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Prompt Global Strike: Still Not Actually Dead. Kind of Alive, in Fact

[ 15 ] April 23, 2010 |

Noah Shachtman notices what I noticed two weeks ago:

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?

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Comments (15)

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  1. rea says:

    And what is the bloody point? Are we going to expend 20 ICBMs on a cave in Afghanistan? Are there not simpler, cheaper, mroe accurate ways to do these things?

  2. Jon says:

    These missiles have another, IMHO more important side. Like ICBMs, their development has alot of civilian possibilities.

    Simulations suggest they could be the first really practical spaceplanes, using waverider tech, only now practical due to high-speed computer simulations.

    The Shuttle’s cost got out of control because they didn’t realize how hard and expensive keeping ultrafast planes from burning up in atmosphere would be; Shuttle should’ve been done as an exploratory X-project before committing the US’ manned space future to it. Well, you’ve gotta wonder if a waverider ramjet shuttle and suborbital planes are possibilities now.

    I just hope the President’s been briefed on said other possibilities.

  3. Tom Maguire says:

    As a bonus worry, right now Russia has the surveillance capability to detect a launch and track the missile(s).

    But by the time these are available (roughly 2020) Iran, North Korea and others might have something they consider useful for monitoring US launches.

    In which case, we will have put NoKo and Iran in a “launch on warning” mode, since one or two missiles really might eliminate their entire arsenal.

    What is our strategy – crazy countries won’t do anything crazy?

    This weapon will never be deployed, but every weapon system creates a constituency. My guess is that Obama figures it is easier to toss another $250 million at it for this year (and pose as tough on defense, or something) and kill it later.

  4. Some Guy says:

    I’m reminded of the Hang Glider theory from Kung Fu Monkey.

    Isn’t the speed of an order-to-launch rather dependent on pre-programmed coordinates? How are they going to get around having to input new directives with accuracy and expediency?

    I guess the idea is to have air strike capability in areas with no close air bases or carrier-friendly waters near by, but it still smacks of a $1000 solution to a $5 problem.

  5. DocAmazing says:

    Isn’t this kind of distant-strike capacity what we urinated away all that money on cruise missile to achieve?

  6. Jonathan says:

    This is ironic for me. I’ve just been reading about Able Archer 83 and how it almost ended the world the day I was born. The competence of a military hierarchy seems to be inversely proportional to it’s funds after a certain point.

  7. [...] Prompt Global Strike: Still Not Actually Dead. Kind of Alive, in … [...]

  8. T. Greer says:

    A couple of thoughts on this one.

    It struck me as bat-crap crazy when Asia Times first broke the news a few months ago, but this NYT piece has comforted me quite a bit. I guess how much it comforts anybody will be based on how much power you believe norms hold in international relations – if we officially establish that Prompt Global Strike missiles are only conventionally armed, and will never carry nuclear warheads, and then establish a communication line between Washington and Beijing/Moscow to notify those two capitals in advance a launch, I doubt there would be a risk of nuclear escalation.

    The one concern I have with C-PGS is of a different nature. As a commentator on Armed Chair Generalist’s piece on the subject wrote a few months ago:

    Prompt Global Strike is another weapon in search of a mission. Ask any of its proponents what it’s going to be used for and you are sure to get an eye-rolling Hollywood movie plot involving terrorists, nuclear weapons, and complete isolation from US military forces (currently deployed in 120 countries worldwide!) or those of our well-heeled and well-distributed allies.

    Here’s what PGS is REALLY good for: the proliferation of missile technology. Right now, the Missile Technology Control Regime throws up a barrier to entry for second-tier states that wish to develop ICBMs. Iran and North Korea spend a lot of time and money on ICBM development because they have nuclear aspirations. Hardly any other Third World nations do because there’s no good reason to. Missiles that can actually hit anything in particular four or five thousand miles away are hugely expensive to develop and you can’t use them because launching ICBMs has been one of those taboos that have lingered since the Cold War. You don’t use ICBMs so there’s no “misunderstanding.”

    The US wants to change all that. Our strategic brain trust wants to domesticate ICBMs and treat them as if they were just another form of artillery. Thing is, every nation has a fundamental right to develop any weapon that is likely to be used against it. If conventional ICBMs become mainstreamed, no one will be able to stay out of the resulting arms race. MTCR or no, missile technology is even more accessible than nuclear technology. And Third World states would not hesitate to cooperate and trade what they have learned, speeding up development and lowering costs. THEY didn’t sign the MTCR, after all.

    At that point, lots of countries will have the ability to directly attack the US or Europe with a “conventional” weapon. That might be more fair, but it’s not remotely in US interests to accelerate the process. Or start it. We we have spent enormous fortunes acquiring a global military reach that no other nation can aspire to. In a rational America, one where people actually thought through the consequences of their actions, we would understand that it is stupid for us to open a door that would allow almost any regional power to have the same capability.

    The US, as the leading power, sets the tone and has enormous influence on what is acceptable and what is not. It is NOT in our interest for conventional ICBMs to be shown and traded at global arms expos. But that’s where this leads.

  9. [...] Our pal Robert Farley raised these same concerns weeks ago, when the Nuclear Posture Review came out (and I was still on full-time daddy [...]

  10. [...] On Friday I appeared briefly on the Alyona Show to discuss Prompt Global Strike: [...]

  11. [...] on conventional ICBMs to do the job, and risking a nuclear showdown, is just plain crazy. More Farley: Yeah, I’m really not sure that changing to an atmospheric quasi-ballistic missile from SLBMs [...]

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  14. [...] Our pal Robert Farley raised these same concerns weeks ago, when the Nuclear Posture Review came out (and I was still on full-time daddy [...]

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