National Security

Expert: ‘Conventional Prompt Global Strike System’ Could Deter China

Space-based system would be able to reach targets worldwide within minutes

AP

A weapons system being developed by the United States that could reach targets anywhere around the world "within minutes" is focused more on deterring China than Russia, according to a report released Tuesday.

The U.S. military has been researching and testing the "Conventional Prompt Global Strike" (CPGS) system for a decade, a technology that would allow the deployment of non-nuclear weapons from outer space to specific targets in a matter of minutes or hours.

One form of the technology is described as a "super-involved paper airplane," which can travel 20 times the speed of sound. The Pentagon is currently studying multiple uses for the system, including satellite defense and counterterrorism.

A new report unveiled at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., explores the options being considered. The report’s author, James M. Acton, concluded the technology has more use in deterring China than other nations.

"The Pentagon has not made any doctrinal decisions as far as I can tell about what CPGS will be used for," said Acton, a senior associate of the Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program. "Two of the possible missions are very China focused."

"China’s nuclear forces are much smaller than Russia’s nuclear forces," he said. "And the Chinese are a hell of a lot more serious about developing this technology than the Russians are."

Congress appropriated $174.8 million for CPGS capability development in FY2012. The Department of Defense officially added prompt global strike (PGS) as a needed mission in 2003, to provide the United States with "the ability to strike targets anywhere on Earth with conventional weapons in as little as an hour."

Acton explained the three basic technologies currently being developed.

"First, you can take the ballistic missile, stick a conventional warhead on top, and this thing goes through a standard ballistic trajectory up into space, back down again," he said. "And at the very end of its flight when it reenters the atmosphere, you can add a pair of flaps on the reentry vehicle to steer it onto its target."

"Boost glide systems" are the current favorite by the Pentagon, Acton said.

"[It’s] a bit like a super involved paper airplanes, if you like, that are capable of gliding 20 times the speed of sound in the upper atmosphere," he said. "And these would be launched into the upper atmosphere by rockets and then glide for potentially thousands of kilometers purely under their own steam."

The third technology is a much faster version of a cruise missile.

Acton said there are four possible roles for CPGS being explored by U.S. officials, including a "counter nuclear mission," to deny a country from obtaining nuclear weapons, and a counterterrorism mission.

Two other areas, countering anti-satellite capabilities and defense suppression, are "very largely focused on China," Acton said.

"The China angle, there’s a lot more going on there," he said. "There’s also a much greater possibility of instability arising in China scenarios than Russia scenarios."

China’s ballistic missile arsenal is expanding. The development of the CPGS system could deter Chinese weapons that may be used to knock out U.S. satellites.

According to Acton’s report, "Beijing is believed to be developing various [antisatellite] ASAT weapons and some Chinese military writings stress the potential value of antisatellite operations against the United States."

Efforts to block America’s access to certain regions are also a concern to the military.

"As the recent ‘rebalance’ to Asia exemplifies, concerns about the possibility of conflict with China are particularly prominent," according to the report.

"CPGS has been proposed as a potential way of neutralizing two such asymmetric threats," Acton writes, "antisatellite (ASAT) weapons and anti-access/area-denial (A2/AD) capabilities."

Acton said he is "generally agnostic" about the program. A point Acton is certain on is the system’s potential to deter America’s adversaries.

"The very fact that all of these weapons could be unpredictable and dangerous can raise the cost of war and enhance deterrence," he said. "Moreover, I think there is preliminary but reasonably persuasive evidence that China and Russia and other states think these weapons would be extremely effective, which may also mean it can enhance deterrence."