Rods from God: Atomic Strength Weaponry without the Fallout

You have just returned home from work, and are walking from your car to your house when you hear an unusual sound. It sounds like a speeding airplane, but is getting louder and louder by the second. You glance upwards, looking for the source of the strange sound, but see nothing. You strain your eyes, squinting up into the distant atmosphere, and that’s when you see it: a tiny dot. In the next few seconds, the sound intensifies, the dot grows, and then everything ends.

The collision is over in an instant, but it is powerful, piercing the earth and leaving no trace of your suburban street. Everything is flattened into a crater, reduced to tiny shreds of the once peaceful neighborhood.

And perhaps most striking of all is that around the crater, life goes on just as always. There is no fallout, no post-apocalyptic scenario in which food is scarce and knowledge is forgotten, like so many films have portrayed the aftermath of nuclear war. There is just a crater in the earth and the pulverized people and man-made structures that used to exist there.

Non-Nuclear Weapons of Mass Destruction

This powerful weaponry strategy is called kinetic bombardment, or “Rods from God.” Dreamed up during the 1950s by scientist and future science fiction writer Jerry Pournelle, the basic premise involves a rotating set of twenty foot tungsten poles controlled by a computer. The appeal of the rods comes from the fact that they would launch at such speeds and velocities that they would destroy anything at the site of their final destination – without massively irradiating the earth and rendering it uninhabitable.

During the Cold War, the United States and the USSR kept the stakes high by producing massive stockpiles of weapons. In particular, both sides manufactured unimaginable numbers of nuclear warheads, betting on the power of Mutual Assured Destruction to keep them safe. This strategy prevented either side from attacking the other for fear that they would retaliate in full force, destroying them both, either as a result of pure obliteration, or because of the devastating effects of nuclear fallout.

This is what made powerful, non-nuclear weapons so attractive to the superpowers. Although we have no concrete evidence that a kinetic bombardment structure was ever assembled, the theories are well-developed. The “Rods from God” would be extremely hard to detect, both at launch and over radar due to their relatively small footprint.

So Do They Exist?

Considering that the technology was dreamed up in the 1950’s, it is hard to imagine that this technology is not in some way already in use, or at least plausible, but it is believable that it would have been too utterly cost-prohibitive to accomplish. After all, the materials to make the kinetic rods, or “darts,” are quite expensive (tungsten is required as a coating in order to avoid the entire dart melting as it travels into our atmosphere), and the technology required to fire them into orbit would need to be extraordinarily powerful while maintaining an extreme level of precision. However, as early as 2004, a Popular Science writer, Eric Adams, suggested that they could be feasible within the next 15 years.

Unclassified documents also reveal that the “Rods from God” concept is one that the military and United States government still plans to pursue; a document from 2003 discusses “hypervelocity rod bundles” and their feasibility as a weapon after 2015.

The concept of blowing up our enemies from space is certainly not a new one; for decades, the military has had the idea of keeping nuclear bombs suspended in orbit over our enemies. It is a safe assumption that at least one of these (admittedly terrifying) weapons will be inhabiting an orbit near you in the future, if they aren't already. So is it time to fire up the construction equipment and build your own bomb shelter?

Because these devices have certainly caught the attention of video game developers, who have referenced kinetic energy weapons in titles like Mass Effect and Call of Duty. A similar weapon was also prominently featured in the film GI Joe: Retaliation. It’s obvious that these weapons have inspired entertainers in a number of industries, and it’s only a matter of time before they’re making international headlines.

What do you think of the “Rods from God?” Believably realistic, or too far-fetched?
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Image Credit: James Vaughan (via Flickr)

 Filed under: General, Nuclear War, fallout

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