U.S. Alters Non-Nuclear Prompt-Strike Plan
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
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
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
Moreover, according to defense experts, the
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
As a compromise, New START’s preamble states that the parties are “mindful of the impact of conventionally armed ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] and SLBMs on strategic stability.” The treaty does not prohibit conventional strike systems, but it would count those based on treaty-limited strategic delivery systems, such as the Trident II SLBM and the Minuteman III ICBM, toward the treaty’s ceiling of 1,550 nuclear warheads. During last year’s Senate debate on New START, some Republican senators were concerned that a large deployment of conventional strike weapons would prevent the
According to the White House report, a weapons system with a conventional warhead that does not use treaty-limited ICBMs or SLBMs and “does not fly a ballistic trajectory over most of its flight path” would not be counted by New START.
Addressing some congressional as well as Russian concerns, the Defense Department “at present has no plans to develop or field” conventionally armed ICBMs or SLBMs “with traditional ballistic trajectories,” according to the White House report, which was required by the Senate’s Dec. 22, 2010, resolution of ratification for New START.
Instead, the Pentagon will pursue “boost-glide” systems, which use nontraditional ballistic missiles to “boost” delivery vehicles into space that then “glide” at hypersonic speeds in the upper atmosphere for more than half of their flight. In the
According to the White House report, the “basing, launch signature, and flight trajectory [of these systems] are distinctly different from that of any deployed nuclear-armed
Unlike U.S. ICBMs and SLBMs, which are based in the central
In addition, Russian early-warning systems can track
According to congressional staff, the boost-glide approach should reduce concerns about Russian misperceptions but not necessarily doubts about the need for the system. There are still significant questions about what the weapon is for, against whom it would be used, and how many would be built and at what cost.
Systems Under Development
The Defense Department has not established an acquisition program for a specific boost-glide conventional-strike system, but is exploring three options: the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2 (HTV-2), the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon (AHW), and the Conventional Strike Missile (CSM). For fiscal year 2011, the Obama administration has requested $240 million for a conventional strike program that includes the three options; the Pentagon plans to spend approximately $2 billion between 2011 and 2016 for research and development of these systems.
As part of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Falcon program, the Pentagon has been developing two HTV-2s at a cost of $308 million from fiscal year 2003 through 2011. The first flight test took place from Vandenberg in April 2010, and “significant hypersonic flight data was captured,” although the HTV-2 signal was lost only nine minutes into flight, according to the report. The second test is planned for this fiscal year, to be launched from Vandenberg, the report says. The fiscal year ends Sept. 30.
The AHW technology experiment is being run by the U.S. Army Space and Missile Defense Command and Army Forces Strategic Command. It uses a hypersonic glide body that will have an initial flight test at the Kauai Test Facility in
The U.S. Air Force Space and
“New” Strategic Arms?
Although boost-glide systems would not count as existing strategic weapons under New START, they could qualify as “new” kinds of strategic offensive arms, according to an October 2010 report by the Congressional Research Service. As a result,
The Russian legislature disagrees. According to
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