Aug 21, 2008

ANALYSIS: Report urges prompt global strike capability

By ROGER SNODGRASS, Los Alamos Monitor Editor

Blue-ribbon panelists of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended Friday that American submarines have a few conventional arrows in their nuclear weapons quiver for special circumstances.

Presently, for example, the only immediate military response, for taking out a missile about to fire a nuclear weapon at the United States or one of its allies, is with a delivery system carrying a nuclear weapon.

That may not always be the best choice, the committee decided, depending on the situation.

In a longstanding policy disagreement, three former Secretaries of Defense, including Donald Rumsfeld, have supported the concept of a “prompt global strike” that offered a non-nuclear option for attacking high-value targets anywhere in the world within an hour.

The House Senate Armed Services last year wanted assurance that a conventional weapon fired from a nuclear-delivery system would not be interpreted ambiguously and accidentally unleash a nuclear war.

A two-day conference early last year in Washington D.C., hosted by Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories wrestled with the so-called “misinterpretation” problem as a part of a “Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century (SW21)” theme, subtitled “Rethinking nuclear and non-nuclear elements of deterrence.”

A report from the conference observed that the possibilities of errors in attributing the nature of the weapon were “grossly overstated, if not totally without merit given the fact that nuclear powers had launched over a thousand submarine-launched ballistic missiles without any misinterpretations.”

At the same time, “the political power of the attribution problem was so great that working group participants believed that it must be addressed head on.”

A second conference was held on Jan. 31, according to a more generalized summary of the event. Both meetings were held at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.

Tactical aircraft, cruise missiles, armed unmanned aerial vehicles and heavy bombers are typically employed to deliver conventional armament on a given target. But any object beyond 500-miles, would be out of reach for these “air-breathing” delivery system; and faster delivery offered by long-range ballistic missiles might appear to an observer to represent a nuclear attack.

Other scenarios cited by the science board included the “opportunity to strike a gathering of terrorist leaders or a shipment of weapons of mass destruction during a brief period of vulnerability; and the need to disable an adversary’s command and control capability as the leading edge of a broader combat operation.”

The committee acknowledged that open questions remained about “the potential for inappropriate, mistaken or accidental use,” of the conventional weapons, but called for comprehensive studies of such issues before deployment, as well as open-ended concerns such as “the impact of over flight and debris; and the implications for arms control and associated agreements.”

In conclusion, the committee recommended that the Pentagon proceed with a plan called Conventional Trident Modification.

The CTM alternative could be ready by FY2010. It involves the conversion of two Trident II (D5) missiles on each of the U.S. Navy’s 12 deployed nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines from nuclear-armed to conventionally-armed.

[See also Non-Nuclear Warhead Urged for Trident Missile by Walter Pincus.]


Anonymous said...

The rationale should continue as:

Strategic forces (nuclear forces) and conventional forces should always be kept separable, and not create a mix of strategic forces and conventional forces together, with a risk of accidental use of a nuclear warhead (W76, W88), instead of the non-nuclear warhead.

(I am for the idea of non-nuclear prompt global strike capability, but it must be kept on a Trident delivery system, that hold zero nuclear weapons.)

Anonymous said...

I saw some unclassified viewgraphs from a LLNL PAD meeting last week that said LLNL was the lead lab for the Global Strike warhead.

Anonymous said...

The panel looked at 7 options, calling nuclear ambiguity "an understandable concern" with the Conventional Trident Modification, the panel said that the risk of a conventional prompt global strike attack "being misinterpreted and leading to a nuclear attack on the United States could be mitigated and managed through readily available mechanisms."

These "cooperative measures" might include "providing information to bilateral partners about the conventional prompt global strike system, its operation and the doctrine for its use; immediately notifying of launches against countries; and installing devices such as continuous monitoring systems to increase the confidence that conventional warheads had not been replaced by nuclear warheads.

Some also feel that Land-based missile systems would be better suited to reducing ambiguity and building confidence abroad.

The Army and Air Force have developed concepts for land-based conventional missiles that could be based at installations that house no nuclear weapons. Their launches might appear markedly different from those of current ICBMs, their warheads could be verified through on-site inspections and their activities could be monitored by spy satellites.

The seven options:

- Existing systems: These include tactical aircraft, cruise missiles, armed unmanned aerial vehicles and bomber aircraft. Any of these would have to be deployed within range of a surprise threat to be successful at hitting the target within a 60-minute time frame.

- Conventional Trident Modification: The Navy concept involves converting two D-5 missiles on each of the Navy's 12 deployed ballistic missile submarines from nuclear- to conventionally armed. Available as early as 2011, each missile could carry as many as four re-entry vehicles with precision-targeting capability.

- Conventional Trident Modification-2: This committee concept calls for a missile that uses just two of the D-5's current three rocket stages, allowing for a bigger payload and additional options for the kind of munitions delivered. This version, which could be ready by 2013, would still achieve the weapon's objective 4,000-nautical-mile range, according to the report.

- Submarine-Launched Global Strike Missile: The Navy's mid- to long-term concept would be launched from so-called "SSGN" Ohio-class submarines, converted for conventional missions. This intermediate-range weapon, deployable before 2015, could carry a single, heavy warhead for attacking some hard targets or, like the CTM missile, could dispense kinetic-energy projectiles against buildings, vehicles or human targets.

- Conventional Strike Missile-1: This Air Force concept for a boost-glide weapon would launch like a ballistic missile from U.S. land installations and then fly at hypersonic speeds into its targets with considerable range and maneuvering capability. It could carry payloads similar to the Submarine-Launched Global Strike Missile but might not be available until 2016 or later.

- Conventional Strike Missile-2: This committee concept is for a variant with longer glide time than the initial CSM weapon, allowing extended range and increased capability to dispense multiple munitions, the document explains. Such a weapon, potentially available between 2018 and 2024, might also be able to dispense intelligence-gathering modules or offer re-attack capability, among other features.

- Hypersonic Cruise Missiles: Calling these concepts "long-term alternatives," the panel said such fast weapons could be launched from long-range aircraft, or deployed at sea or in foreign nations. Possibly available for fielding between 2020 and 2024, hypersonic cruise missiles might offer "considerable capability" for dispensing smart munitions or surveillance modules, the report states.