Mr. D.W. sent along this article with his own speculations as to what it may mean, and I want to pass those along as well, because I happen to share them as today's "high octane speculation." First, let it be noted that this article is from Russia's online magazine, Sputnik, and it appears to be as mystified by some of Defense Secretary Mattis's remarks as we are. We'll get back to that "appears" part in a moment. Here's the article:
The remarks of Secretary Mattis that have fostered the speculations are these:
But Mattis has hinted that the Pentagon has a few tricks up its sleeve that could prevent such a counterstrike. When asked during a Monday press conference, "is there any military option the U.S. can take with North Korea that would not put Seoul at grave risk?" Mattis responded in the affirmative.
"Yes, there are, but I will not go into details," said the retired four star general, who in the past had stated that war with North Korea would "involve the massive shelling of an ally's capital [Seoul], which is one of the most densely packed cities on earth."
"There are many military options, in concert with our allies that we will take to defend our allies and our own interests," Mattis went on to cryptically state. (Emphasis added)
The mystery compounded when an astute reporter - unidentified in the article - asked for clarification:
Either Mattis is bluffing, or he knows something that we don't. He did make a comment that may have hinted at what he had in mind. "Just to clarify, you said that there were possible military options that would not create a grave risk to Seoul. Are we talking kinetic options as well?" a reporter asked him.
"Yes, I don't want to go into that," Mattis replied. "Kinetic military action" is a euphemism referring to lethal military force such as airstrikes (usually contrasted to electronic warfare.) (Emphasis added)
It's that reference to "kinetic weapons" that disturbs, and as Mr. D.W. pointed out in his email to me, Sputnik "tones down" its analysis here, taking "kinetic weapons" to mean simply conventional air strikes, which, however, it does not limit to conventional airstrikes. Sputnik is choosing its words very carefully, calling "kinetic military action" a "euphemism referring to lethal military force such as airstrikes", presumably using smart bombs. But such language implies there are other forms of "kinetic weapons", much more destructive ones, one of which is the so-called "rod of God" technology.
The idea behind this is rather simple: "rods of God" are simply a space-based non-nuclear weapons platform - such as a rail gun, for example - that would fire a "rod" or projectile of dense inert matter at extreme velocities. The sheer force of the kinetic impact of a massive object at extreme velocities would cause a massive explosion and a deep crater. They would, in effect, have the potential to cause explosions of a size of a small nuclear weapon (though, again, they could be made to be quite large, theoretically), with none of the nasty aftereffects, such as radioactive fallout, from a nuclear weapon. It would be, if one may so put it, similar to snagging a small asteroid and launching it toward some point on the planet's surface.
Mr. D.W. when he shared this article recalled, in his email, the strange explosions at Chinese chemical plants a few years ago, and indeed, I blogged and talked in a few interviews about the possibility that these might have been caused by some space-based kinetic weapons bombardment technology. I wasn't the only one speculating in this fashion; others were pointing out the enormous craters, which looked to be deep craters, when these explosions occurred, not the type of crater signature one would normally associate with an accidental chemical explosion. They looked somewhat like something had penetrated to a certain depth in the surface. Bunker-busting bombs would be one possibility, "rods of God" another. Accidental chemical explosions, maybe.
The platforms for such bombardment weapons need not be permanently space-based. The U.S. Air Force has been pursuing projects for a "global bomber" that have be launched from the surface, hypersonically flown to any point on the globe to launch precisely such a kinetic weapon, and return and land like an ordinary aircraft. Indeed, this idea stems from the global rocket-glider bomber of Nazi engineer Ernst Saenger during World War Two, and there is some indication that actual construction work was begun on such a technology.
Which brings us back to the Sputnik article. Assuming it is an accurate reporting of the exchange between the reporter and Secretary Mattis, then it should give one pause. Normally, when one speaks of airstrikes, one would use that language to describe the "options." Airstrikes, in modern conventional parlance, would typically include smart bombs, cruise missiles, and so on. When one says "kinetic weapons," something else entirely is implied, one has something entirely different in mind, something like "rods of God." If this parsing of the exchange is accurate, and again, assuming the article is reporting accurately, then Mr. Mattis' response - "Yes, I don't want to go into that," is a stunning admission that platforms exist - orbital or otherwise - to deliver them. And in any case, regardless of the platform, it will most likely be space-launched if not space-based, simply in order to achieve the tremendous velocities needed to give the weapon its strategic and operational "punch."
In short, Secretary Mattis may have just admitted the weaponization of space is not a future event, but a present reality. Either way, there's no doubt in my mind that the analysts in Moscow knew exactly what he was saying, and no doubt in my mind that similar conclusions may be running through the minds of the analysts in North Korea.
See you on the flip side...