"No one can solve this problem alone, but together we can change things for the better." 

– Setsuko Thurlow
Hiroshima Survivor
June 6, 2016
Panel Backs Long-Range Conventional Missile

Wade Boese

An expert panel commissioned by Congress advocated Aug. 15 that the United States embark expeditiously on a controversial initiative to substitute conventional projectiles for existing nuclear warheads on some submarine-based missiles. The experts reasoned that the proposal, despite some shortcomings, provides the most viable short-term alternative to using nuclear weapons to counter possible short-notice threats worldwide.

The Bush administration in 2001 called for enhancing long-range conventional strike capabilities and advanced its first specific proposal toward that end in the 2006 Quadrennial Defense Review. That plan involved converting two dozen nuclear-armed Trident II (D-5) submarine-launched ballistic missiles to carry conventional warheads. A pair of those converted missiles would then be installed alongside 22 nuclear-armed missiles on each of the 12 deployed ballistic-missile submarines.

Worrying that such mixed submarine loads might lead to an inadvertent nuclear conflict with Russia if it mistakes a U.S. conventional launch as a surprise nuclear attack, U.S. lawmakers have steered funding away from the Trident plan to other so-called prompt global strike concepts. (See ACT, January/February 2008. ) The proposed class of weapons is supposed to destroy targets located almost anywhere around the world in less than an hour.

Yet, the 18-member panel, convened early last year to study prompt global strike options, implied in its final report that lawmakers had been wrong to veer from the Trident plan and urged progress toward deployment "as quickly as possible." Convened by the National Research Council, an agency of the National Academy of Sciences, the panel gave its initial blessing to the Trident program in a May 2007 interim report. (See ACT, June 2007. ) Chaired by Albert Carnesale, who participated in U.S. arms control negotiations with the Soviet Union in the 1970s, the panel also included General Eugene Habiger, a former head of Strategic Command; John Foster, a former director of the Lawrence Livermore nuclear weapons laboratory; and Walter Slocombe, a former undersecretary of defense for policy.

The experts' final report states that conventional prompt global strike systems could be valuable in killing terrorists, eliminating unconventional weapons shipments or depots, or preempting attacks against the United States, its allies, or its assets, such as satellites. The panel assessed that any such mission would likely entail the use of 10 or fewer strike systems.

Converted Tridents, according to the panel, would be the "only credible near-term" option, given the technical challenges in developing alternatives, such as hypersonic glide vehicles, which at the earliest might be available by 2015. The panel recommended, however, continuing research into systems and technologies other than converting Tridents.

The experts maintained that the principal problem associated with converted Tridents, the "ambiguity" dilemma, had been "overstated and can be substantially mitigated." They first observed that the potential for misunderstandings applied "to varying degrees" to all potential conventional prompt global strike systems, not just submarine-based missiles, due to their inherent capability to deliver nuclear warheads.

The panel further sought to downplay the danger of misinterpretation by noting that it would be confined over the next several years to Russia because it is the only country capable of detecting a missile launch at sea. In the event that Russia, or perhaps China at a later date, spotted a conventional Trident launch, the experts disputed that there would be a rush to retaliate, claiming that the observing country would not likely think the United States was starting a nuclear war with a single missile or handful of missiles.

Moreover, ambiguity risks could be reduced, the panel reported, through transparency measures, such as video monitoring of the systems or missile launch notifications. Another suggested measure to ease foreign concerns was U.S. openness about its use doctrines.

Still, the experts implied that the United States must live with some chance of miscalculations. They stated, "[T]he benefits of possessing a limited [conventional prompt global strike] capability...outweigh the risks associated with nuclear ambiguity."

The panel also dismissed other anxieties identified with the conventional Trident plan. It favorably described Navy plans to prevent submarine crews from misfiring nuclear-armed missiles when intending to launch their conventional counterparts. It discounted fears that a conventional Trident program might stoke other countries' ballistic missile programs. All told, the panel concluded that the proposal, "as currently envisioned, is sufficiently small in scale to make it unlikely that international reactions would be of strategic significance."

Notwithstanding the panel's endorsement of long-range conventional strike systems, the experts highlighted potential limitations to their future effectiveness. A "sizable challenge," the panel warned, is improving delivery system accuracy to within a "few meters" of an intended target; existing ballistic missiles do not require such precision because of the immense destructive power of their nuclear payloads.

The accuracy of the proposed conventional Trident "has not been demonstrated," reported the panel. It further revealed that the re-entry vehicle intended to carry the proposed conventional warhead atop the Trident lacks the maneuverability to enable attacks against "targets in many urban areas and mountainous regions."

Getting a warhead on target, the panel noted, also involves good intelligence and other "critical" enablers. The Government Accountability Office (GAO) found those capabilities lacking earlier this year. In an April report submitted to Congress, the GAO cited Pentagon officials as stating that "current intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and command and control capabilities generally do not provide the persistent coverage, processing and sharing of information, and rapid planning required for compressed global strike time frames." That report also indicated that the Pentagon should better coordinate its various prompt global strike-related projects and programs, 135 by the GAO's count. (See ACT, June 2008. )

Congress this year has yet to finalize its two annual bills on the Pentagon's proposed fiscal year 2009 budget, which includes a $117.6 million request for the Prompt Global Strike program administered by the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology, and Logistics. That request does not entail specific funding for the conventional Trident system. Whether the recent reports might influence lawmakers to concentrate spending on a few particular projects, including a revival of the conventional Trident, remains uncertain at this time.