- The Washington Times - Friday, April 23, 2010

The Pentagon’s test launch of two unmanned space vehicles Thursday highlights efforts to develop a generation of high-altitude, high-speed weapons systems that could make the heavens a new battleground.

At Cape Canaveral, Fla., the Air Force went ahead with the long-anticipated maiden flight of the troubled X-37B space plane, which launches vertically into orbit on the back of an Atlas rocket but descends into the atmosphere and lands itself, as the space shuttle does.

The X-37B has been in development for more than 10 years and had “a tumultuous history,” said Gary Payton, the Air Force’s deputy undersecretary for space programs. “So … it’s great to see the X37 finally get to the launchpad and get into space.”

The launch took place just before 8 p.m. EDT, and Mr. Payton said it had not been decided when to bring the vehicle - which can spend up to nine months in orbit - back to Earth.

“We don’t know when it’s coming back for sure. It depends on the progress that we make with the on-orbit experiments,” he said.

Meanwhile at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) test launched another space plane - the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), known as the Falcon.

The Falcon is a suborbital vehicle launched on a solid-fuel rocket booster made from a decommissioned ballistic missile. Just outside the atmosphere, the plane separates from the rocket and glides back to Earth at more than 13,000 mph - more than 20 times the speed of sound.

Thursday’s 30-minute, 4,100-nautical-mile test flight - which had been scrubbed twice this week because of bad weather - was slated to end with the Falcon crashing into the ocean just north of a U.S. military test site at the Kwajalein Atoll in the Pacific.

DARPA’s $308 million research program is building two Falcon vehicles, the second of which is scheduled for launch early next year.

Defense analysts say the Falcon is part of the Pentagon’s effort to develop the capability to strike anywhere in the world with a conventional warhead in less than an hour - known as Conventional Prompt Global Strike, or CPGS.

CPGS is a new class of weapons that officials hope will address recent threats, such as terrorist nuclear weapons, and help reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons as a strategic option in more conventional conflicts.

DARPA said only that the Falcon program is designed “to create new technological options that enable capabilities that address urgent threats to our national security.”

But a statement to The Washington Times from U.S. Strategic Command, which is in charge of CPGS, said the Falcon will demonstrate key capabilities for the development of this new class of weapons.

Solving the challenges of launching an unmanned vehicle into suborbital space and gliding it down at hypersonic speed to accurately hit a target on Earth “could lead to the deployment of a CPGS capability - an ability to hold emerging threats at risk with a rapid, non-nuclear option,” the statement said.

“It is premature to discuss the actual implementation of this capability until the technology has sufficiently matured,” the statement concluded.

No one from Strategic Command was available for comment.

The purpose of the X-37B program is less clear, in part because it remains highly classified.

“What does it do? Nobody knows,” said John Pike of the Virginia-based think tank GlobalSecurity.org.

He estimated that the program - the actual expense of which is hidden in the Pentagon’s “black,” or classified, budget - is likely to cost more than $1 billion. The launch vehicle alone - a two-stage, liquid-propelled Atlas V rocket - costs as much as $200 million, Mr. Pike said. Ten years of development on the plane - as the project was shuffled from NASA to DARPA and finally to its current institutional home in the Air Force - is likely to have cost hundreds of millions of dollars more.

Mr. Pike said the Air Force had been determined “for the last half-century” to get plane-type weapons systems into space, even though it was unclear what their purpose would be. “There is a doctrinal imperative for such a vehicle that transcends any describable mission it might have,” he said.

Mr. Payton told reporters that the Air Force has “a suite of military missions in space and this new vehicle could potentially help us do those missions better.”

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