'Rods from God': Why Mach 5 Hypersonic Tugeston Bombs Were Never Dropped
"Among the reasons the science fiction-esque idea literally never made it off the ground was thanks to cost. Getting bundles of telephone pole-sized tungsten rods—1.7 time denser than lead—would require rockets of a massive scale that would have been prohibitively expensive. So much for this far-out idea."
Normally bombers drop explosive ordnance onto targets: conventional or nuclear. These two payloads, as detailed below, however, were neither—though that didn’t make them any less destructive.
Rods from God
The Outer Space Treaty, a United Nations treaty ratified in the mid-1960s, prohibits signatories from placing “nuclear weapons or other weapons of mass destruction in orbit or on celestial bodies or station them in outer space in any other manner the weaponization of space.” What this means practically speaking however is difficult to define—and perhaps in some cases not adhered to.
One early Cold War project would have seen large rods of tungsten, a high-density, high-strength metal often used in armor piercing munitions, literally falling down from the sky onto targets on Earth. Pointed rods, around twenty or thirty feet long and several feet in diameter, would have been sent into space via rocket and housed on satellites, where they would then be dropped onto hardened targets like underground bunkers. The idea was conceived by one Jerry Pournelle, a “science-fiction writer and space-weapons expert” sometime in the 1950s while employed at Boeing.
Traveling at hypersonic speeds of Mach 5 or greater, these so-called “Rods from God” would be so completely devastating, they could totally forgo any explosive payload—be it conventional, or nuclear.
Among the reasons the science fiction-esque idea literally never made it off the ground was thanks to cost. Getting bundles of telephone pole-sized tungsten rods—1.7 time denser than lead—would require rockets of a massive scale that would have been prohibitively expensive. So much for this far-out idea.
Another kinetic idea that actually did come to fruition was decidedly more low-tech. Small two-inch bomblets of an all-steel construction were dropped from bombers over the jungles of southeast Asia during the conflict in Vietnam. Essentially short, fat metallic flechettes, they too lacked any explosive payload and relied only on kinetic energy to pierce thick jungle canopies—or armored vehicles and other protected targets.
Thanks to their very small size, many thousands of them could be released en masse from bomber planes and cover wide swaths of jungle to devastating effect. And unlike cluster bombs or land mines, Lazy Dogs wouldn’t remain unexploded on the ground months or years after the end of hostilities, reducing unintended post-conflict harm.
Though there probably won’t be “rods from God” hurtling through the heavens towards, say, underground Iranian nuclear bunkers, that doesn’t mean that the United States’ newest branch—Space Force—is all on its own when it comes to weapons. The Force’ first weapon system, the Counter Communications System, is a land-based, “transportable space electronic warfare system that reversibly denies adversary satellite communications,” and is literally putting “force” into the title Space Force.
Caleb Larson is a defense writer with the National Interest. He holds a Master of Public Policy and covers U.S. and Russian security, European defense issues, and German politics and culture.