Early this year, the Pentagon formally unveiled a plan to equip some of the Navy’s submarine-launched Trident D-5 nuclear missiles with conventional warheads. These conventionally armed, long-range ballistic missiles would be deployed under the rubric of the Pentagon’s Prompt Global Strike program, which seeks to give the president the capability to attack terrorists, weapons of mass destruction, or other urgent targets worldwide within 60 minutes using conventional weapons.
Three months after the plan was unveiled, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have signaled their unease with the conventional Trident program, raising serious questions about the program’s justification and cost as well as its potential to fuel the proliferation of ballistic missiles capable of carrying either nuclear or conventional warheads. The conventional Trident also has not flown unnoticed across the radarscope of Vladimir Putin. The Russian president stated in his May state of the nation address that the launch of conventional ballistic missiles could provoke a full-scale nuclear counterattack. Given these congressional and Russian concerns, along with a longer list of practical, policy, political, and diplomatic issues, do the conventional Trident program’s perceived benefits for U.S. and global security outweigh its potential costs?
Motive and Means
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the rationale for deploying thousands of nuclear weapons on long-range ballistic missiles ready to fire within minutes has evaporated. Moreover, nuclear weapons have little if any relevance to the “global war on terrorism.” Terrorists are unlikely to be deterred by fear of a U.S. nuclear attack, and the president is unlikely to order one.
Yet, although the motives for maintaining our current nuclear posture continue to decline, the rationale for enhancing the United States’ capability to conduct precision conventional strikes in near real time appears increasingly compelling in an age where pre-emption of rogue states or terrorists armed with nuclear, biological, or chemical arms remains the declared centerpiece of the national security strategy of the United States.
Today, Washington has the means to deliver precision conventional strikes with a variety of delivery platforms and munitions, including precision-guided bombs and cruise missiles carried on unmanned aerial vehicles, submarines, and strategic and tactical aircraft. These systems are limited by where they are based or can patrol, the range of the delivery platforms and the munitions, and the time it would take to strike a given target, which could be hours or even days.
The limitations of these existing platforms and munitions to execute a prompt, precise, conventional strike against mobile, terrorist-related targets, particularly if one assumes little warning with no U.S. forward-deployed forces, has fueled the demand for a new conventional capability. Today, the only weapons system with the ability to execute a strike within 60 minutes anywhere on the globe is an ICBM deployed at sea or on land. Hence, the Pentagon’s proposal to replace the nuclear warheads on two of the Trident D-5 missiles on every deployed strategic submarine with a new type of conventional warhead, i.e., a metal slug or flechette bomb designed to be effective against “soft” targets (e.g., exposed personnel, vehicles, buildings, missiles, ships, and aircraft). In addition, the administration has previously expressed interest in placing conventional warheads on land-based long-range ballistic missiles, although the Pentagon is not requesting funds for land-based systems in the fiscal year 2007 defense budget.
Finally, although the Pentagon has been careful up to this point not to state or imply any policy linkage between the deployment of conventional long-range ballistic missiles and reductions in deployed nuclear forces (indeed, some outside advocates have argued that additional nuclear warheads would be added to keep the number of deployed nuclear warheads constant), the addition of precise, prompt conventional warheads deployed on long-range ballistic missiles might obviate the need to use nuclear weapons against some subset of targets contained in the U.S. plan for conducting nuclear strike missions. In theory, this could clear the way for further cuts in deployed nuclear forces.
On the surface, the motive for and means of developing a new strategic conventional weapons capability appear relatively straightforward. At its core, the argument rests on the requirement for providing the president with as many options as possible for striking terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction and the presumed advantage of using long-range ballistic missiles—their unique speed and stealth and their independence from foreign bases and airspace—to get the job done. Lurking just beneath the surface, however, are a series of practical, policy, political, and diplomatic issues that must be carefully weighed in deciding whether making long-range ballistic missiles more “usable” weapons in the global war on terrorism will increase or diminish U.S. and global security.
There are a number of practical challenges involved in developing the capability to employ long-range ballistic missiles as strategic conventional weapons. Some are on the road to resolution, and none may prove insurmountable alone. Yet, together they may inhibit if not preclude the effective use of sea- and land-based ballistic missiles as strategic conventional strike platforms.
In order for long-range ballistic missiles to be able to destroy targets with a conventional warhead, missile accuracy must be improved. This will require adapting for long-range missiles and warheads advanced guidance and targeting technologies that over the past decade have given tactical munitions great improvements in accuracy.
The use of long-range ballistic missiles as strategic conventional weapons requires the intelligence community to promptly and precisely identify time-urgent, high-value targets with high confidence to the National Command Authority. Just looking back over the past decade or so, although there have been some successes in gathering blue-chip intelligence of this sort—most recently, the success in tracking down a leading al Qaeda terrorist in Iraq, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi—there are a number of public examples of just how difficult this is.
For instance, the United States and many other states were confident there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq before the U.S.-led March 2003 invasion, but there were not. The United States tried unsuccessfully to locate Saddam Hussein at the outset of the war, but even after U.S. troops occupied the country, it took eight months to find Hussein (and three years to find al-Zarqawi). Since 2001, the most intense manhunt in international history has failed to locate Osama bin Laden. In 1999 the United States insisted on inspecting a suspected North Korean nuclear site at Kumchang-ni and found nothing. In 1993 the United States identified a Chinese freighter, the Yin He, for inspection, believing it was carrying precursors for chemical weapons. Again, nothing was found.
The kinds of targets that have been identified for conventional long-range ballistic missiles are, in most cases, extremely mobile (e.g., personnel, trucks, etc.). Even within the flight time of a long-range ballistic missile, they might move outside the very limited lethal radius of a conventional missile warhead before it arrives. This places an even heavier burden on missile accuracy and intelligence.
Command and Control
Executing prompt strategic conventional strikes will also require a nimble system of command and control, able to support a decision to launch a ballistic missile within minutes, similar to that now in place for the use of nuclear arms, that is, assuming that the policy and political issues discussed later in this article preclude delegating this authority.
Such a system already exists for nuclear use, but it is extremely demanding both for the military and civilians in the chain of command. Moreover, both conventional and nuclear variants of the Trident missile will be loaded on the same submarine, placing an additional burden on the system to ensure that an order to launch a conventional missile does not result in a mistaken nuclear launch.
Land- and sea-based long-range ballistic missiles will drop missile stages on their flight paths, and there is the possibility of a missile going off course. Although this problem may be more manageable for sea-based missiles because much of their flight path will take place over water, at a minimum the possibility of falling debris or a wayward missile could generate public concern. It might also present a real threat to public safety and property in the United States and other states depending on the missile’s launch point and trajectory.
Relative to other weapon systems, long-range ballistic missiles are expensive assets for delivering small conventional payloads. The Pentagon has said it plans to spend $503 million over the next five years on the conventional Trident program. This figure does not include the cost of buying new missiles, which could add substantially to the cost.
Since their initial deployment by the United States and the Soviet Union in the 1950s, land- and sea-based long-range (greater than 5,500 kilometers) ballistic missiles have been uniquely associated with nuclear weapons. Over the past 50 years, a long-range ballistic missile has never been used in combat by any of the five states that now possess them: China, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States.
Moreover, the United States has led an international campaign opposing the development, testing, and deployment of ballistic missiles by other states in every region of the globe, arguing that ballistic missiles, because of their short time to target and destructive force, provide a first-strike capability and are thus inherently destabilizing. In this context, the development, deployment, and potential use of long-range ballistic missiles as strategic conventional weapons raises a number of policy-related concerns and questions.
Other states that now have long-range ballistic missiles, in particular Russia and China, could adopt our rationale and follow our lead. They could seek to develop the capability to strike with conventional long-range ballistic missiles their own set of “urgent targets,” adapting the notion of Prompt Global Strike to fit their own perceived national interest. Whether and how this might threaten U.S. security interests is somewhat of a question mark, although one can certainly envision scenarios where the risk of conflict involving long-range ballistic missiles would increase.
New Deployments by States
U.S. moves might also affect other states, which over the next decade or so may have the capability to develop, test, and deploy long-range ballistic missiles (e.g., India, Iran, North Korea, and Pakistan). They could publicly adopt our rationale for proceeding with “conventional” long-range ballistic missiles to fend off international pressure to restrict their own long-range missile programs. Yet, these missiles could and likely would, at least in the near term, serve as delivery platforms for nuclear weapons, given the challenge of developing an effective conventional capability. Thus, we could substantially undercut both our missile and nuclear nonproliferation policies by proceeding with the deployment of conventional long-range ballistic missiles.
Lowering the Threshold for Use
Deployment of conventional warheads on U.S. long-range ballistic missiles would be perceived by many as lowering the threshold for use of these weapons. Indeed, the public rationale for proceeding with conventional Trident missiles is to enhance the Pentagon’s ability to “pre-empt conventionally” and provide the president with an option to “respond quickly” with conventional arms.
Moreover, the deployment of conventional long-range ballistic missiles in Russia, China, and perhaps other states could happen soon after these states developed the necessary technology. It is difficult not to conclude that the probability of these weapons being used would increase, introducing a new and potentially destabilizing factor into the security calculations of a number of countries spread out over volatile regions of the globe.
Risk of Accidental, Mistaken, or Unauthorized Launch
A country with an early-warning system—currently only Russia—that detected the launch of a long-range ballistic missile might fear it was the target of a missile strike, particularly if the missile appeared headed toward or over it. Moreover, it could not know if the missile was armed with a nuclear or conventional warhead. In the absence of or even with advance warning, this could increase the risk of an accidental, mistaken, or unauthorized retaliatory launch.
To reduce the risks that a country might mistakenly perceive itself the target of a strategic conventional missile strike, a system of advance notification, perhaps aided by programmatic and operational transparency and confidence building, might be devised. This system could also be used to warn countries that might be at risk of falling missile debris. Such a system would need to provide immediate, assured, and credible warning to be effective, possibly a difficult standard to meet in a scenario involving an operational missile launch during a crisis.
The concept of establishing a joint warning center between the United States and Russia to exchange information on ballistic missile launches and early warning in real time is not new. Indeed, it was agreed to in principle by Presidents Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin in September 1998, and an agreement establishing a Joint Data Exchange Center in Moscow was signed at the June 2000 Moscow summit by Clinton and President Vladimir Putin. Six years after this agreement, the center has yet to become operational, in large part due to issues associated with taxes and liabilities that have bedeviled other joint U.S.-Russian cooperative endeavors.
The challenge of assuring another state that a conventional long-range ballistic missile detected by their early-warning systems or notified through a joint warning center was not a nuclear missile aimed at them differs depending on whether the conventional missile is launched from land or sea. A U.S. conventional land-based missile could be deployed at a new base used exclusively for conventional missiles and separated geographically from existing nuclear missile bases. In this scenario, Russian early-warning systems, assuming they had reliable coverage of the United States or they believed U.S. data provided via a joint warning center, could distinguish between a nuclear and conventional ballistic missile launch. In the case of a ballistic missile launched at sea, however, there does not appear to be any easy or easily believable way to distinguish between a nuclear or conventional missile launch because any missile originating from a U.S. submarine could be armed with a conventional or nuclear warhead.
Strongly linked to the practical and policy issues are a set of domestic and international political hurdles in the path of any decision to proceed with the development and deployment of conventional long-range ballistic missiles.
Congress Hits “Pause”
So far, Congress has reacted with caution to the Bush administration’s proposal to proceed with the conventional Trident missile. In their markup of the fiscal year 2007 defense authorization bill, both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees took action that would at least slow down the program while providing members with more information to base a decision next year on whether to proceed.
The House Armed Services Committee took the first step, reducing the Pentagon’s $127 million fiscal year 2007 request for conventional Trident missiles by $97 million. The House cut the entire $50 million requested for procurement and left only $30 million of the $77 million requested for research and development. In its report, the House panel noted its concern that “the development of this conventional missile capability for a submarine that has historically carried nuclear-armed ballistic missiles could cause a missile launch misinterpretation regarding which type of warhead a ballistic missile was carrying.”
The committee also noted its concern with the costs associated with a conventional Trident warhead, stating it was not clear what scenarios would call for its employment. To address these concerns, the committee requested a report from the secretary of defense on the status of discussions with other countries on the concern of misinterpretation of a conventional Trident missile strike for a nuclear attack, the proposed concept of operations detailing the sequence of events for employing this weapon, and an assessment of the cost-effectiveness of using this weapon against selected targets. The House passed the bill in May.
Although the Senate Armed Services Committee fully authorized the Bush administration’s $127 million request, it included a provision that would prohibit $95 million of the funds from being used until the secretary of defense, in consultation with the secretary of state, submits a report addressing a wide range of issues associated with the proposal. The provision would also require an analysis of international and treaty concerns, as well as a joint statement from the two departments “on how to ensure that the use of a conventional sea-launched ballistic missile will not result in an intentional, inadvertent, mistaken or accidental reciprocal or responsive launch of a nuclear strike by another country.” The remaining $32 million authorized in the bill can only be spent for research and development of technologies related to the conventional Trident program but not to support procurement or deployment. The full Senate passed the bill in June.
Separate from the defense authorization bill, actual spending for the conventional Trident program in fiscal year 2007 will be addressed in a must-pass defense appropriations bill later this year. To date, the appropriations bill passed by the House in June recommends only $30 million for the conventional Trident program in fiscal year 2007, consistent with the House-passed authorization bill. In committee, House appropriators also underscored their concerns that “the proposed schedule for this program is unrealistic and prejudges the outcome of internal planning and programming reviews, including the analysis of alternatives and the vetting and documentation of operational requirements,” and that “important strategic, international and operational considerations have not been fully addressed.
There is still the possibility of further action in Congress that could affect overall funding levels for fiscal year 2007, but it appears that the Bush administration’s request for conventional Trident missiles will not survive without a significant funding cut. Perhaps more certain is that Congress will insist on receiving significantly more information from the administration before it will release funds for fiscal year 2007 and that the information provided will be crucial in determining whether lawmakers ultimately agree to go forward with deployment.
Reaction From China, Russia, and Other States
Dating back to the Clinton administration, the Russian military has expressed concern that the United States would deploy conventional warheads on long-range ballistic missiles in concert with a national missile defense to enhance U.S. ability to conduct a disarming first strike of Russian strategic nuclear forces. Whether the Russian military still harbors this concern is not clear, but it may help to explain why Putin highlighted his concerns over conventional long-range ballistic missiles in his yearly address. Putin focused his remarks on the risk of a reciprocal or responsive launch to a U.S. conventional ballistic missile strike, noting that “the launch of such a missile…could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.” In a meeting the next day with reporters in Moscow, Kremlin Chief of Staff Sergei Sobyanin drove home Putin’s point, stating, “Imagine a rocket that can be fired from a submarine. A nuclear state might not be able to react adequately to the firing of such a rocket. There is nothing written on it to say what sort of warhead it is—whether conventional or nuclear. It seems to me to be an irresponsible decision.”
China may have even greater concerns than Russia over the strategic implications of U.S. conventional long-range ballistic missiles. It would take a relatively small number of precision conventional strike weapons to render ineffective China’s existing strategic nuclear deterrent of roughly two dozen ICBMs capable of reaching the United States, although the vulnerability of China’s strategic nuclear forces should decline with the deployment of road-mobile missiles over the next five years.
The administration will argue the conventional Trident program is not intended for nor would it be capable of countering the deterrent capability of Russian or Chinese nuclear forces. Nevertheless, both states may well oppose and react to what they may well perceive as the beginning of a far-reaching change in the strategic landscape.
Russia and China may be joined by many other states who would view a U.S. decision to deploy conventional long-range ballistic missiles, anchored in the controversial doctrine of pre-emption and preventive war, as another unilateral, destabilizing, and dangerous initiative where the United States adopts a posture of “do as we say, not as we do.”
The View From STRATCOM
The Bush administration has delegated the responsibility for convincing Congress to General James E. Cartwright, commander of the United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM). Cartwright has embraced the concept of Prompt Global Strike, and STRATCOM would play a central role in any strike involving long-range ballistic missiles, conventional or nuclear.
In an interview published in last month’s issue of Arms Control Today, Cartwright was asked to respond to some of the major issues raised so far in the debate over conventional Trident missiles. His answers were illuminating, both in terms of what was said and not said.
The concern that the launch of a conventional ballistic missile could trigger a nuclear response.
Cartwright indicated his hope that transparency and the Joint Data Exchange Center “are actually starting to work,” although he did not address whether any system of transparency and data exchange could provide reassurance that an operational missile launched from a submarine at sea heading for a terrorist target was conventional versus nuclear. He also sought to put the problem of “misinterpretation” of a ballistic missile launch in a less alarming context: “You always have to worry in war that your actions might be interpreted incorrectly. It does not matter whether you are dealing with an ICBM or an M-16 rifle,” noting that the problem of dual-purpose (nuclear and conventional) delivery systems had been managed in other contexts (e.g., artillery, cruise missiles, and bombers). Cartwright also indicated a certain degree of acquiescence to the problem of missile proliferation in other states, seeking to focus instead on ensuring that other countries that are starting to develop ballistic missiles enter into agreements with us to help build confidence. “If they are not going for mutual assured destruction, but limited action, make sure it is interpreted as limited action.”
The concern that conventional Trident might imbue ballistic missiles with more strategic value and undercut missile nonproliferation efforts.
Cartwright sought to dismiss any linkage between U.S. action and actions by other states, noting the United States had not built any new ballistic missiles for years. “Yet, what you see in the world is the proliferation of ballistic missiles,” he said. He also stated there was no intent to “increase the number” of ballistic missiles but rather to “create a diversity of effects that is more appropriate for the world that we are in and more controlling of escalation,” simply put, to make U.S. ballistic missiles more usable weapons.
According to Cartwright, “You have got to start to move to delivery vehicles that have global reach inside of the timelines of the regret factors that someone would deliver to you with a ballistic missile. [Prompt Global Strike] is really about if we have to reach globally quickly—and that is the new world we live in—then let’s have a more responsible effect at the other end.” He did not address whether making U.S. missiles more usable through a “diversity of effects” might prompt others to do the same.
Whether Prompt Global Strike represents a growing transition away from nuclear warheads for strategic missions.
Cartwright stated, “It certainly offers an alternative. Today, [our method of] prompt global strike is nuclear and that is where I am trying to change.” Yet, Cartwright made no mention of any existing or new commitment by the administration to proceed with further reductions in strategic nuclear forces beyond the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty or to adopt a policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, which might at least in theory help reassure states that an operational launch of a long-range ballistic missile was conventional, not nuclear.
U.S. Security Interests
After the conclusion of World War II, U.S. leaders had to decide whether to build more and more powerful nuclear weapons and whether to seek international controls on nuclear materials and arms. The choices made then—some without a great deal of deliberation—have shaped our security environment for the past 60 years. With the end of the Cold War, Congress and the American people have the opportunity to carefully consider U.S. security interests and how our actions might influence those interests and our future.
Although prioritizing U.S. interests is an ongoing task—one that is rightly subject to differing analysis, opinions, and values—most would agree on two core points. First, we must do everything possible to prevent the spread of nuclear, biological, and chemical arms and their means of delivery, including ballistic missiles. Second, we must protect the United States from terrorists.
It is against this backdrop that the issue of conventional long-range ballistic missiles must be viewed. To begin, unless one accepts Cartwright’s contention that what the United States does in the area of ballistic missiles has no impact on what others do, it is difficult to escape the conclusion that if the United States goes forward with the development and deployment of long-range conventional ballistic missiles, other countries will have an even greater rationale, rhetorical and real, to build more missiles and make them more usable. Moreover, these missiles deployed by other states could easily be used to carry nuclear weapons, even if they were claimed to be strictly conventional. Thus, the development and deployment of conventional long-range ballistic missiles in the United States may undercut the first of our core security interests: preventing the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and their means of delivery.
Second, although the use of lethal force against a terrorist threat involving weapons of mass destruction is a capability that the United States must have and use if necessary to prevent an attack, the notion that conventional long-range ballistic missiles are an indispensable silver bullet for our military deserves close scrutiny. In short, we know where rogue regimes are located, we know where “ungoverned” areas provide terrorist havens, and we are improving our existing and planned conventional capabilities to deal with these threats. Moreover, it is far from clear that using a conventional long-range ballistic missile would in practice be “quicker” than using other conventional assets, given challenges associated with identifying and locating targets, receiving authority to fire, and having submarines in position to shoot.
There may be other scenarios, for example, using U.S. long-range conventional ballistic missiles to pre-emptively strike North Korean ballistic missiles or China’s nuclear forces during a conflict over Taiwan. If North Korea were about to launch a nuclear missile at the United States, however, there would be more—much more—than conventional Trident missiles heading toward North Korea. A U.S. conventional ballistic missile attack against China’s nuclear forces would run a big risk of nuclear retaliation by Beijing.
We also need to look closely at the opportunity cost of the development, deployment, and potential use of long-range conventional ballistic missiles. The achievement of our core security interests, including preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction and protecting against terrorists, requires the judicious expenditure of U.S. resources. This is particularly true in the context of the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the Congressional Budget Office now estimates will cost $811 billion. Simply put, is it a wise investment to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on conventional long-range ballistic missiles compared with other urgent defense priorities such as global port security, military personnel, and threat reduction programs?
What of the risks? Is the niche capability that conventional Trident missiles might provide worth it if it leads to more countries with more ballistic missiles more willing to use them in their own pursuit of their security interests? Moreover, would any president take the risk of launching a conventional long-range ballistic missile against a terrorist target if there was even the smallest chance of a mistaken retaliatory launch directed at the United States, perhaps with a nuclear-tipped missile?
Up to this point, the answers and assurances that have been provided by U.S. officials with respect to a mistaken retaliatory launch have not been reassuring. For example, transparency relating to missile test launches or exercises would provide no reassurance regarding an operational launch of a Trident missile. Moreover, it is difficult to conclude that transparency and Joint Data Exchange are “starting to work,” as Cartwright claims, when there is no system of shared early warning of operational missile launches in place among the United States, Russia, and other states. Even if there was, it may not work or be credible. Moreover, the argument that we have years of experience with nuclear and conventional “dual-capable” systems as a palliative ignores the uniquely destabilizing and destructive characteristics of long-range ballistic missiles, in particular their ability to deliver nuclear payloads globally in near real time.
Finally, the issue of conventional Trident missiles embedded in the concept of Prompt Global Strike provides another opportunity to examine whether we are pursuing the right balance in defending the United States, in particular whether we are effectively utilizing all elements of U.S. power or relying too heavily on our military to win the global war on terrorism. Our strategy against terrorists armed with weapons of mass destruction must be more than just reducing the time to target our enemies. Indeed, the use of long-range conventional ballistic missiles in volatile regions of the globe might easily lead to greater instability rather than fewer terrorists, especially when factoring in the political fallout overseas from employing long-range ballistic missiles for the first time in combat. In this context, our continuing search for another first-use weapon to deal with the security challenges of the 21st century may in fact be a symptom of a much larger problem: the failure to better use other aspects of U.S. power—economic, political, diplomatic, and cultural—in our national security policy.
Congress has to its credit recognized that the development, deployment, and possible use of conventional long-range ballistic missiles raises serious issues that require more than just a cursory review. The debate over conventional Trident missiles looks as if it will continue into next year and perhaps beyond, and given the stakes, it is imperative that it should. With more information, analysis, and discussion, Congress and the American people will be better positioned to decide whether making long-range ballistic missiles more usable weapons makes strategic sense or represents strategic folly.
Steve Andreasen is a national security consultant and teaches at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs. From 1993 to 2001, he was director for defense policy and arms control on the National Security Council.
3. Wade Boese, “Joint Data Exchange Center on Hold,” Arms Control Today, June 2006, p. 8.
4. Miles A. Pomper, “Congress Challenges Global Strike Plan,” Arms Control Today, June 2006, pp. 41-42.