Pentagon Seeks Nonnuclear Tip for Sub Missiles


Richard Moore

Original source URL:

May 29, 2006

Pentagon Seeks Nonnuclear Tip for Sub Missiles

WASHINGTON, May 28 ‹ The Pentagon is pressing Congress to approve the 
development of a new weapon that would enable the United States to carry out 
nonnuclear missile strikes against distant targets within an hour.

The proposal has set off a complex debate about whether this program for 
strengthening the military's conventional capacity could increase the risks of 
accidental nuclear confrontation.

The Pentagon plan calls for deploying a new nonnuclear warhead atop the 
submarine-launched Trident II missile that could be used to attack terrorist 
camps, enemy missile sites, suspected caches of biological, chemical or nuclear 
weapons and other potentially urgent threats, military officials say.

If fielded, it would be the only nonnuclear weapon designed for rapid strikes 
against targets thousands of miles away and would add to the United States' 
options when considering a pre-emptive attack.

Gen. James E. Cartwright, the chief of the United States Strategic Command, said
the system would enhance the Pentagon's ability to "pre-empt conventionally" and
precisely while limiting the "collateral damage." The program would cost an 
estimated half a billion dollars over five years, and the Pentagon is seeking 
$127 million in its current spending request to Congress to begin work.

But the plan has run into resistance from lawmakers who are concerned that it 
may increase the risk of an accidental nuclear confrontation. The Trident II 
missile that would be used for the attacks is a system that has long been 
equipped with a nuclear payload. Indeed, both nonnuclear and nuclear-tipped 
variants of the Trident II missile would be loaded on the same submarines under 
the Pentagon plan.

"There is great concern this could be destabilizing in terms of deterrence and 
nuclear policy," said Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, who serves on
the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It would be hard to determine if a missile
coming out a Trident submarine is conventional or nuclear."

Reflecting the worry that Russia and other nations might misinterpret the launch
of a nonnuclear Trident as the opening salvo in a nuclear barrage, lawmakers 
have insisted that the Bush administration present a plan to minimize that risk 
before the new weapon is manufactured and deployed.

The program to develop a conventional version of the Trident II missile was 
foreshadowed in the Nuclear Posture Review, a classified study the Pentagon 
carried out in 2001. The study urged that nonnuclear systems be added to the 
existing triad of long-range nuclear air, land and sea forces ‹ a concept that 
the military nicknamed "Global Strike."

The Strategic Command, which oversees the long-range nuclear weapons in the 
United States arsenal, was given the responsibility to figure out a way to 
develop such a capability. In 2004, General Cartwright, a Marine officer, was 
appointed to head the command.

In looking for a new weapon, General Cartwright said, his goal was a nonnuclear 
system that could respond to a threat in no more than an hour, including the 
time that would be needed to secure the president's authorization to attack.

"We have laid out in the construct the idea of an hour," General Cartwright said
in an interview.

Neither bombers nor cruise missiles met General Cartwright's requirement because
he reasoned that the threat might emerge in a region where the United States 
lacked bases or had few or no forces. It can take days for the United States to 
move aircraft and ships into a crisis zone and position them to strike. Bombers 
can attack remote targets from the United States or bases abroad, but it takes 
many hours to conduct such a mission.

So the Strategic Command developed a plan to fit conventional warheads on 
existing Trident II ballistic missiles. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has
wholeheartedly supported the idea, and the Pentagon wants to field the system in
two years.

In justifying the program to lawmakers, General Cartwright outlined a number of 
potential situations. "The argument for doing it is that there are instances, 
fairly rare, when time is so critical that if you can't strike in an hour or so 
you are going to miss that opportunity," said Representative Roscoe G. Bartlett,
the Maryland Republican who is chairman of the House Armed Services Subcommittee
on Projection Forces and who is still weighing whether to support the plan.

One possible situation, Mr. Bartlett said, would be "people putting together 
some terrorist weapon, and while they are putting it together we can take it 
out, and if we miss that opportunity it may show up on the streets of New York 
City or Washington, D.C."

Still another might involve the need to destroy an enemy missile equipped with a
chemical, biological or nuclear warhead before an adversary can launch it at the
United States or its allies. Another would be fresh intelligence about a meeting
of terrorists.

Given the considerable American military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and South
Korea, some critics say the circumstances in which a target may be beyond the 
reach of American warplanes or armed Predator drones are few indeed. Acquiring 
the sort of precise intelligence that would give the president enough confidence
to order the launch of a ballistic missile within an hour might also be a 
daunting proposition.

General Cartwright said that the weapon would give the president an option to 
respond quickly to the sort of immediate dangers that are most likely to become 
more common in the 21st century without taking the drastic step of resorting to 
a nuclear-armed ballistic missile.

A major issue, however, is whether the Pentagon will prepare for new threats at 
the risk of aggravating old nuclear risks. Under the Pentagon plan, each Trident
submarine would carry two of the nonnuclear Trident II missiles along with 22 
nuclear-armed Trident missiles. Each of the nonnuclear missiles would carry four
nonexplosive warheads. Two types of warheads would be developed. One type would 
be a metal slug that would land with such tremendous force it could smash a 
building. The other type of warhead would be a flechette bomb, which would 
disperse tungsten rods to destroy vehicles and less well-protected targets over 
a broader area.

As currently configured, the weapon would not have the capability to destroy 
facilities that are buried deeply underground. The system would use satellite 
tracking to improve its accuracy. General Cartwright asserted that a test 
demonstrated that a nonnuclear version of the missile could fly thousands of 
miles and deliver its payload just five yards away from its target.

Two former defense secretaries, James R. Schlesinger and Howard Brown, weighed 
in with an op-ed article last week in The Washington Post, urging the Congress 
to support the system.

The worry about Russia centers on whether that country could distinguish the 
launch of a Trident II from a nuclear strike, especially since its early warning
network has deteriorated since the collapse of the Soviet Union. There is also 
some concern about China, which has a meager capability to detect incoming 
ballistic missiles.

"For nations like China that have a developing capability and are not totally 
blind but can see just a little, what would you see?" Mr. Bartlett asked. "We 
need to be cognizant of the potential for people to misunderstand what they 
would see."

The Senate Armed Services Committee has insisted that the administration report 
on how it would mitigate such risks before money can be spent to manufacture or 
deploy the missiles.

In a parallel move, the House Armed Services Committee has asked Mr. Rumsfeld to
report on discussions that have been held with other nations on this issue and 
to provide a detailed explanation of how the weapons would be used. The House 
committee also sought to slow the program by cutting most of the funds sought 
for the research and development of the new warhead.

General Cartwright said a number of measures could be taken to reduce the risk 
of miscalculation. One step would be to notify Russia and other nations when the
United States launched a conventional Trident II missile. Another, he said, 
would be allowing foreign nations to monitor tests of the system.

"We are going to put a target area in the ocean so people can actually see what 
it looks like when it hits the earth and don't confuse this with a mushroom 
cloud," he said.

General Cartwright said the United States was examining whether the missile 
could be launched from parts of the ocean that would not put the missile on a 
trajectory toward Russian territory. The United States has also pushed for an 
American-Russian center where early warning data could be shared. But the talks 
over that proposal are bogged down.

Arms control experts are divided over the wisdom of the plan. Steve Andreasen, a
former defense specialist for the National Security Council, said the program 
would undermine American security by eliminating the taboo about the use of 
long-range missiles and diverting funds from other pressing defense needs.

"Long-range ballistic missiles have never been used in combat in 50 years," Mr. 
Andreasen said. "Once the U.S. starts signaling that it views these missiles as 
no different than any other weapon, other nations will adopt the same logic."

Bruce Blair, the president of the World Security Institute and a former 
Minuteman missile launch control officer, said the weapon would continue a 
welcome trend toward substituting conventional weapons for nuclear systems, 
assuming that adequate safeguards can be worked out to avoid the risk of 
inadvertent nuclear confrontation.

"They make a lot more sense than 14 subs loaded to the gills with nuclear-armed 
Trident missiles in this day and age," Mr. Blair said.

The Russians, for their part, seem to have little interest in facilitating 
Congressional approval of a new American weapons system. During his recent trip 
to Russia, General Cartwright sought to explain the rationale for program to 
Gen. Yuri Baluyevski, the chief of the Russian General Staff.

"The things that I tried to talk to him about were the common issues that we 
face ‹ the fact that terrorists and organizations are getting capabilities that 
are significant and are likely to stay on a trend that could be associated with 
weapons of mass destruction," General Cartwright said.

After that discussion, General Baluyevski continued to stir up opposition to the
plan. "As our American colleagues often tell us, these missiles could be used to
kill bin Laden," he told reporters earlier this month. "This could be a costly 
move which not only won't guarantee his destruction but could provoke an 
irreversible response from a nuclear-armed state which can't determine what 
warhead is fitted on the missile."

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company

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