Picture a grim scenario: U.S. intelligence learns that terrorists in a remote location are preparing an attack against the United States . The window of opportunity to react is a few hours at most, and no U.S. air, ground, or sea forces are close enough to act. The only current options, according to Pentagon officials, are to do nothing or fire a nuclear-armed, long-range ballistic missile.
The commander in charge of deployed U.S. nuclear weapons, Strategic Command chief General James Cartwright, says neither option is attractive. He wants another alternative: long-range ballistic missiles carrying conventional warheads.
Lawmakers last year were largely unconvinced of the wisdom of such a step, however, fearing particularly that Russia might mistake the launch of a conventional ballistic missile for a surprise nuclear attack requiring instant retaliation. They trimmed funding for the project from $127 million to $25 million and called for further study of the concept. (See ACT, November 2006.)
The studies are unfinished, but Cartwright and the Pentagon are back this year, asking Congress for $175 million to proceed with the project as part of the fiscal year 2008 budget request. The initial phase calls for substituting conventional warheads for nuclear warheads on two submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) for each of the dozen deployed U.S. ballistic missile submarines. The boats would continue to carry 22 nuclear-armed SLBMs apiece.
Testifying March 8 before the House Armed Services Strategic Forces Subcommittee, Cartwright said the Pentagon still needed a way to hit targets worldwide with a conventional warhead in under an hour. Surveying both offensive and defensive military assets, Cartwright asserted that “where we have a hole…is in the prompt global strike side of the equation.” This void could be filled in two years with the SLBM conversion, according to Strategic Command.
In his prepared remarks, Cartwright noted that “use of a nuclear weapon system in prompt response may be no choice at all.” Cartwright later testified that something “below the nuclear threshold” was required for “fleeting, high-value, high-regret factor-type threats.”
Legislators remain wary. Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), the subcommittee chair, told Cartwright that prompt global strike is a “powerful concept, but there are a number of important questions that need to be answered before moving forward with any particular program.”
Aside from the worry that Russia and, perhaps someday, China might misinterpret a U.S. conventional missile launch as nuclear, some analysts and congressional aides have expressed other concerns. For example, they note that a launch order would be heavily reliant on intelligence, which can be limited or faulty, as demonstrated by the incorrect allegations about Iraqi unconventional weapons. In particular, the skeptics dread that the possibility of error could be magnified by the abbreviated timeline in which military and political leaders might need to make a decision. They also fear that providing a new use for ballistic missiles might enhance their perceived utility at a time that the United States has been seeking to stop their spread.
Congress has tasked the National Academy of Sciences to evaluate the need for a prompt global strike capability and how best to achieve it in varying time frames: one to two years, three to five years, and more than five years. The academy's Naval Studies Board initiated the 15-month, $5 million study earlier this year. Lawmakers had requested a preliminary report by March 15, but one has yet to be submitted.
The Pentagon is exploring other prompt strike capabilities aside from converting SLBMs, but they are longer-term possibilities. Cartwright noted that Air Force Space Command is developing a long-range ballistic missile option for launch from the United States .Lt. Col. Randi Steffy, chief of operations for U.S. Strategic Command public affairs, told Arms Control Today in a Feb. 21 e-mail that the SLBM conversion is “only the first step in a larger plan for prompt global strike.” Steffy added that the command supports the development of such capabilities “in whatever form is deemed appropriate by Congress.”