The Obama administration is poised to take up one of the more dangerous and hare-brained schemes of the Rumsfeld-era Pentagon. The New York Times is reporting that the Defense Department is once again looking to equip intercontinental ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. The missiles could then, in theory, destroy fleeing targets a half a world away — a no-notice “bolt from the blue,” striking in a matter of hours. There’s just one teeny-tiny problem: the launches could very well start World War III.
Over and over again, the Bush administration tried to push the idea of these conventional ICBMs. Over and over again, Congress refused to provide the funds for it. The reason was pretty simple: those anti-terror missiles look and fly exactly like the nuclear missiles we’d launch at Russia or China, in the event of Armageddon. “For many minutes during their flight patterns, these missiles might appear to be headed towards targets in these nations,” a congressional study notes. That could have world-changing consequences. “The launch of such a missile,” then-Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a state of the nation address after the announcement of the Bush-era plan, “could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.”
The Pentagon mumbled all kinds of assurances that Beijing or Moscow would never, ever, never misinterpret one kind of ICBM for the other. But the core of their argument essentially came down to this: Trust us, Vlad Putin! That ballistic missile we just launched in your direction isn’t nuclear. We swear!
Yeah, I’m really not sure that changing to an atmospheric quasi-ballistic missile from SLBMs really helps. For one, the shift would somewhat reduce the promptness of the global strike (although probably not by much). More importantly, it doesn’t really solve the dilemma. If Putin/Medvedev/Hu/Whomever are inclined to worry that a detected launch was the prelude to an all-out nuclear attack, they’ll likely not be reassured by the news that it comes from some “special” location in the US. If the US decided to launch a preventive nuclear assault on Russia or China, wouldn’t we initiate the attack in the most deceptive way possible?
This isn’t to say that we should eschew research of any weapon that can decrease the time between order and KABOOM. Questions of strategic stability, however, need to be taken very seriously. How willing would we be to use these weapons in a war over the Taiwan Straits? In response to another Russia-Georgia War? Or, perhaps even more disconcerting, what if we decided we needed to kill Osama Bin Laden with 30 minutes notice during the midst of a Russia-Georgia War that we were otherwise uninterested in?