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The Rods from God

Are kinetic-energy weapons the future of space warfare?

12:00 AM, Jun 8, 2005 • By MICHAEL GOLDFARB
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BY CHANCE, the same day that Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith was released in theaters across the country, the world learned of the Bush administration's plans to weaponize space. So while critics speculated about the parallels between the Evil Empire and the Bush administration, pundits debated the merits of "space superiority"--the allies it would alienate, the treaties it would violate, the billions it would cost. The irony was not lost on Teresa Hitchens, vice president of the Center for Defense Information, whose insistence that the world would not "accept the U.S. developing something they see as the death star," was carried in the pages of the New York Times.

Among the weapons the Air Force might deploy are space-based lasers, a space plane capable of delivering a half-ton payload anywhere in the world in 45 minutes, and the "rods from god." The rods are currently just a concept--and have been since the early 1980s--but, if the myriad technical and political hurdles to deployment could be overcome, the system could represent a tremendous leap forward in the military's ability to destroy underground, hardened facilities of the type that have allowed Iran and other rogue states to violate the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty with impunity.

HOW DO THE RODS WORK? The system would likely be comprised of tandem satellites, one serving as a communications platform, the other carrying an indeterminate number of tungsten rods, each up to 20 feet in length and 1 foot in diameter. These rods, which could be dropped on a target with as little as 15 minutes notice, would enter the Earth's atmosphere at a speed of 36,000 feet per second--about as fast as a meteor. Upon impact, the rod would be capable of producing all the effects of an earth-penetrating nuclear weapon, without any of the radioactive fallout. This type of weapon relies on kinetic energy, rather than high-explosives, to generate destructive force (as do smart spears, another weapon system which would rely on tungsten rods, though not space-based).

Clearly the rods are a first-strike, offensive weapon. The nation's aging fleet of ICBMs, and its more modern Ohio-class submarines--each carrying 24 Trident missiles--will serve as an adequate nuclear deterrent well into the 21st century, but nuclear weapons cannot deter rogue states from developing their own nuclear arsenals.

Iran has used deeply buried facilities, such as the one in Natanz, to shelter its nuclear program from an assault similar to Israel's raid on Iraq's Osirak facilities. This has limited America's options for intervention. A conventional attack on such facilities might succeed in setting the Iranian program back a few years, but due to the presumed dispersal of equipment over a number of sites across the Islamic Republic, only good intelligence and a great deal of luck would eliminate the threat entirely. And while a nuclear attack could be tactically successful, it is politically unviable. A few well-placed tungsten rods, however, would guarantee the destruction of the targeted facilities (assuming timely and accurate intelligence).

OF COURSE THE RODS would not be a panacea for proliferation. It is hard to imagine how the "rods from god" would alter the equation in North Korea, which possesses thousands of rockets and artillery pieces capable of hitting Seoul in retaliation for any perceived act of aggression by the United States. But no other rogue state can hold a gun to the head of the international community the way North Korea can. Absent such a non-nuclear deterrent, rogue states such as modern-day Iran and Saddam-era Iraq have employed hardened, underground bunkers (note the recent discovery of a large, underground insurgent lair in Anbar) as their primary defense against American air superiority.

There are a number of interest groups working to stymie plans to build either a new generation of fission bombs or space-based weapons (see here, and here). These groups present reasonable arguments against both strategic avenues. For instance, if the administration starts production on a newly designed nuclear weapon, it would likely be in violation of the Nuclear Proliferation Treaty. Furthermore, such weapons run the risk of mitigating the military's well-founded fear of launching a nuclear first-strike.

The arguments against space weapons range from the practical--they will be extremely expensive to build and maintain, and they may not work--to the ideological. Teresa Hitchens simply maintains that, "The world will not tolerate this." John Pike, of globalsecurity.org, speculates that the likelihood of the rods, or any other system, being deployed in space over the next decade were "next to nil." The reason, he explains, is that the military appears to be putting very little money into the research and development of such systems--though the military's immense classified budget could in theory be hiding some of the evidence.

Pike offered another interesting explanation for why the rods may remain on the drawing board--the GBU-28. The GBU-28 was designed to destroy underground bunkers, but there have been doubts about whether it can actually penetrate Iran's buried facilities. Pike says they would--"like a hot knife through butter"--and that this misperception may have been intentionally fostered: "to lull the mullahs into a false sense of security."

THE RODS may indeed be more science fiction than science. They are at least 10 years away from being operational, and the cost of launching heavy tungsten rods into orbit would be, well, astronomical. Other financial challenges include the satellite's "absentee-ratio," which refers to number of satellites, or in this case bundles of rods, which would be necessary to assure proximity to the target.

Furthermore, it may be necessary to slow substantially the rods' rate of speed to prevent them from vaporizing on impact--though retrorockets might offer a solution to this problem. Simply attaching a tungsten rod to the tip of an ICBM would overcome many of these hurdles, but would create another serious problem: the need to involve the Russians and Chinese, who might detect such a launch and mistake it for an American nuclear attack on their own territories.

Whether the Air Force does ultimately pursue this particular platform to fulfill its vision of American space superiority is a decision that should not be taken lightly. There are a great many obstacles to getting a tungsten rod into space and bringing it back down on the nuclear facilities or command centers of our enemies. Such obstacles range from our continued reliance on unreliable intelligence to the probability that our enemies would adapt to the new technology. Nevertheless, it's likely that space will be weaponized. The only question is whether the U.S. Air Force or the People's Liberation Army will be at the vanguard of the revolution.

Michael Goldfarb is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.