This technology is very far out--in miles and years. A pair of satellites orbiting several hundred miles above the Earth would serve as a weapons system. One functions as the targeting and communications platform while the other carries numerous tungsten rods--up to 20 feet in length and a foot in diameter--that it can drop on targets with less than 15 minutes' notice. When instructed from the ground, the targeting satellite commands its partner to drop one of its darts. The guided rods enter the atmosphere, protected by a thermal coating, traveling at 36,000 feet per second--comparable to the speed of a meteor. The result: complete devastation of the target, even if it's buried deep underground. (The two-platform configuration permits the weapon to be "reloaded" by just launching a new set of rods, rather than replacing the entire system.)
The concept of kinetic-energy weapons has been around ever since the RAND Corporation proposed placing rods on the tips of ICBMs in the 1950s; the satellite twist was popularized by sci-fi writer Jerry Pournelle. Though the Pentagon won't say how far along the research is, or even confirm that any efforts are underway, the concept persists. The "U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan," published by the Air Force in November 2003, references "hypervelocity rod bundles" in its outline of future space-based weapons, and in 2002, another report from RAND, "Space Weapons, Earth Wars," dedicated entire sections to the technology's usefulness.
If so-called "Rods from God"--an informal nickname of untraceable origin--ever do materialize, it won't be for at least 15 years. Launching heavy tungsten rods into space will require substantially cheaper rocket technology than we have today. But there are numerous other obstacles to making such a system work. Pike, of GlobalSecurity.org, argues that the rods' speed would be so high that they would vaporize on impact, before the rods could penetrate the surface. Furthermore, the "absentee ratio"--the fact that orbiting satellites circle the Earth every 100 minutes and so at any given time might be far from the desired target--would be prohibitive. A better solution, Pike argues, is to pursue the original concept: Place the rods atop intercontinental ballistic missiles, which would slow down enough during the downward part of their trajectory to avoid vaporizing on impact. ICBMs would also be less expensive and, since they're stationed on Earth, would take less time to reach their targets. "The space-basing people seem to understand the downside of space weapons," Pike says--among them, high costs and the difficulty of maintaining weapon platforms in orbit. "But I'll still bet you there's a lot of classified work on this going on right now."