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A kinetic bombardment is the act of attacking a planetary surface with an inert projectile, where the destructive force comes from the kinetic energy of the projectile impacting at very high velocities. The resulting extreme force can be explained by the formula Ek = mv2/2, where Ek is the kinetic energy, m the mass of the object and v its velocity. The concept is encountered in science fiction and is thought to have originated during the Cold War. When taken to a significant fraction of the speed of light, kinetic projectiles become relativistic kill vehicles.
Non-orbital bombardments with kinetic projectiles, such as lobbing stones with siege engines such as catapults or trebuchets are considered siege warfare, not kinetic bombardment.
Real life concepts and theories
Project Thor is an idea for a weapons system that launches kinetic projectiles from Earth orbit to damage targets on the ground. Jerry Pournelle originated the concept while working in operations research at Boeing in the 1950s before becoming a science-fiction writer.
The most described system is 'an orbiting tungsten telephone pole with small fins and a computer in the back for guidance.' The weapon can be down-scaled, an orbiting "crowbar" rather than a pole.
The time between deorbiting and impact would only be a few minutes, and depending on the orbits and positions in the orbits, the system would have a world-wide range. There is no requirement to deploy missiles, aircraft or other vehicles. Although the SALT II (1979) prohibited the deployment of orbital weapons of mass destruction, it did not prohibit the deployment of conventional weapons.
The idea is that the weapon would inflict damage because it moves at orbital velocities, at least 9 kilometers per second. Smaller weapons can deliver measured amounts of energy as small as a 500 lb conventional bomb.
The highly elongated shape and high density are to enhance sectional density and therefore minimise kinetic energy loss due to air friction and maximise penetration of hard or buried targets. The larger device is expected to be quite good at penetrating deeply buried bunkers and other command and control targets. The smaller "crowbar" size might be employed for anti-armor, anti-aircraft, anti-satellite and possibly anti-personnel use.
The weapon would be very hard to defend against. It has a very high closing velocity and a small radar cross-section. Launch is difficult to detect. Any infra-red launch signature occurs in orbit, at no fixed position. The infra-red launch signature also has a small magnitude compared to a ballistic missile launch. One drawback of the system is that the weapon's sensors would almost certainly be blind during atmospheric reentry due to the plasma sheath that would develop ahead of it, so a mobile target could be difficult to hit if it performed any unexpected maneuvering.
While the larger version might be individually launched, the smaller versions would be launched from "pods" or "carriers" that contained several missiles.
The phrase "Rods from God" is also used to describe the same concept.
In science fiction
- Perhaps the the earliest examples come from E. E. "Doc" Smith's Lensman series. An attacker would move a planet (via inertialess drive) to a position near the target planet, then turn off the drive so that inertia would lead the two planets to collide. In Gray Lensman, the "nutcracker" is employed, taking two planets with opposite vectors and moving them to either side of the target planet.
- In the book The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress by Robert A. Heinlein, the citizens of the moon bombard the earth with rocks wrapped in iron containers. These missiles were sent from the moon's surface by means of an electromagnetic launch system down to the earth.
- In the book Footfall by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, aliens use a Thor type system to destroy an American armored division.
- British author Peter F. Hamilton describes in his The Night's Dawn Trilogy, a weapon called a kinetic harpoon that is deployed from orbit and is used for precision strikes. The effect of the weapon can be enhanced by deploying several projectiles in a precisely calculated pattern as to produce shock waves in the ground leading to an artificial earthquake. It is said to be the standard non-radioactive weapon when attacking from orbit.
- In Babylon 5 the Narn home world is bombed by the Centauri using "mass drivers," which hurled asteroids into the planet's atmosphere.
- In the computer game Syndicate Wars, an all-powerful corporation called Eurocorp possessed the "Satellite Rain" weapon, which consisted of rods of a heavy metal alloy that could be fired from satellites. The rods would partially melt in the atmosphere and then strike in the target area at extreme velocity, causing massive devastation.
- In the Shadowrun universe novel "House of the Sun" by Nigel D. Findley (Paperback – July 1995), Project Thor is referred to as well as employed by suspected mega-corporations when tensions on the island nation of Hawai'i rise and a war almost begins between the nation and several mega-corporation and criminal organizations.
- Also in the Shadowrun universe, there are "Thor shots" which work as described above. One was used against Art Dankwalther, a man who was in the midst of economic warfare against a mega-corporation. In-universe characters have commented on that occasion being a literal definition of "overkill."
- In the book Star Wars: Shatterpoint, author Matthew Stover describes the "De-Orbiting Kinetic Anti-emplacement Weapon" or DOKAW, which consists of a continually orbiting metal rod with maneuvering rockets attached that can be called down on command to strike enemy targets.
- In issue 12 of Warren Ellis' Global Frequency comic, Miranda Zero and a hastily-assembled team of operatives race to stop the firing of a tungsten rod at Chicago from a malfunctioning secret orbital platform built by America's Strategic Defense Initiative.
- In the book Quantico by Greg Bear, pods of "Orbital Weapon Lancetes" (OWL) were used to destroy terrorists at Mecca. The OWL program was originally designed in the book to be "bunker buster" weapons.
- In Jim Butcher's The Dresden Files, a wizard friendly to the protagonist uses magic to pull an ex-Soviet satellite from orbit down onto a castle, killing everyone inside.
- David's Sling by Marc Stiegler (1988) described both anti-armor 'crowbars' carried by AI driven UAVs and orbital anti-silo 'pole' kinetic energy projectiles.
- In the Command & Conquer: Generals - Zero Hour modification C&C ShockWave, Superweapons general Alexis Alexander has a Generals Power ability that delivers an orbital tungsten rod strike from a satellite.
- In Kane's Wrath, the official expansion pack to Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars, the Global Defence Initiative has access to "Orbital Strikes", which are kinetic bombardment weapon.
- In The Shiva Option by David Weber, the Grand Alliance uses several large asteroids to obliterate one of the Arachnid "Home Hive" worlds.
- In the Honor Harrington series of novels by David Weber, indiscriminate orbital kinetic bombardment is banned under the Eridani Edict; any offending parties find themselves automatically at war with the Solarian League, by far the most powerful political entity in the Honorverse, at least on paper.
- In Dale Brown's Dreamland series Thor weapons are used to attack ICBMs, space planes and ground targets. They are accelerated by compressed gas for use on exoatmospheric targets.
- In Dale Brown's novel Sky Masters a de-orbited reconnaissance satellite is used to strike a destroyer at sea.
- In Anathem by Neal Stephenson, a "rod" dropped from orbit is used to trigger the eruption of a dormant volcano.
- In the game, Battlefield 2142, the commander of a team can initiate an orbital strike on an area.
- The American faction in Tom Clancy's End War uses a kinetic strike as their WMD.
- In the game Halo Wars, the orbiting ship Spirit of Fire can be called upon to fire massive projectiles at ground targets via the "MAC Blast" ability.
- In Clive Cussler's book Plague Ship, a satellite called Stalin's Fist is used to destroy an Extremely low frequency transmiter through kinetic bombardment by tungsten rods.
- In the Renegade Legion series grav-tank combat game players can call upon orbital artillery support. "Orbital Thor satellites pick out targets to spear with their deadly falling javelins."
- In Michael Z. Williamson's book Freehold precision guided kinetic bombardment weapons are a normal part of planetary defenses.