The idea is as effective as it is simple: What if a military could harness the power of a meteorite?
More specifically: What if a military could send a large object into space, have it orbit the planet, and then, whenever necessary, blast it back onto the surface at speeds that would give the impact the power of a nuclear bomb, but without all that nasty radiation – turning America’s enemies into a crater?
That’s the underlying idea behind a weapon system concept affectionately known as Rods From God – and over the years the U.S. Air Force and other experts have seriously taken it into consideration.
The idea was dreamed up back in the 1950s by science fiction writer and space weapons expert Jerry Pournelle, according to The New York Times. He called the system “Thor” and seemed amused that his concept re-enters the military strategy conversation every few years.
“People periodically rediscover it,” he said.
One such rediscovery was in 2002, when the respected military strategy think tank RAND conducted a nearly 200-page study on space weapons that in part took an in-depth look at the Rods From God concept.
“The approach here is to make a small, solid, long, and narrow re-entry vehicle out of a high-density material,” says a 2002 study, under the heading “Kinetic-Energy Weapons Against Terrestrial Targets.” “For example, one such weapon might be a 1-[meter]-long tungsten rod weighing about 100 [kilograms].”
That size is important because, as the RAND study blithely puts it, the object needs to be large enough to survive the burn-up that comes with racing through the Earth’s atmosphere, but “preferably” small enough that it doesn’t cause “mass extinction,” like the end of the dinosaurs.
“Because of their extremely high velocity, these weapons are very difficult to defend against during their brief transit through the atmosphere and might therefore be particularly interesting against heavily defended targets,” the RAND study says.
The year after the RAND study, in 2003, the U.S. Air Force made specific mention of “Hypervelocity Rod Bundles” as a future system concept in a strategy paper. The Air Force description was to the point: The rods “would provide the capability to strike ground targets anywhere in the world from space.”
Since the idea is relatively simple – literally hurling a chunk of metal from space into the Earth’s surface – RAND warns that another nation might pursue such weapons as a way to bypass America’s conventional dominance.
“For example, instead of playing catch-up against highly evolved air and submarine defenses, a country might prefer these space weapons to bypass defense entirely,” RAND said.
So why aren’t there dozens of satellites orbiting the earth right now, packed to the brim with tungsten rods, just waiting to turn deeply buried bunkers into craters? Well, quite a few reasons.
“The limitations of such kinetic weapons include the fact that, in order to maintain velocity, their maneuverability and target window is severely limited,” says another analysis circulated by the military’s Defense Technical Information Center (DTIC) in 2012. “In addition, because they derive their power from the pull of gravity, reentry angles must be steep, giving the weapon system a very narrow scope of targets at any given time.”
The DTIC says that because of that, an effective system would require a “large number of satellites to be in position to strike targets anywhere around the globe in a reasonable amount of time” — which compounds the already significant cost of getting the weapons into space in the first place.
“The fuel required to emplace and deorbit the weapons might be about 50 times the mass of the weapons delivered,” says RAND study, which the military found to be not totally unreasonable, but still steep – not to mention the cost of developing and building the systems themselves.
But there’s a reason people keep coming back to the Rods of God concept, and that’s because the U.S. military long ago woke up to the fact that dominance in space, and the ability to potentially threaten any part of the Earth from the cosmos, is a new Holy Grail in military and geopolitical strategy.
“Space strike systems could strike strategic and tactical targets deep within countries with impunity, inducing unprecedented coercive effects,” a 2006 Air Force study says.
If Rods From God could make that happen, odds are the U.S. military is gathering its tungsten. Now if someone could only get those space lasers to work.