U.S. Alters Non-Nuclear Prompt-Strike Plan

By Collina, Tom Z. | Arms Control Today, April 2011 | Go to article overview

U.S. Alters Non-Nuclear Prompt-Strike Plan


Collina, Tom Z., Arms Control Today


Wrestling with an issue that has proven controversial with the U.S. Congress as well as Russia, the Department of Defense has decided not to develop systems for its Conventional Prompt Global Strike mission based on traditional ballistic missiles, according to a Feb. 2 White House report to Congress.

Instead, the report says, the Pentagon will continue to explore "boost-glide" concepts that have a nonballistic flight trajectory, which is deemed less likely to be mistaken for a nuclear attack and would not be counted by the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START), which limits only missiles with a ballistic trajectory.

The Pentagon's interest in a conventional prompt-strike capability stems from the fact that the only weapons in the U.S. arsenal that can reach a target anywhere on the globe in less than an hour are deployed long-range ballistic missiles, all of which are currently armed with nuclear warheads. But using nuclear weapons to attack potential non-nuclear targets, such as leaders of a terrorist group or an adversary's imminent missile launch, would seem to be inconsistent with current U.S. policy for using such weapons. The 2010 "Nuclear Posture Review Report" states that the "fundamental role" of U.S. nuclear weapons is to "deter nuclear attack on the United States, our aliies, and partners." The report also says that the United States will continue to strengthen its conventional capabilities "with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or its allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons."

Moreover, the Bush administration argued that the availability of conventional strike weapons could give the president more options in a crisis, reducing the chance that nuclear weapons would be used. A February 2011 report by the National Defense University made a similar point, saying that a conventional strike weapon "might enhance deterrence and assurance by providing an effective and usable (and thus more credible) strike option."

On the other hand, skeptics such as Sen. Jack Reed (D-R. I.) argue that conventional strike weapons may prove to be unusable as the United States would lack the necessary intelligence to use them quickly against such time-sensitive targets. The time required to verify that intelligence reports were sufficiently credible to justify action would allow the use of other, slower weapons in the U.S. arsenal, such as conventional cruise missiles, they say. For example, they argue, cruise missile-carrying submarines or airplanes could be moved within range of a potential target while breaking intelligence reports were being assessed.

Moreover, according to defense experts, the United States routinely deploys military assets to most "hot spots" where a crisis could be expected to emerge, such as submarines off the coast of North Korea or bombers in Afghanistan. The only regions where the United States might not have such reach would be deep inside large countries with significant air defenses, such as China or Russia. One possible mission for conventional prompt-strike weapons, congressional staffers say, is to be able to knock out Chinese anti-satellite (ASAT) capabilities early in a crisis. China has conducted a series of ASAT tests, most recently on Jan. 11, 2010, according to ajan. 12, 2010, Department of State cable released by WikiLeaks. "This test is assessed to have furthered both Chinese ASAT and ballistic missile defense... technologies," the cable said.

The Bush administration had proposed to place conventional warheads on existing Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs). Congress blocked that plan in 2008 out of concern that Russia might mistake a conventionally armed strategic missile for a nuclear one and perceive that it was under U.S. nuclear attack. For their part, Russian leaders have said they are concerned that even long-range missiles that are clearly identified as non-nuclear could be used against Russia's nuclear forces and thus should be considered strategic weapons. …

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