Jeffrey LewisCommon Aero Vehicle

Walter Pincus penned a story on the Common Aero Vehicle in the Washington Post the other day. The gist was:

The Pentagon is working to develop a suborbital space capsule within the next five years that would be launched from the United States and could deliver conventional weapons anywhere in the world within two hours, defense officials said.

This year, the Falcon program will test a launcher for its Common Aero Vehicle (CAV), an unmanned maneuverable spacecraft that would travel at five times the speed of sound and could carry 1,000 pounds of munitions, intelligence sensors or other payloads. Among the system’s strengths is that commanders could order a CAV—an unpowered glide vehicle—not to release its payload if they decided not to follow through with an attack.

The hook for the CAV story was testimony by the Commander of Air Force Space Command General Lance Lord—although the CAV itself is old news, having been covered on this blog and subjected to a serious assault during the FY 2005 appropriations process. It even has its own website.

The Common Aero Vehicle is a hypersonic glide vehicle, designed to carry a payload 3,000 nautical miles (5,500 km) downrange, with re-entry speeds of approximately 4,000 feet per second (1200 m/s) and an accuracy (circular probable error) of 3 meters. The CAV is designed to deliver a variety of 1000 pound (450 kg) submunition packages including

  • 1 Rigid Penetrator for hard and deeply buried targets
  • 6 Wide Area Autonomous Search Munitions (WAASM)
  • 4 Small Smart Bomb Systems for facility destruction
  • 6 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for intelligence gathering

DOD and DARPA are also developing two systems—a hypersonic cruise vehicle and small launch vehicle—to deliver CAV to target, providing what DOD likes to call a Prompt Global Strike capability.

Officially, at least, DOD is no longer thinking about space-basing CAV. A pair of contractors, however, have written an interesting little paper about basing CAV in space and some potential objections:

Besides foreign political concerns from the Russians, and likely some “Old Europe” countries as well, domestic acceptance of weapons on orbit is an open question. An outcry could be expected from the left and CAVs on-orbit would likely be on the national news unless kept behind the green door. President Clinton line-item-vetoed (later overturned) space weapons in 1998 and his OSD forbade use of congressional add money on CAV one year later. Serious opponents of space basing CAVs would appear in Congress, and they could seriously delay or cancel all CAV efforts if they believed it would lead to a near-term CAV on-orbit deployment. Filibusters are effective tactics where the minority can effectively shut down individual programs they dislike. A better tactic is to develop a useful CAV capability without having to engage in the orbital deployment morass.

Can you imagine giving a professional presentation with this tone?

I don’t know these guys at all, so this is probably unfair. But … the image in my head is a couple guys sitting around a conference table in New Mexico, wearing crew cuts, wingtips and striped ties, Rush Limbaugh prattling on in the background, and these two grousing about “old Europe,” “the left” and “femi-nazis”—all the while extolling the virtues of the missionary position.

Update: Wasn’t Behind the Green Door a 70’s pornographic film starring Marilyn Chambers? Maybe these guys are kinkier than I thought.


  1. Falconeer (History)

    Is it just me, or would it be difficult to differentiate between an ‘aero vehicle’ and a MIRV warhead? Essentially both systems use ballistic paths; when you’re talking about engagement windows of minutes as opposed to hours, it strikes me as destablizing.

  2. Jeffrey Lewis (History)

    Funny you should mention that.

    The Appropriations Conferees concluded:

    The conferees are concerned that safeguards are not in place to guarantee that nations possessing nuclear weapons capabilities would not misinterpret the intent or use of the FALCON/CAV programs. Therefore, the funds provided herein are for the development of hypersonic technologies for non-weapons related research, such as micro-satellite or other satellite launch requirements and other purposes as listed under the conferees recommendations. The conferees direct that none of the funds provided in this Act may be used to develop, integrate, or test a CAV variant that includes any nuclear or conventional weapon. The conferees further direct that none of the funds provided in this Act may be used to develop, integrate, or test a CAV for launch on any Intercontinental Ballistic Missile or Submarine Launched Ballistic Missile. The Committees on Appropriations will consider expanding the scope of this program in subsequent years if safeguards negotiated among our international partners have been put in place.

    As far as I know, the Administration has made no effort to negotiate such safeguards.