Pentagon Seeks Strategic Arms Shifts

Wade Boese

In a much-anticipated strategy document released Feb. 3, the Department of Defense disclosed plans to trim the number of land-based nuclear missiles and nuclear-capable bombers and convert some submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) to carry conventional munitions instead of nuclear warheads.

The Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) maps out the Pentagon leadership’s views on how U.S. military forces should be con figured to best address potential threats of the future. The last such review was released Sept. 30, 2001, and was soon followed by the December 2001 Nuclear Posture Review.

Both of these earlier documents called for moving the United States away from what was described as a deterrent strategy predicated on a peer adversary, such as the former Soviet Union, toward a posture that could deal with a more diverse range of threats, including nonstate actors. This concept was essentially distilled as reducing U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons while enhancing the Pentagon’s global strike capabilities, which pertain to attacking targets anywhere in the world on very short notice.

The most recent QDR claims that this shift “from a ‘one size fits all’ notion of deterrence toward more tailorable approaches” is taking place. As proof, it points to the retirement of the 10-warhead MX ICBM (see ACT, October 2005), the conversion of four ballistic missile submarines from nuclear duty to conventional missions, and the removal of hundreds of warheads from Minuteman III ICBMs. Although all of these moves originated in commitments made by earlier administrations, the Bush administration carried them out.

But in the latest QDR, the Bush adminis tration does set out some new strategic reductions. One initiative calls for lowering the number of deployed Minuteman III ICBMs from 500 to 450. This process is sched uled to start in fiscal year 2007, which begins Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30, 2007. An expected completion date has not yet been disclosed.

Minuteman III missiles are dispersed across three bases in Montana, North Dakota , and Wyoming. Lawmakers from these states reacted negatively to the plan and vowed to resist it, albeit with an air of resignation. Last fall, several Western lawmakers wrote letters and introduced legislation opposing the rumored move. (See ACT, November 2005.)

Senator Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) described the reductions Feb. 3 as “troubling,” while Rep. Dennis Rehberg (R-Mont.) labeled them “disconcerting.” Senator Conrad Burns (R- Mont.) stated the same day that the 50 missiles likely will be removed from his state’s Malmstrom Air Force Base, which is home to 200 of the ICBMs.

Rehberg suggested that perhaps the missiles would not be removed but would have their nuclear warheads replaced by con ventional ones. Although Air Force Space Command initiated a one-year study last October to look at the possibility of arm ing ICBMs with conventional warheads for “prompt global strike” missions, there has been no specific mention of equipping Minuteman IIIs in this fashion. Instead, a Defense Science Board task force recommended in February 2004 arming retired MX missiles in this manner.

Although the possibility of arming ICBMs with conventional warheads re mains unsettled, the QDR calls within two years for replacing some Trident D-5 SLBM nuclear warheads with precision-guided conventional warheads. Citing defense sources, Inside Missile Defense reported Feb. 1 that the plan involves 96 total conventional warheads spread out among 24 separate missiles aboard 12 different submarines. This would mean that these submarines would be carrying both conventional- and nuclear-armed missiles side by side.

Some critics worry that this approach could be dangerous to U.S. security. Steve Andreasen, who served as director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton, wrote Feb. 14 in The San Francisco Chronicle that Russia might misinterpret a conventional missile attack against another entity as a nuclear attack against itself and launch a “mistaken nuclear retaliatory” strike on the United States.

Chief of Naval Operations Michael Mul len told reporters Feb. 7 that confusion by others about what was being launched was “one of the challenges” facing this initiative. But he defended the concept as necessary for enhancing the U.S. global strike capability.

In addition, the QDR calls for cutting the force of 94 nuclear-capable B-52 bombers to 56 planes for cost savings that would be used toward outfitting “B-52s, B-1s, and B-2s to support global strike operations.” An Air Force spokesperson told Arms Control Today Feb. 24 that the remaining B-52s would retain their nuclear role.

The review envisions fielding a new “penetrating long-range strike capability” by 2018. Another Air Force spokesperson told Arms Control Today Feb. 21 that officials had not yet determined whether the new platform will be “manned, unmanned, or optional” but said that it is intended to be capable of carrying conventional and nuclear weapons.