraft and armaments five times faster than anything in the current American arsenal. One candidate: the X-51 hypersonic cruise missile, which is designed to hit Mach 5 — roughly 3600 mph. The goal, according to the U.S. Strategic Command’s deputy commander Lt. Gen. C. Robert Kehler, is “to strike virtually anywhere on the face of the Earth within 60 minutes.”
The question is whether such an attack can be deployed without triggering World War III: Those tungsten-armed Tridents look, and fly, exactly like the deadliest weapons in the American nuclear arsenal.
The military is convinced that in the coming years it will need to act with this kind of speed against threats — terrorist leaders, smuggled nuclear or chemical arms — that emerge and disappear in a flash. There may be only hours, or minutes, to respond. “We know how to strike precisely. We know how to strike at long distances,” says Kehler, whose office is in charge of the Defense Department’s Global Strike mission. “What’s different now is this sense of time.”
Every strategist remembers Aug. 20, 1998, when the USS Abraham Lincoln Battle Group, stationed in the Arabian Sea, launched Tomahawk cruise missiles at an Al Qaeda training camp in eastern Afghanistan, hoping to take out Osama Bin Laden. With a top speed of 550 mph, the Tomahawks made the 1100-mile trip in 2 hours.By then, Bin Laden was gone — missed by less than an hour, according to Richard A. Clarke, former head of U.S. counterterrorism.
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