Pentagon Revises Prompt Global Strike Effort

(Apr. 7) -A U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM lifts off in a 1994 test. The Defense Department has no plans to deploy ICBMs or submarine-launched ballistic missiles that would deliver non-nuclear warheads "with traditional ballistic trajectories," the White House indicated (U.S. Defense Department photo).
(Apr. 7) -A U.S. Minuteman 3 ICBM lifts off in a 1994 test. The Defense Department has no plans to deploy ICBMs or submarine-launched ballistic missiles that would deliver non-nuclear warheads "with traditional ballistic trajectories," the White House indicated (U.S. Defense Department photo).

The U.S. Defense Department has elected not to incorporate standard ballistic missile system technology in the development of its conventional "prompt global strike" initiative, Arms Control Today reported in its April issue (see GSN, March 24).

The White House alerted Congress to the decision in February.

The Pentagon "at present has no plans to develop or field" ICBMs or submarine-launched ballistic missiles that would be tipped with conventional warheads and delivered "with traditional ballistic trajectories," states a Senate-mandated White House report.

The possibility that ballistic missile technology would be used in the Pentagon effort to develop a non-nuclear alternative for quickly eliminating threats such as a WMD stockpile or a missile being readied for launch caused serious concern among members of Congress and in Russia. Critics worried that a U.S. launch of conventionally armed ICBM could be misinterpreted as an atomic attack, potentially resulting in a nuclear response from another nation.

The Pentagon has said it plans to maintain research into "boost-glide" technology that has a nonballistic flight path, reducing the chances that someone would misinterpret the weapon as a nuclear missile. Boost-glide technology employs nonstandard ballistic missiles to propel into space delivery systems that proceed to five times the speed of sound for more than 50 percent of their flight. Washington believes that these weapons could be identifiable to the Russians as non-nuclear.

"[The] basing, launch signature, and flight trajectory (of these systems) are distinctly different from that of any deployed nuclear-armed U.S. strategic ballistic missile," the Obama administration document reads.

The Defense Department is interested in acquiring a conventional prompt strike ability as the only weapons the United States currently possesses that can strike a target anywhere in the world in under 60 minutes are nuclear-armed ICBMs.

Th Bush White House had suggested fixing non-nuclear warheads to submarine-carried Trident ballistic missiles. However, congressional lawmakers stymied that effort due to worries that Moscow could mistake a conventional SLBM firing as a nuclear attack. Kremlin officials argue that any long-range weapon that could be used to strike Russian nuclear assets ought to be categorized as strategic.

In the New START nuclear arms control talks, Moscow at first tried to prohibit the attachment of conventional warheads on fielded ballistic missiles. Obama administration negotiators, though dismissed the idea. The two sides instead agreed to include language in the new accord that says they are "mindful of the impact of conventionally armed ICBMs and SLBMs on strategic stability."

Th boost-glide weapons would likely be fielded on U.S. coastal installations such as Vandenberg Air Force Base in California or Cape Canaveral in Florida. As the Russian military is "capable of monitoring U.S. ICBM fields, and possibly (SLBM) deployment areas," according to the Obama report, Moscow could ascertain that no nuclear launch had taken place. Additionally, each missile class has a unique infrared identifier that would enable Russia to distinguish between a Trident ballistic missile and a missile used as a boost glide vehicle, the report says.

Pentagon officials are researching three boost-glide alternatives: the Hypersonic Technology Vehicle 2, the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, and the Conventional Strike Missile, according to Arms Control Today.

The Defense Department for this fiscal year has sought $240 million for a conventional strike effort that encompasses the three alternatives. The Pentagon expects to spend roughly $2 billion from 2011 to 2016 for research and development of these options (Tom Collina, Arms Control Today, April 2011).

April 7, 2011
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The U.S. Defense Department has elected not to incorporate standard ballistic missile system technology in the development of its conventional "prompt global strike" initiative, Arms Control Today reported in its April issue (see GSN, March 24).