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Conventional Trident Provides a Vital Option

My former colleague, Steve Andreasen (“Off Target? The Bush Administration’s Plan to Arm Long-Range Ballistic Missiles With Conventional Warheads,” Arms Control Today, July/August 2006), provides a useful but unnecessarily negative perspective on the pros and cons of equipping some of the Navy’s Trident D-5 nuclear missiles with conventional warheads. As long as essential doctrinal, programmatic, and operational safeguards are put in place, a non-nuclear option for selected D-5s would provide a key “silver bullet” capability that future presidents could find vital under unlikely but strategically harrowing conditions.

Imagine the U.S. government obtains intelligence that a nuclear-armed terrorist organization is about to send out trucks loaded with one or more nuclear devices from a remote location. If there is any significant delay, the chances of later destroying these trucks could become nearly nil as they moved farther away from their garrison. An attack against the trucks with nuclear weapons would technically be an option, but one that a president might well refuse given the collateral destruction and the possibility of incorrect intelligence. By comparison, the collateral damage, both physical and political, from a non-nuclear attack would be vastly smaller.

Certainly nonballistic missile approaches should be considered first, but time constraints could rule them out. If communications to the missile can be quickly executed, a D-5 could reach its target in as little as 15-20 minutes, faster than even an ICBM because of its forward deployment. Andreasen is correct that if the target had started moving, it could soon clear out of the kill radius of the D-5 conventional warhead, but there is no a priori way to know in advance if this would be the case.

Moreover, this issue could be addressed if necessary by providing encrypted updates to the non-nuclear missile while in flight. At the same time, the use of reactive nanomaterials in the warhead and other advanced technologies should be considered. These could both increase the effectiveness of the conventional warhead and provide damage assessment to theater commanders.

Also contrary to Andreasen’s claim, launch debris is a problem of minor significance—the D-5s first two stages drop off early in the missile’s trajectory, usually landing in water; the third stage and bus could be targeted for minimal collateral damage.

The policy issues Andreasen raises are real but manageable. Countries with early warning systems could be notified shortly after launch. Andreasen usefully suggests a joint warning center that could be used for this and other purposes to ensure that misunderstanding is reduced or eliminated. With proper procedures in place, such a missile launch need be no more destabilizing than the four annual Trident reliability launch tests we have conducted for years.

It is true that we want several other countries to desist with their development of long-range missiles, but converting 24 nuclear Tridents to non-nuclear Tridents does not affect this problem. Those who want to develop such missiles already point to the large U.S. missile arsenal to help justify their programs; denuclearizing 24 Tridents will not affect this dynamic. Furthermore, non-nuclear long-range ballistic missiles would be useless to other countries without extraordinarily improved missile accuracy technologies that they are unlikely to achieve for many years. A claim that their long-range missiles are for conventional warheads would not pass an international snicker test.

Andreasen and Congress are right to be asking the right questions before this program proceeds further. But until such time that we have another option that could strike more swiftly, I agree with former Defense Secretaries Harold Brown and James Schlesinger that we should develop a non-nuclear option for the D-5 missile, to be used only under the most momentous of circumstances. In doing so, we must be mindful of the implications such a capability entails and ensure that we have in place rigorous procedures to forestall misunderstanding over its hopefully highly infrequent use.


Bruce MacDonald is a national security technology and policy consultant. He was assistant director for national security at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy during 1995-1999 and served as a national security aide on Capitol Hill during 1983-1995. From 1977 to 1983, he served at the Department of State, where he chaired the START Policy Interagency Working Group and the SALT III Ceilings and Reductions Interagency Working Group and served on the U.S. START delegation in Geneva.