In a near-future war, 1,000 missiles scream toward Russia at Mach 20. Each one a pinpoint strike hitting the Kremlin's nuclear missiles, military radars, submarine bases—you name it.
Within minutes, 80 percent of Russia's nuclear arsenal is destroyed without the United States launching a single nuclear weapon of its own. Russia's military networks are blind, the nation's ability to strike back eliminated or severely degraded.
The incoming missiles were no ordinary weapons, but hypersonic glide vehicles developed largely in secret under the US Prompt Global Strike program. They travel so fast, shooting them down is effectively impossible.
The capability, begun as a Pentagon project in the mid-2000s, was envisioned as allowing America to strike anywhere on the globe nearly instantaneously, without resorting to nukes. In this futuristic war, it succeeds wildly.
To be sure, Prompt Global Strike is real, but the scenario above is fiction. It will take many years, and billions upon billions of dollars, to make it possible. And that's if the technology works.
That scenario is a real fear, however, in the minds of many Russian military officials. Russian military journals regularly feature articles presenting future American hypersonic weapons as an existential threat. Far more significantly, the Pentagon's research—haphazard as it is—has provoked a radical restructuring of the Kremlin's armed forces.
Since the early days of the Cold War, Russia—then the Soviet Union—and the United States dared not go to war because of the presence of nuclear weapons on both sides. It would be far too dangerous for the planet and human civilization to risk an atomic exchange.
Hypersonic weapons pose a different risk. Namely, that they would make nuclear weapons obsolete. The extremely fast-moving conventional cruise missiles—and atmospheric reentry vehicles plunging down to Earth from space—could decapitate an entire nation's command and control structure and nuclear arsenal without leading to Armageddon.
In theory. For hypersonic weapons that travel in ballistic arcs into outer space and back down again, they are indistinguishable from nuclear ICBMs. A nuclear-armed nation would have minutes to decide whether to launch a counter-strike.
The Pentagon's far-out hypersonic weapons have had mixed results. The US Army is working on an endo-atmospheric one called the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon. The first test in 2011 was a success, as the ultra-fast missile flew 2,300 miles from Hawaii to Kwajalein Atoll in 30 minutes. Engineers aborted the second test a few seconds after taking launch.
The Air Force, Boeing and the blue-sky Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency have worked on the X-51 Waverider—a Mach 6 scramjet cruise missile that keeps itself in the air using its own shock waves. Its fourth and most recent test in 2013 was successful. The first three crashed or failed in flight.
Far more radical was DARPA's Falcon Project, a guitar pick-shaped glider boosted into the upper atmosphere on a rocket. From there, the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 would speed along at Mach 20. Two test flights ended prematurely and DARPA ended the program.
"A gradual wearing away of the vehicle's skin as it reached stress tolerance limits was expected," DARPA noted after the second failure. "However, larger than anticipated portions of the vehicle's skin peeled from the aerostructure."
It's all interesting, but far from a deployable weapon. Cue a Russian freak out.
And how. In 2015, Russia replaced its air force with a new branch called the Aerospace Forces specifically aimed at defending against Prompt Global Strike. This new branch merged the old air force together with another service branch called the Aerospace Defense Forces.
It's a little confusing, but the latter included responsibility for space and missile defense. (The new, combined Aerospace Forces has more in common with the US Air Force, sorta.)
The missile defense soldiers, cosmo-troops and the air force are all now reporting to the same command center—a high-tech, fortified base in Moscow that looks like a cross between Dr. Strangelove's war room and the bridge from the reimagined Battlestar Galactica.
Plus, the Aerospace Forces—which began operations on August 1—is heavily pushing war in space as an answer to Prompt Global Strike. Essentially, knock out the satellites upon which precision weapons depend. The Russian state media has made it explicit.
"It will be a comprehensive system, which will help detect and eliminate targets even at distant approaches," a Russian Defense Ministry official told the Interfax news agency. "It can be viewed as our response to the Prompt Global Strike concept being implemented by the US."
Russia has upgraded its optoelectronic satellite-monitoring station at Okno in Tajikistan. And since 2013, Russia has blasted at least three suspected anti-satellite weapons into orbit, disguised as communications satellites.
"If Russia (or China) acquires the capability to destroy US military satellites in low orbits, this will entail rendering the American army blind and deaf, and precision 'smart' weapons will be turned into scrap metal," Konstantin Dushenov, editor of the nationalist Analytical Information Agency, told Nezavisimaya Gazeta.
Knock out the satellites, and hypersonic weapons are in trouble. To hit a fixed location, such as a building, the missiles will do fine. But to change direction mid-course and hit a moving target, they need satellites to transmit fresh data.
But the biggest loser of all this might be the Russian air force. In January 2014, Russian news website Vzglyad reported that the air force's "army aviation" assets—i.e. helicopters and transport planes—could shift to the army. OE Watch, the monthly journal of the US Army's Foreign Military Studies Office, took note and called it an "organizational demotion."
Pity the poor air force. Pity it more that one of its main jobs is now defending against a far-off hypothetical threat from outer space.
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