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Rods From God: The Truth of Call of Duty's Killer Satellite

E.T. Brooking | 5 Nov 2013 19:00
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How ODIN would work - and how it wouldn't

An important question so far left unresolved is: why? What's the argument for technologies like kinetic bombardment? How does it work? And, most importantly, is it worth it?

The best argument for ODIN-style weapons is speed. Simply to maintain a stationary orbit over Earth, satellites must travel at roughly 11,300 kilometers per hour - nearly twice the speed of the fastest jet ever produced. In order to actually circle the planet, satellites must go even faster. Launch several such satellites at once and you have a system that can strike anywhere in the world far quicker than a conventional bomb or missile. Furthermore, once rods have been released - plunging downward at hypersonic speeds - they're essentially impossible to stop or intercept.

The other argument for kinetic bombardment is versatility. The tungsten rods of an ODIN-like device don't need to carry nuclear warheads or any warhead at all, eliminating the perils of radioactivity and fallout. They can also pierce the earth with force several times that of the strongest "bunker buster" bomb, rendering all possible enemy strongholds useless. U.S. force planners have traditionally seen kinetic bombardment as just one more tool in the arsenal - not as an outright replacement for nuclear weapons.

They're essentially impossible to stop or intercept.

Basic design of ODIN-style weaponry is remarkably elegant. The giant rods are giant - and rod-shaped - in order to maximize mass while minimizing surface area. They're made of tungsten because of tungsten's absolutely insane melting point (3,422 °C), which is high enough to survive atmospheric re-entry. While there are still plenty of engineering challenges - namely, how to make the rods hit the right place at the right time - the whole system is still a lot simpler than your average, nuclear-equipped ballistic missile.

One big, remaining obstacle is money. Putting something in space is stupid expensive - it takes roughly 40 to 50 kilograms of propellant for every kilo launched. When you're moving literal tons of rare-earth metal, sculpted to be as heavy as possible, those costs add up fast. Launching a single, relatively small rod might cost $30 million dollars. Sending up multiple, large rods spread across multiple satellites would cost many, many dozens of times this.

A world with ODIN: A world nobody wants

The biggest problem with kinetic bombardment, however, is the same problem that's dogged armchair generals since time began: the enemy also gets a vote.

Satellites and space stations are not exactly safe from harm. In the past decade, the U.S. and China have each experimented with ways of disabling space-borne objects. Satellite jamming is an effective, low-cost strategy that remains very tough to counter. Ground-based lasers - even those with relatively small energy output - can also put the sensitive electronics of a satellite out of commission.

The most direct, effective anti-satellite techniques involve simply blowing these objects out of the sky. In 2010, the U.S. successfully tested an unmanned space plane able to freely maneuver (and likely shoot) in high orbit. Both the U.S. and China have occasionally used missiles to destroy old or failing satellites. One such Chinese test, conducted in 2007, left 40,000 fragments of metal, essentially doubling the manmade debris orbiting the planet. If too many objects were ever destroyed in this same manner, the resulting space junk might keep humans trapped on Earth for good.

So to recap, an ODIN-style device would be an extremely expensive, extremely vulnerable weapons platform whose destruction could well doom humanity forever. In return for all these cons, military planners would get a weapon good at destroying fortified bunkers. On the net, it remains a pretty poor bargain.

The resulting space junk might keep humans trapped on Earth for good.

But what if ODIN were built anyway? What if a group of fabulously wealthy, sci-fi loving engineers (perhaps after playing Ghosts) built and launched their own system of kinetic bombardment?

Put simply, doing so would open all of space to militarization - and push nations across the world to build their own variants. The result would be an arms race not seen since the invention of the atom bomb. The U.S. alone has spent roughly $8 trillion (in 2013 dollars) on the development, testing, and maintenance of nuclear weapons in the years since. It's difficult to see where this new arms race would end once begun - or how it could do anyone much good.

Kinetic bombardment remains one of the coolest weapons in pop culture, thanks to zany writers and inventive game designers everywhere. Let's hope it stays fiction.

E.T. Brooking is a defense researcher based in Washington, DC, who still can't understand where the Tarkin Doctrine went wrong. Follow him on Twitter @etbrooking.

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