THE BLOG

Orbital Weapons Platform

11/27/2012 05:06 pm ET | Updated Jan 27, 2013

The problem with new technologies is that it's not always clear how useful they are especially in the beginning. Take, for example, the Air Force's X-37B scheduled for its third blast off before the end of this month (the launch has already been postponed once). Though still in the experimental stage, it seems to be "operating within its designated parameters." Nevertheless, its capabilities, indeed, its performance, are classified, so who really knows?

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The 29-foot-long, unmanned vehicle (see photos above and at bottom) is launched into space aboard an Atlas 5 rocket. It's already completed two successful test missions: orbiting the earth for 225 days the first time, and a record-breaking 469 days the second. The Orbital Test Vehicle, or OTV, even has the ability to land itself. These are impressive accomplishments. But just how useful is this thing (not to mention expensive)?

Analysts suggest the X-37B may be a precursor to an orbiting weapons platform that can track and disable enemy satellites, or even launch non-nuclear missiles at targets on earth. If that's the case, its usefulness is pretty narrow. Then again so is a fire extinguisher until you need one. The problem with defense systems is they're huge money sucks, often don't work as advertised, and have such limited applications when they do that they benefit national defense and not much else. They also tend to fall prey to counter measures and obsolescence much faster then we are led to believe.

As a result, we're torn between thinking the X-37B is on the cutting edge of coolness, or some Dr. Strangelovian harbinger of doom. It could also end up being nothing more than a heroic investment in white elephant technology. We'll just have to wait and see.

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