A kinetic bombardment or a kinetic orbital strike is the hypothetical act of attacking a planetary surface with an inert kinetic projectile from orbit (orbital bombardment), where the destructive power comes from the kinetic energy of the projectile impacting at very high speeds. The concept originated during the Cold War.

Typical depictions of the tactic are of a satellite containing a magazine of tungsten rods and a directional thrust system. When a strike is ordered, the launch vehicle brakes[1] one of the rods out of its orbit and into a suborbital trajectory that intersects the target. The rods would typically be shaped to minimize air resistance and thus maximize velocity upon impact.

The kinetic bombardment has the advantage of being able to deliver projectiles from a very high angle at a very high speed, making them extremely difficult to defend against. In addition, projectiles would not require explosive warheads, and—in the simplest designs—would consist entirely of solid metal rods, giving rise to the common nickname "rods from God".[2] Disadvantages include the technical difficulties of ensuring accuracy and the high costs of positioning ammunition in orbit.

Real life concepts and theories

Predecessors and early concepts

See also: Smart Rocks

During the Korean and Vietnam Wars, there was limited use of the Lazy Dog bomb, a kinetic projectile shaped like a conventional bomb but only about 1.75-inch-long (44 mm) and 0.50-inch-diameter (13 mm). A piece of sheet metal was folded to make the fins and welded to the rear of the projectile. These were dumped from aircraft onto enemy troops and had the same effect as a machine gun fired vertically.[3][self-published source?][4][self-published source?] Similar flechette projectiles have been used since the first World War.[5]

In the 1980s, another kinetic swarm system was conceptualized as a potential part of the Strategic Defense Initiative, there codenamed Brilliant Pebbles.[6][7]

Project Thor was an idea for a weapons system that launches telephone pole-sized kinetic projectiles made from tungsten from Earth's orbit to damage targets on the ground. Jerry Pournelle created the concept while working in operations research at Boeing in the 1950s before becoming a science-fiction writer.[8][9]

2003 United States Air Force proposal

A system described in the 2003 United States Air Force report called Hypervelocity Rod Bundles[10] was that of 20-foot-long (6.1 m), 1-foot-diameter (0.30 m) tungsten rods that are satellite-controlled and have global strike capability, with impact speeds of Mach 10.[11][12][13]

The bomb would naturally contain large kinetic energy because it moves at orbital velocities, around 8 kilometres per second (26,000 ft/s; 8,000 m/s; Mach 24) in orbit and 3 kilometres per second (9,800 ft/s; 3,000 m/s; Mach 8.8) at impact. As the rod reenters Earth's atmosphere it would lose most of its velocity, but the remaining energy would cause considerable damage. Some systems are quoted as having the yield of a small tactical nuclear bomb.[13] These designs are envisioned as a bunker buster.[12][14] As the name suggests, the 'bunker buster' is powerful enough to destroy a nuclear bunker. With 6–8 satellites on a given orbit, a target could be hit within 12–15 minutes from any given time, less than half the time taken by an ICBM and without the launch warning. Such a system could also be equipped with sensors to detect incoming anti-ballistic missile-type threats and relatively light protective measures to use against them (e.g. Hit-To-Kill Missiles or megawatt-class chemical laser). The time between deorbit and impact would only be a few minutes, and depending on the orbits and positions in the orbits, the system would have a worldwide range. There would be no need to deploy missiles, aircraft, or other vehicles.

In the case of the system mentioned in the 2003 Air Force report above, a 6.1 by 0.3 metres (20 ft × 1 ft) tungsten cylinder impacting at Mach 10 (11,200 ft/s; 3,400 m/s) has kinetic energy equivalent to approximately 11.5 tons of TNT (48 GJ).[15] The mass of such a cylinder is itself greater than 9 short tons (8.2 t), so the practical applications of such a system are limited to those situations where its other characteristics provide a clear and decisive advantage—a conventional bomb/warhead of similar weight to the tungsten rod, delivered by conventional means, provides similar destructive capability and is far more practical and cost-effective.[16][17][18]

The highly elongated shape and high mass of the projectiles are intended to enhance sectional density (and therefore minimize kinetic energy loss due to air friction) and maximize penetration of hard or buried targets. The larger device is expected to be quite effective at penetrating deeply buried bunkers and other command and control targets.[19]

The weapon would be very hard to defend against. It has a very high closing velocity and a small radar cross-section. The launch is difficult to detect. Any infrared launch signature occurs in orbit, at no fixed position. The infrared launch signature also has a much smaller magnitude compared to a ballistic missile launch. The system would also have to cope with atmospheric heating from re-entry, which could melt non-tungsten components of the weapon.[20]

The phrase "rods from God" is also used to describe the same concept.[21] An Air Force report called them "hypervelocity rod bundles".[2]

In science fiction

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In the mid-1960s, popular science interest in orbital mechanics led to a number of science fiction stories that explored their implications. Among these was The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, in which the citizens of the Moon bombard the Earth with rocks wrapped in iron containers which are in turn fired from an electromagnetic launch system at Earth-based targets.(see Steve Thon)

In the 1970s and 1980s, this idea was refined in science fiction novels such as Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle (the same Pournelle that first proposed the idea for military use in a non-fiction context), in which aliens use a Thor-type system. During the 1980s and 1990s references to such weapons became a staple of science fiction roleplaying games such as Traveller, Shadowrun and Heavy Gear (the first of these games naming such weapons ortillery, a portmanteau of orbital artillery[22]), as well as visual media including Babylon 5's "mass drivers", the film The Last Starfighter, and the film Starship Troopers, itself an adaptation of the Heinlein novel of the same name. A smaller "crowbar" variant is mentioned in David's Sling by Marc Stiegler (Baen, 1988). Set in the Cold War, the story is based on the use of (relatively inexpensive) information-based "intelligent" systems to overcome an enemy's numerical advantage. The orbital kinetic bombardment system is used first to destroy the Soviet tank armies that have invaded Europe and then to take out Soviet ICBM silos prior to a nuclear strike.

In George Lucas' Star Wars, orbital bombardment is a widely used tactic, but there are countermeasures to it in the form of large planetary scale deflector shields. The first indirect reference to orbital bombardment was in 1980 in The Empire Strikes Back, when the Imperial fleet fails to approach the planet Hoth in secret, allowing the rebels to activate their shields and force Imperials into a ground assault. Orbital bombardment was explored more in depth in the Expanded Universe, making its only on-screen appearance in 2016 in Rogue One: A Star Wars story.

In Neal Stephenson's Anathem, a kinetic bombardment weapon is deployed from orbit to trigger the eruption of a dormant volcano.

In Joe Haldeman's The Forever War, kinetic energy weapons play a wide role in the largely physics-based space combat between the Humans and the Taurans, with most engagements having closing speeds at or above the speed of light. In one engagement, a missile the size of a grain of sand, with no explosive potential itself, wreaks extensive havoc on a human ship during a head-on pass by the Taurans. In another battle, by using an extremely high closing speed, a small fighter is able to use a small autocannon to create devastating effects.

The repurposing of space colonies for use in kinetic bombardment (referred to as a "colony drop") is a frequent element of the Gundam franchise and is central to the plots of Mobile Suit Gundam: Char's Counterattack, and Mobile Suit Gundam 0083: Stardust Memory, while a more limited bombardment is key to the climax of Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans.

From the mid-1990s, kinetic weapons as science fiction plot devices appeared in video games. Appearing in Syndicate Wars as a player-usable weapon, it also featured prominently in the plots of other video games, such as Tom Clancy's EndWar, Mass Effect 2, Call of Duty: Ghosts, and Halo.

The 2001 video game Ace Combat 04: Shattered Skies features Megalith, a fictional missile system that utilized intercontinental ballistic missiles to alter the trajectory of fragments of an asteroid in orbit, deflecting them on paths that would take them towards populated areas and strategic targets. The final mission in the game involves Mobius 1 and the ISAF launching an all-out attack on Megalith and the forces defending it to deactivate it, bringing about an end to the Intercontinental War.

Halo features the Magnetic Accelerator Cannon (MAC), or Mass Accelerator Cannon, as the primary weapon system employed by the United Nations Space Command (UNSC) on its warships and orbital defense platforms.[23][24] Essentially large coilguns, MACs are capable of firing a variety of ammunition types varying on the model and bore, ranging from hyper-dense kinetic kill slugs to sub-caliber rounds to semi-autonomous drone missiles.[25] Most predominantly featured in Halo Wars and Halo Wars 2, the MAC is an ability that allows the player to utilize the UNSC Spirit of Fire's point-defense MAC for pinpoint orbital bombardment, allowing the player to heavily damage or destroy enemy units. However, there are variants of the MAC platforms mounted to various ships and stations, with the most powerful being able to fire a 3,000-ton projectile at anywhere between 0.4% and 25% the speed of light.

The film G.I. Joe: Retaliation depicts the destruction of Central London with a tungsten rod dropped from a satellite system.

Orion's Arm features them as a major weapon type in the galaxy of 10,000 years in the future, where they can be used on planets at speeds up to 99.9% that of light, typically sterilizing a large portion of the target world. They are referred to as Relativistic Kinetic Kill Systems, or RKKS (pronounced "rocks").

In "The Negotiator" thriller novel by Frederick Forsyth, a fictional anti-tank kinetic gun named Goshawk is mentioned.

See also


  1. ^ Pelt, Michel van (2005). Space Tourism: Adventures in Earth Orbit and Beyond. Springer Science & Business Media. p. 107. ISBN 978-0-387-40213-0.; - the word "brake" in this paragraph refers to the act of braking; the fact that by slowing the rod's orbital trajectory, the satellite can de-orbit it in order to drop it onto the planet below.
  2. ^ a b Eric Adams (June 2004). "Rods from God". Popular Science. Retrieved 27 May 2010.
  3. ^ David Karmes (2014). The Patricia Lynn Project: Vietnam War, the Early Years of Air Intelligence. iUniverse. The Lazy Dog Bomb. ISBN 978-1-4917-5228-9.
  4. ^ Ralph A Rowley (12 April 2013). Close Air Support In Vietnam. Lulu.com. p. 43. ISBN 978-1-939335-12-8.[self-published source]
  5. ^ "WWI Flechettes - the troop piercing arrows dropped from planes onto German trenches". 3 March 2018.
  6. ^ Claremont Institute. Brilliant Pebbles Archived October 19, 2010, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved March 11, 2006.
  7. ^ The Heritage Foundation. Brilliant Pebbles Archived March 17, 2006, at the Wayback Machine. Retrieved March 11, 2006.
  8. ^ Jonathan Shainin (10 December 2006). "Rods From God". The New York Times.
  9. ^ Jerry Pournelle (6 March 2006). "Chaos Manor Mail". The View from Chaos Manor. Archived from the original on 28 August 2008.
  10. ^ "2003 U.S. Air Force Transformation Flight Plan". 31 October 2003.
  11. ^ Giuseppe Anzera (18 August 2005). "Star Wars: Empires strike back". Asia Times. Archived from the original on 18 December 2005. Retrieved 25 May 2010.((cite web)): CS1 maint: unfit URL (link)
  12. ^ a b John Arquilla (12 March 2006). "RODS FROM GOD / Imagine a bundle of telephone poles hurtling through space at 7,000 mph". San Francisco Chronicle. Archived from the original on 2 February 2013. Retrieved 25 May 2010. [Such] bundles of metal are not specifically disallowed by the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which explicitly prohibits only deploying nuclear weapons in space. The rods, however, would violate the spirit of the more general Outer Space Treaty.
  13. ^ a b Julian Borger (19 May 2005). "Bush likely to back weapons in space". The Guardian. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
  14. ^ Jack Kelly (28 July 2003). "Rods from God". Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. p. A5.
  15. ^ "US Air Force Transformation Flight Plan" (PDF). Archived (PDF) from the original on August 7, 2020. Retrieved 14 May 2020.
  16. ^ Preston, Bob; Johnson, Dana J.; Edwards, Sean J. A.; Miller, Michael; Shipbaugh, Calvin (2002). "Kinds and Capabilities of Space Weapons". Space Weapons Earth Wars. RAND Corporation. pp. 23–50. ISBN 9780833029379. JSTOR 10.7249/mr1209af.11.
  17. ^ Deblois, Bruce M.; Garwin, Richard L.; Scott Kemp, R.; Marwell, Jeremy C. (2004). "Space Weapons: Crossing the U.S. Rubicon". International Security. 29 (2): 50–84. doi:10.1162/0162288042879922. JSTOR 4137586. S2CID 57559513.
  18. ^ "Popular Science". June 2004.
  19. ^ "Space Wars". The Universe. Season 4. Episode 8. 6 October 2009. HISTORY. Retrieved 21 February 2021.
  20. ^ Noah Shachtman (20 February 2004). "Pentagon Preps for War in Space". Wired. Retrieved 25 May 2010.
  21. ^ Michael Goldfarb (8 June 2005). "The Rods from God". The Weekly Standard. Archived from the original on June 15, 2005. Retrieved 28 May 2010.
  22. ^ Game Designers Workshop, Journal of the Travellers' Aid Society No. 9, 1981
  23. ^ Staten, Joseph (2007). Halo: Contact Harvest (1st ed.). New York: Tor Books. p. 119. ISBN 978-0-7653-1569-4.
  24. ^ Patenaude, Jeremy (2011). Halo: The Essential Visual Guide. New York, NY: DK Publishing. p. 114. ISBN 978-0756675929.
  25. ^ Peters, Kenneth (2017). Halo: Warfleet - An Illustrated Guide to the Spacecraft of Halo. New York, New York: Egmont Publishing. p. 32. ISBN 978-1681196633.

Further reading