The Pentagon is planning a new generation of weapons, including huge hypersonic drones and bombs dropped from space, that will allow the US to strike at its enemies at lightning speed from its own territory.
Over the next 25 years, the new technology would free the US from dependence on forward bases and the cooperation of regional allies, part of the drive towards self-sufficiency spurred by the difficulties of gaining international cooperation for the invasion of Iraq.
The arms are being developed under a program codenamed Falcon (Force Application and Launch from the Continental US).
A US defense Web site earlier this month invited bids from contractors to develop the technology and the current edition of Jane's Defence Weekly reports that the first flight tests are scheduled to take place within three years.
According to the Web site run by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) the program is aimed at fulfilling "the government's vision of an ultimate prompt global reach capability [circa 2025 and beyond]."
The Falcon technology would "free the US military from reliance on forward basing to enable it to react promptly and decisively to destabilizing or threatening actions by hostile countries and terrorist organizations," according to the Darpa invitation for bids.
The ultimate goal would be a "reusable hypersonic cruise vehicle [HCV] ... capable of taking off from a conventional military runway and striking targets 16,600k distant in less than two hours."
The unmanned HCV would carry a payload of up to 5500kg and could ultimately fly at speeds of up to 10 times the speed of sound, according to Daniel Goure, a military analyst at the Lexington Institute in Washington.
Propelling a warhead of that size at those speeds poses serious technological challenges and Darpa estimates it will take more than 20 years to develop.
Over the next seven years, the US air force and Darpa will develop a cheaper "global reach" weapons system relying on expendable rocket boosters, known as small launch vehicles (SLV) that would take a warhead into space and drop it over its target.
In US defense jargon, the warhead is known as a Common Aero Vehicle (Cav), an unpowered bomb which would be guided on to its target as it plummeted to earth at high and accelerating velocity.
The Cav could carry 450kg of explosives but at those speeds explosives may not be necessary. A simple titanium rod would be able to penetrate 2m of solid rock and the shock wave would have enormous destructive force. It could be used against deeply buried bunkers, the sort of target the air force is looking for new ways to attack.
Jane's Defence Weekly reported that the first Cav flight demonstration is provisionally scheduled by mid-2006, and the first SLV flight exercise would take place the next year. A test of the two systems combined would be carried out by late 2007.