The U.S. has begun considering adding a new kinetic energy weapon to its arsenal in hopes of countering advances in Russian nuclear technology that could potentially threaten U.S. tactical military dominance.
Called the Kinetic Energy Projectile, the weapon is a tungsten-based warhead launched at more than three times the speed of sound that bursts into numerous flaming, metal fragments easily capable of piercing most conventional types of armor, according to Aviation Week. The Army is looking into fitting the new super-weapon onto existing launch platforms that are capable of supplying sufficient charge to shoot the projectile at such speeds. One reason for the weapon would be to respond to Russia's pursuit of miniaturized nuclear warheads fired by tanks.
Major General William Hix, the Army’s director of strategy, has likened the Kinetic Energy Projectile, designed by the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California, to "a big shotgun shell" that could travel "Mach 3 to Mach 6" and tear through its targets.
“The way that they have designed it, is quite devastating. I would not want to be around it. Not much can survive it," Hix said last month at the Booz Allen Hamilton Direct Energy Summit, according to Defense One. "If you are in a main battle tank, if you’re a crew member, you might survive but the vehicle will be non-mission capable, and everything below that...level of protection will be dead. That’s what I am talking about."
The weapon was first tested in 2013 at Holloman Air Force Base in New Mexico and remains in the conceptual phase, meaning the U.S. military likely has not yet taken ownership of the project, a U.S. Army spokesperson told Newsweek. The futuristic weapon was tested using the so-called Livermore method, which combines "advanced computer simulations with focused experiments."
“Kinetic energy projectiles are warhead systems that take advantage of high terminal speeds to deliver much more energy onto a target than the chemical explosives they carry would deliver alone,” said Randy Simpson, a weapons programs manager at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, according to a statement emailed to Newsweek by the laboratory.
Heightened international tensions between the U.S. and Russia could act as a motivation for the Army to develop the weapon. Last week, President Donald Trump launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at the Syrian military's Shayrat Air Base days after accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of conducting a chemical attack on civilians near the Syrian rebel-held city of Idlib. Russia has supported the Syrian leader throughout his nation's six-year civil war, and has blamed Syrian rebels for staging the chemical attack to attract U.S. support in the conflict.
Moscow also said it would step up its defenses for the Syrian military and respond to any further aggressions by the U.S. Russia has not threatened the U.S. with an all-out nuclear war, but with an estimated 7,300 nuclear weapons in its stockpile, Moscow has embraced having the most nuclear warheads of any nation in the world. Developments in Russian military technology could soon bring these weapons of mass destruction to the battlefield.
Russia has already designed the T-14 Armata, described by a British intelligence report as "the most revolutionary step change in tank design in the last half-century," according to The Telegraph. Philip Karber, who heads the Potomac Institute and helped pen the National Geo-Spatial Intelligence Agency's 2015 report titled Russia's 'New Generation Warfare', said the next Armata innovation may be to make it nuclear.
"They’ve announced that the follow-on tank to the Armata will have a 152-millimeter gun missile launcher," Karber said, according to Defense One. "They’re talking about it having a nuclear capability. And you go, 'You’re talking about building a nuclear tank, a tank that fires a nuke?' Well, that’s the implication,"
While the Kinetic Energy Projectile may not produce the same tactical fallout as a tank-based nuclear warhead, it could perhaps help to prevent future conflicts from erupting between world powers.