Conventional Arms No Substitute for Nuclear: Strategic Command Official

A U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM, shown lifting off in a test launch. Conventional weapons do not offer a substantial substitute for nuclear armaments, a U.S. Strategic Command official said recently (U.S. Air Force photo).
A U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM, shown lifting off in a test launch. Conventional weapons do not offer a substantial substitute for nuclear armaments, a U.S. Strategic Command official said recently (U.S. Air Force photo).

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Strategic Command official said recently that conventional weapons cannot substitute in any “meaningful” way for nuclear weapons, a view that appears to diverge somewhat from an Obama administration focus on reducing the role of atomic arms in ensuring national security (see GSN, Feb. 16).

“You can’t replace nuclear weapons today with conventional capability,” Greg Weaver, the combatant command’s deputy director for plans and policy, said on Feb. 16 at a symposium just outside of Washington.  “They don’t have the same effects on targets, but as a result they don’t have the same effects on people’s decision calculus.”

President Obama in April 2009 called for the eventual elimination of nuclear weapons worldwide and pledged “concrete steps” toward that end, even while promising to keep remaining U.S. atomic arms “safe, secure and effective.”  Achieving the goal of zero nuclear arms might not be possible within his lifetime, he acknowledged.

The Defense Department’s 2010 Nuclear Posture Review reflected the dual approach, to include robust modernization of atomic forces and infrastructure.

The underlying current, though, has been an assumption that to at least some degree, conventional weapons might assume an increased share of the security role accorded nuclear weapons over the past several decades.

“Fundamental changes in the international security environment in recent years -- including the growth of unrivaled U.S. conventional military capabilities, major improvements in missile defenses, and the easing of Cold War rivalries -- enable us” to deter potential adversaries and reassure friends and partners “at significantly lower nuclear force levels and with reduced reliance on nuclear weapons,” the 2010 review document states.

Recent news reports suggested that the Obama administration is contemplating a variety of options for fresh nuclear-warhead reductions in coming years, perhaps a small dip to 1,100 warheads or dropping even as low as 300 (see GSN, Feb. 15).  Any significant cuts would likely be negotiated with Russia rather than taken unilaterally.

Administration officials have acknowledged that they are studying future arms control options but would not confirm the numerical caps under consideration.  The U.S.-Russian New START agreement, which entered into force last year, by 2018 limits each side to 1,550 deployed strategic warheads and 700 fielded delivery systems.

Speaking at the same three-day conference this month, the Pentagon’s top policy official said new nuclear arsenal reductions would be possible, thanks to modern conventional bomb and missile technologies that offer the precision and firepower to attack a larger set of targets than ever before.

A “long-term trend” in U.S. national security strategy has been to enhance conventional capabilities so much that Washington now relies less on nuclear weapons’ massive blast potential than in previous decades, said James Miller, acting Defense undersecretary for policy.  The White House has nominated him to serve permanently in the position.

Under the current administration, the gradual shift from nuclear toward conventional deterrence is “a matter of policy and I think has very broad support in the Department of Defense,” he said, speaking on Feb. 15.

Miller cited the Pentagon’s effort to develop conventionally armed “prompt global strike” technologies as a step toward strengthening non-nuclear forces for “a key part of deterrence,” along with missile defenses. 

Pentagon leaders see the prompt-strike mission as allowing for conventional weapons that could reach distant targets in less than an hour, “a capability that’s only been available previously with nuclear-armed strategic missiles,” Miller noted.

“DOD has no plans at this time to replace nuclear warheads on ICBMs or SLBMs with conventional warheads, but we continue to look at the full range of options,” he said.

Options do appear to include a new effort to design a conventionally armed ballistic missile for possible fielding aboard Virginia-class attack submarines (see GSN, Jan. 27).  Other ongoing prompt global strike efforts comprise Army, Air Force and Navy projects to develop ballistic or boost-glide technologies, some of which could potentially maneuver at hypersonic speeds into targets half a world away.

Air Force Gen. Robert Kehler, who heads Strategic Command, is “very interested in having increased conventional strike capability,” Weaver said at the recent event, a “Nuclear Deterrence Summit” sponsored by the Exchange Monitor publications.  “There are scenarios where promptness matters. …. But again, not as an alternative to nuclear arms.”

The Pentagon has considered fielding a relatively small number of conventional global-strike weapons at any one time, once they are developed and built. 

Before his military retirement last year, the previous top strategic commander, Gen. Kevin Chilton, directed the Air Force to plan for a single Conventional Strike Missile to be put on alert at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, with two spares held in reserve (see GSN, June 24, 2011; and Sept. 3, 2008).

His predecessor in the job, the since-retired Gen. James Cartwright, imagined perhaps as many as two dozen submarine-based conventional prompt-strike weapons kept on alert (see GSN, Nov. 7, 2008). 

That plan, however, ran into serious congressional opposition based on concerns that a conventional ballistic missile launch from a nuclear-armed submarine could trigger a hasty and potentially disastrous response from a future Russia or China (see GSN, June 16, 2011).

The global-strike weapons would ostensibly be used only against pressing targets that no other U.S. conventional forces, like Air Force bombers or Navy carrier-based aircraft, could reach in rapid fashion.  The notion that these conventional weapons are more plausibly usable could make them a more effective deterrent than nuclear arms, advocates argue.

Scenarios in which a conventional prompt global strike weapon might be launched include the detection of a key terrorist leader at a safe house or an imminent enemy ballistic missile threat to the United States or its allies, according to Defense officials.

“I think [Gen. Kehler] would agree fully with what Gen. Cartwright said” about developing a conventional ballistic missile capability for a small number of such urgent contingencies, Weaver said.  “What I don’t think he agreed with Gen. Cartwright on is that there’s a significant portion of what we currently use nuclear weapons to do -- both in a deterrence role and in a response role -- that can be replaced with conventional weapons, in any kind of a cost-effective or meaningful way.”

Cartwright, now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, this week declined comment on the matter.

As the first Marine to head Strategic Command -- serving there from 2004 to 2007 -- Cartwright challenged the long-held taboo against discussing publicly the political and ethical problems associated with actually detonating nuclear weapons in combat.  Though he never called for nuclear abolition, the four-star general actively sought conventional alternatives that he saw as more practical and effective tools for a U.S. president (see GSN, May 28, 2008).

“There is a nuclear deterrent that's going to be necessary out there for as long as I can see into the future," Cartwright said in 2008. "But it is for those things that are the last ditch in the defense of this nation."

The Obama administration has acknowledged that the U.S. nuclear arsenal continues to play a unique role in reassuring friends and deterring would-be adversaries against the most serious threats.

“The fundamental role of U.S. nuclear weapons, which will continue as long as nuclear weapons exist, is to deter nuclear attack on the United States, our allies, and partners,” the 2010 posture review stated.  “The United States will continue to strengthen conventional capabilities and reduce the role of nuclear weapons in deterring non-nuclear attacks, with the objective of making deterrence of nuclear attack on the United States or our allies and partners the sole purpose of U.S. nuclear weapons.”

The Omaha, Neb.-based Strategic Command takes the Defense Department lead for strategic deterrence planning, which Weaver said includes not only nuclear but also non-nuclear attacks against the nation or its allies.

“Nuclear deterrence is included in strategic deterrence,” he said.  “We see strategic deterrence as the deterrence of strategic attack on the United States and its allies … defined by the effects the attack has on us or our interests, not just on the means employed in the attack.”

One example of a strategic threat against which Washington relies on deterrence to help prevent might be “an attack that has catastrophic effects on U.S. or allied civilian infrastructure or population,” Weaver said. 


February 29, 2012

WASHINGTON -- A U.S. Strategic Command official said recently that conventional weapons cannot substitute in any “meaningful” way for nuclear weapons, a view that appears to diverge somewhat from an Obama administration focus on reducing the role of atomic arms in ensuring national security.