Pentagon Defends Global-Strike Plan
Arms Control Today May 2006
A recently unveiled initiative to arm some U.S. submarine-launched
ballistic missiles (SLBMs) with conventional warheads has lawmakers
wondering whether dangerous misunderstandings and miscalculations
could arise with other nuclear powers, particularly Russia. Pentagon
officials downplay the possibility, contending that the benefits of
the new capability outweigh the potential risks.
The Department of Defense is asking Congress this year for $127
million to start replacing nuclear warheads with conventional warheads
on 24 Trident D-5 SLBMs. Within two years, two dozen missiles would be
equally dispersed among 12 separate submarines, which means each
vessel would carry 22 nuclear-armed and two conventional-armed
missiles. The conventional warheads, four per missile, would be either
a solid slug or a bundle of rods known as a flachette round, not
Although the Bush administration revealed its intentions to pursue
conventional global-strike capabilities in its December 2001 Nuclear
Posture Review, the SLBM option was first detailed in early February
as part of the Quadrennial Defense Review. (See ACT, March 2006.) The
so-called prompt global-strike concept behind the SLBM conversion
seeks to enable the United States to attack a target anywhere in the
world with a conventional warhead in less than an hour.
At a March 29 hearing of the Senate Armed Services Strategic Forces
Subcommittee, legislators expressed some unease about the SLBM
proposal. Subcommittee chairman Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) and ranking
member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) both questioned whether submarines with
mixed loads might cause confusion for other countries about the type
of missile fired and its intended target. In such a circumstance, they
worried a country might mistakenly conclude that it was under U.S.
nuclear attack and potentially retaliate with nuclear weapons.
Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Policy Peter
Flory said the Pentagon takes this concern "very seriously." However,
he and General James Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command,
minimized the danger of miscalculation. In addition to its traditional
mission of exercising operational control over deployed nuclear
forces, Strategic Command over the past few years also has been tasked
with overseeing the development and fielding of missile defenses and
Flory said that the United States has emergency communication
mechanisms, such as hotlines, with Russia and China "for mitigating
any potential risk of misperception." Cartwright and Flory also stated
the United States would rely on advance notification measures and
military-to-military talks to help alleviate uncertainty. They further
asserted the launch and trajectory of a conventional system could be
made to appear differently than that of a nuclear missile.
Cartwright also made the case that the United States has a long record
of launching non-nuclear missiles without a negative incident. "Since
1968, we've launched 433 of these warheads on these missiles without
ambiguity through notification processes," Cartwright testified. The
general was referring to SLBM and land-based ICBM test launches not
involving nuclear warheads, a spokesperson from Strategic Command told
Arms Control Today April 21.
Claiming that Russia is the sole country with the current capability
to detect and respond rapidly to a ballistic missile launch, Flory
argued that "the Russians will know very quickly as they have all the
way through the Cold War and up to today what the trajectory is and
where the impact points will be."
Still, Russia detected a missile launch near Norway in January 1995
that led Kremlin leaders to be notified that the United States might
have initiated a surprise nuclear attack. Moscow did not immediately
order a counterattack and, after anxious minutes, eventually
determined that the "missile," which was a scientific rocket, posed no
Flory and Cartwright maintained that proceeding with conventional
SLBMs was worthwhile. Cartwright contended such a capability gives the
United States an option for dealing with "fleeting targets" that have
a high "regret" factor if they are not destroyed, such as
unconventional weapons threats, enemy command and control elements,
and terrorists. "In many cases, nuclear weapons are not going to be an
appropriate choice for those types of targets, and so you want a
conventional alternative," Cartwright said.
SLBMs were selected over ICBMs as the inaugural conventional prompt
global-strike option in part because of their greater accuracy and
global range. U.S. ICBM fields are in Montana, North Dakota, and
Wyoming, limiting the missiles' reach and increasing possible
overflight and miscalculation problems, particularly with Russia.