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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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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.