In the trenchesDARPA looks to revive WWII German globe-trotting bomber plan

Published 12 May 2010

DARPA’s ArcLight program envisions a boost glide re-entry vehicle (BGRV) with a smallish naval launch tube type rocket firing a pocket, unmanned “Silbervogel” (this is the WWII German original) into space followed by hypersonic re-entry no more than 2,000 miles away

n the 1940s developed detailed plans for a so-called Silbervogel (Silver Bird) rocket bomber which would have soared high into space and then travelled many thousands of miles by skipping like a flung stone on water around the top of the atmosphere. It was thought by its designers that the machine might be able to circumnavigate the globe like this, dropping off a bomb en route as it sailed above America; or at any rate make a landing in Japanese-held territory after such a raid. These abilities led to it being dubbed the “antipodal bomber” in some circles.

Lewis Page writes that the Silbervogel plan was considered part of Nazi aspirations to mount strikes against the United States, but it never actually flew. Still, the plans caused a good deal of activity by the rival superpowers after the war, most famously the X-20 Dyna-Soar project in the United States, which would have used a Silbervogel-like flight profile for global strike or surveillance missions. The X-20 would have launched vertically atop a conventional throwaway rocket (its German predecessor was to be fired into the air by a powerful rocket catapult/sled affair running on rails)

Page notes that, in the event, the X-20 did not get off the ground either, but a less well-known Boost/Glide platform eventually did — the unmanned Boost Glide Re-entry Vehicle (BGRV) test of 1968. The BGRV lifted into space from Vandenberg Airforce Base in California atop an Atlas F missile rocket and re-entered over the Pacific, eventually splashing down in the vicinity of Wake Island some 3,000 miles away.

Our readers will not be surprised to learn that DARPA – correctly defined by Page as “the U.S. military asylum for mad scientists, who see further into the future of warfare by standing on the shoulders of giants — if necessary, immense robot colossi or genetically engineered titanoid abominations of [DARPA scientists’] own manufacture” – is interested in reviving a version of the 1940s idea.

The mission of global strategic strike is already well covered by more conventional ICBMs, and global surveillance is by spy satellites. A nuclear-armed ICBM is not a subtle tool. As we wrote last week, the George W. Bush administration’s idea of using conventionally tipped ICBMs to strike terrorists targets had two major flaws: First, launched ICBMs, even ones fitted with a smaller conventional warheads, would cause global panic, and risk igniting a