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Jury Out: Do Advanced Conventional Weapons Make Nuclear War More Likely?

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

An artist's rendition of a rocket releasing the U.S. Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2, a technology-development effort for a potential U.S. non-nuclear "prompt global strike" capability. Experts differ over how to address risks that emerging strategic conventional weapon systems might hasten a nuclear strike (AP Photo/U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency photo).
An artist's rendition of a rocket releasing the U.S. Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2, a technology-development effort for a potential U.S. non-nuclear "prompt global strike" capability. Experts differ over how to address risks that emerging strategic conventional weapon systems might hasten a nuclear strike (AP Photo/U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency photo).

WASHINGTON -- Nuclear weapons policy-makers and experts gathered recently at a nondescript conference center in Nebraska to grapple with a jolting, if somewhat arcane, paradox: Is it possible that futuristic conventional weapons could actually make a nuclear blast more likely?

“The big problem right now for the United States is that U.S. conventional war plans and doctrine are likely to create circumstances that will force our adversaries to threaten the use of nuclear weapons -- or to use nuclear weapons -- against us or our allies,” Keir Lieber, a Georgetown University scholar, said at a symposium on conflict deterrence.

Hosted by U.S. Strategic Command in Omaha, conference-goers early this month were asked to consider, for example, whether a state-of-the-art hypersonic vehicle might someday offer a viable conventional alternative to a nuclear-armed ballistic missile for situations in which a U.S. president wants a far-flung target struck in less than 60 minutes.

“If it’s a long way’s away and we really need to do something about it right now, you could send a nuke,” said retired Gen. James Cartwright, a former vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noting that today there might be no other weapons within reach of a distant, time-sensitive target.

However, he said, the use of a nuclear warhead, as a weapon of last resort, “may not be proportional [and] it may not be appropriate for the neighbors.”

Over the past several years, the Defense Department has developed a number of technological candidates for the so-called conventional “prompt global strike” mission, but none appear anywhere close to fielding. These are largely regarded as niche weapons that would be deployed only in small numbers, but might eventually substitute for assignment against 10 to 30 percent of today’s nuclear target list, say some military analysts.

Among the conventional weapons under development potentially capable of such strategic effects are an Air Force Conventional Strike Missile with a Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 front end that has encountered some setbacks in testing; an Army Advanced Hypersonic Weapon that military leaders describe as a useful test bed; and a nascent concept for intermediate-range ballistic missiles aboard Navy attack submarines.

Strategic Command, based at Offutt Air Force Base near Omaha, would oversee any U.S. launch of nuclear weapons and could control wartime use of future long-range conventional arms, as well.

Instances in which the White House might someday order a non-nuclear rapid strike could include a sudden move by China toward destroying a U.S. or allied communications satellite by rocket or laser; a North Korean ballistic missile being readied for launch against a neighboring U.S. ally; or a potential adversary’s nuclear warhead observed being mated with a delivery system, symposium speakers said.

“For me, all of those are probably important; all of those have a scenario that go with them, that [make] you go, ‘Gee, I wish I had a tool like this,’” said Cartwright, now Harold Brown chair in defense studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In fact, if the United States finds itself faced with an international crisis, a prompt conventional strike against a desperate antagonist’s weapon of mass destruction might stop a launch in its tracks, effectively preventing a deadly escalation.

Here’s where the problem creeps in: An adversary leader, knowing his antisatellite weapon or nuclear-tipped ballistic missile is at risk of being suddenly destroyed by a rapid U.S. conventional strike, might rush to execute that launch.

The United States and Russia during the Cold War took steps to prevent this type of nuclear use-it-or-lose-it phenomenon, installing in the White House and Kremlin a “red phone” presidential hot line for emergency bilateral consultations and developing incentives for the reduction of multiple-warhead missiles, among other measures.

Now that the Cold War is over, nuclear experts and policy-makers are just beginning to sort out how the risks of crisis instability have evolved, as nations such as North Korea and allegedly Iran pursue nuclear-weapons capacities. A handful more states appear to contemplate a similar path.

Over time, the world’s nuclear powers have largely transformed their thinking. They formerly devised nuclear-warfighting strategies but now see these weapons as usable purely in a political role, observed British Rear Adm. John Gower, serving as a panel discussion moderator.

“The advanced conventional weapons have the potential to bridge this separation, to fill it up,” said Gower, London’s assistant chief of defense staff for nuclear, chemical and biological weapons policy. “But do they fill it as an insulator, or as a lightning conductor?”

To Georgetown’s Lieber, the answer seems apparent. Washington’s superior conventional capabilities and its willingness for military intervention abroad have spawned new global interest in acquiring nuclear arms and other weapons of mass destruction, and perhaps even increased the likelihood of WMD use.

“For the foreseeable future, the United States is not going to lose a conventional war … against any adversary,” he said. “The likely outcome will be clear to our adversary: Regime change.”

The takeaway for would-be military challengers to the United States is that they should develop unconventional weapons. The former leaders of Iraq and Libya, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qadhafi, moved to eliminate their WMD stocks but later found they lacked an “ultimate weapon” with which to prevent their own ouster.

“Our potential adversaries do not want to be Saddamized,” Lieber told the conference, prompting gales of laughter and apologizing for his Washington pronunciation.

“But that outcome -- having a regime overthrown, being dragged on the gallows, have your sons murdered, to face the same fate that Saddam faced -- when you lose a conventional war, the prospects do not look good,” he said.

“Given that existential risk to an adversary regime, that regime is going to face huge incentives for nuclear escalation,” Lieber said. “Why? Not to punish the United States or punish our allies, but to coerce a halt to the conflict before it’s too late.”

Potential U.S. military adversaries, including North Korea and China, are increasingly hiding their launchers and warheads in tunnels, and burying key command-and-control nodes underground, all in an effort to evade targeting.

“So why do we think that hitting them a little faster or a little better would strengthen deterrence?” asked Hans Kristensen, who directs the Federation of American Scientists’ Nuclear Information Project.

“It seems more likely that prompt global strike would push them even further toward more prompt-launch capabilities,” he said. “More trigger-happy postures, if you will, that could in fact weaken deterrence and increase the risk of mistaken, inadvertent or even deliberate escalation.”

For example, Kristensen said, China’s war-planners “would have to assume” that any U.S. conventional prompt-attack forces could strike without warning against their own targetable nuclear-weapon forces or support installations.

“In fact, they would have to conclude that a strike against their nuclear deterrent could come before the conflict had escalated to nuclear use,” he told the audience, suggesting this assumption could inadvertently give China clear incentive to launch pre-emptively any of its nuclear arms believed vulnerable to U.S. conventional attack.

“We’d better think carefully about these side effects before rushing to acquire more advanced conventional weapons for what … in any case is argued to be a very limited, niche mission against small adversaries that won’t be able to provide an existential threat against us,” Kristensen said.

Cartwright -- who between 2004 and 2007 served as the first Marine to head Strategic Command -- acknowledged the risks. He suggested, however, that the inherent dangers be handled directly, rather than become show-stoppers for developing conventional weapons with the potential for useful strategic effects.

“Finding ourselves in a world where proliferation is a reality, no matter how hard we work at it, and where technology is moving us forward, no matter how much we would like to be in the last war,” Cartwright said, “we are going to have to manage the stability issue.”

To reduce instability, U.S. political and military leaders must signal the world about what specific new capabilities the Pentagon has at its disposal; train and exercise those capabilities to demonstrate control and proficiency; and engage with other world powers to create confidence-building protocols, treaties and verification practices, he said.

“You bring the level of ambiguity … and the anxieties and instability that could come from those weapons down to a manageable point,” Cartwright said. “Uninventing them doesn’t work that well.”

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