One of the civilians in the office was bashing the idea of a "comman aero vehicle," or CAV, the other day. His point was that a CAV would only be useful against rare, deeply-buried targets. After hearing him out, I have to concede that a CAV would be an expensive system that could not presently be deployed in large numbers, but it does have utility right now as a silver-bullet weapon.
It is first necessary to understand what a CAV is. Imagine a ballistic missile, topped with a delta-winged glider. The glider would re-enter the earth's atmosphere at hypersonic speed, approach a target, then release several GPS-guided bombs.
The CAV's most visible strength is its responsiveness. When Osama bin Laden attacked the US on the morning of Sept. 11, several CAV's could have attacked terrorist targets by the afternoon of the same day (assuming that specific targets had been selected and programmed into the CAVs' bombs.)
The 9/11 scenario brings up another excellent advantage of the CAV: force projection from the continental US. In order to invade Afghanistan, the US had to spend weeks establishing diplomatic relations with unsavory governments like the one in Uzbekistan in order to gain bases close to the theatre of battle. The wasted time and political liabilities would be a thing of the past with CAV.
CAV also provides survivability benefits over conventional cruise missiles and ballistic missile warheads. Ballistic warheads follow a predictable track and can theoretically be intercepted, as tests of our missile defense system have shown. Cruise missiles are slow moving and follow a pre-programmed path. Although they incorporate stealth features amd fly below radar coverage, cruise missiles can be easily shot down by manned aircraft and anti-aircraft gunners once they are visually detected. A CAV has the ability not only to outrun most anti-aircraft missiles, but to maneuver out of the path of high-speed interceptors like the American missile defense system.
The "deeply-buried target" scenario, the greatest strength of the CAV, might be more common than we think. The scenario usually presumes an enemy leader like Saddam Hussein who has taken refuge in an underground bunker. However, the Iraqi experience at Osirak has convinced many rogue states (particularly Iran and North Korea) that their nuclear facilities are only safe if they are buried underground. Our increasing reliance on spy satellites has also given potential enemies another reason to bury their military equipment and facilities: to conceal it from our prying eyes.
There is no doubt that a CAV mission would be much more expensive than one launched by a land- or sea-based aircraft. Then again, the ICBM-boosters for the CAV were bought and paid for back during the Cold War. It wouldn't be practical to mount an entire air campaign with CAV's, but they make sense for time-sensitive, highly-defended, or deeply-buried targets. It also gives us leverage when negotiating with other countries for basing and overflight rights. The CAV is a perfect fit with the Rumsfeld vision of transformational defense systems.