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U.S. Brass Reviews Prompt Global Strike, Mulling Submarine-Fired Arms

By Elaine M. Grossman

Global Security Newswire

The Virginia-class attack submarine USS New Mexico, shown in 2010. A top-level Pentagon warfighting requirements board on Tuesday is expected to examine a Navy concept for a new submarine-based weapon for U.S. non-nuclear "prompt global strike," according to defense insiders (AP Photo/U.S. Navy). The Virginia-class attack submarine USS New Mexico, shown in 2010. A top-level Pentagon warfighting requirements board on Tuesday is expected to examine a Navy concept for a new submarine-based weapon for U.S. non-nuclear "prompt global strike," according to defense insiders (AP Photo/U.S. Navy).

WASHINGTON -- It may be Election Day across the United States but, at the Pentagon, some top military minds are focused elsewhere. The Defense Department’s highest-level review panel for warfighting concepts on Tuesday is slated to assess how to proceed on developing conventional weapons capable of attacking targets halfway around the world on short notice, Global Security Newswire has learned.

The Joint Requirements Oversight Council -- which is chaired by the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and includes the No. 2 officers from each of the four military services -- will meet to discuss the “way forward” for conventional prompt global strike, Joint Staff spokesman Lt. Col. Larry Porter confirmed.

The high-level panel has the authority to approve or alter Pentagon plans for the types of combat and support capabilities needed in coming years.

In this instance, the Defense Department is seeking a non-nuclear ability to hit with less than one hour’s notice far-flung, time-sensitive targets. Examples might include a terrorist leader spotted at a temporary hide-out or a rogue adversary preparing to launch a ballistic missile.

As the situation stands, if no U.S. ships, aircraft or drones are stationed nearby to hit an important short-notice threat, the only alternative might be using a long-range nuclear weapon, according to defense officials.

So Pentagon leaders have taken interest in conventionally armed ballistic missiles or maneuverable boost-glide delivery systems that could attack targets worldwide at hypersonic speeds, seeing these as less devastating -- and thus more usable -- alternatives to nuclear arms against selected targets.

Porter said he could not offer additional details about the agenda for the military deputies’ Tuesday meeting.

However, defense sources anticipated that the vice chiefs would discuss whether the Navy could develop a new type of prompt-strike weapon for deployment aboard submarines. Some sources contributed to this article on condition of not being named because they lacked permission to publicly address the sensitive topic.

Among the other prompt-strike weapons under development for achieving non-nuclear strategic effects are an Air Force Conventional Strike Missile with a Hypersonic Technology Vehicle-2 front end that has encountered some setbacks in testing; and an Army Advanced Hypersonic Weapon that military leaders describe as a useful test bed for ground- or sea-launched systems.

Any decisions emerging from the Joint Requirements Oversight Council meeting could significantly affect which technologies move ahead, and it appears to be a good bet that the new missile for Virginia-class vessels will carry the day.

Under the emerging naval concept, revealed by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta early this year, the Navy would begin developing a capacity for the fast-attack submersibles to launch conventionally armed missiles.

Insiders have described the delivery concept as an intermediate-range ballistic missile, possibly featuring a front end that could maneuver into its target in the final stages of flight. As few as two, or as many as 12, such missiles might be carried on the attack submarines, according to sources.

The new idea might yet prove politically controversial amid a congressional ban on building conventional versions of nuclear-armed Trident D-5 ballistic missiles. Lawmakers have voiced concerns that firing a fast-flying missile from a stealthy submarine could spark dangerous international “ambiguity” in a crisis -- if Russia or China, for instance, misinterpreted the launch as a first salvo of a nuclear war.

Navy budget plans indicate that the effort to develop the so-called Virginia Payload Module would cost nearly $800 million between 2013 and 2017, but no official price tag to complete the program has been released. The Senate Appropriations Committee in August cut all but $10 million from a $100 million line item for the Navy project in its mark-up of the fiscal 2013 defense appropriations bill.

The panel called the module effort “early to need,” suggesting it was not yet necessary for military missions.

The Senate committee also questioned whether an estimated expansion of the attack submarine’s size by one-third to install a nearly 94-foot center section to hold missiles might “result in instability to proven submarine design, disruption to a stable production line and add significant cost risk.”

The Senate’s defense appropriations report directed the Pentagon to use the remaining $10 million “to validate the [Virginia Payload Module] requirement and cost estimate with the Joint Requirements Oversight Council, to ensure the VPM program is subject” to the “rigor” typical of a major defense procurement effort.

At the same time, the Senate panel 's bill added $90 million to the defense-wide account for Conventional Prompt Global Strike, directing that the funds be used for continuing development of the Army’s Advanced Hypersonic Weapon.

Given that a version of the Army weapon might someday be used as a front end for a future submarine-based prompt global strike missile, the net effect of the Senate actions might prove to be less of a reduction than a rebalancing of priorities, according to some defense sources.

The House fully funded Navy appropriations to develop conventional strike from attack submarines, boosting by $15 million a $165.2 million line item for an array of new design features -- some unrelated to the payload module -- on the Virginia-class boats.

The full Senate has yet to vote on its version of the legislation and the two chambers to date have not resolved differences between their spending bills. Several federal agencies including the Defense Department have been operating since Oct. 1 on monies provided by a fiscal 2013 continuing resolution.

Lawmakers have urged the Pentagon to study whether there might be ways to mitigate the types of crisis-stability concerns raised by equipping ballistic-missile submarines with conventionally armed look-alikes of nuclear-tipped Trident D-5s. They have also encouraged consideration of using ground-based systems instead.

Yet, some nuclear-weapon experts are uncertain whether the proposed new attack capability on Virginia-class submarines might raise similar ambiguity concerns. In fact, a number of observers have begun raising the possibility that virtually any U.S. conventional prompt global strike system could hasten the pre-emptive launch of an adversary nuclear weapon, based on a use-it-or-lose-it logic.

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists said early this year that even “a conventional intermediate-range ballistic missile launched from a converted Virginia-class attack submarine could be misinterpreted because its compressed trajectory would look much like a nuclear D-5 launched in a compressed trajectory as part of a first strike.”

Rather than strengthen deterrence, prompt-strike conventional weapons of any kind could push U.S. adversaries “even further toward more prompt-launch capabilities” of their own, he said later at an August symposium. “More trigger-happy postures, if you will, that could in fact weaken deterrence and increase the risk of mistaken, inadvertent or even deliberate escalation.”

The Pentagon “has no plans to adapt a nuclear missile to carry a conventional payload or to use ballistic-missile submarines as delivery systems,” Madelyn Creedon, assistant Defense secretary for global strategic affairs, said at the same panel discussion. “Those systems raise ambiguity that was deemed unacceptable. … The risk of miscalculation resulting from the ballistic trajectory or [a weapon] that is launched from a ballistic-missile submarine -- it’s real.”

Like other Defense officials, though, Creedon appeared increasingly comfortable with a submarine-based solution for prompt global strike, as long as certain precautions are taken.

The Pentagon is mulling two “ways to manage this risk”: One is “to change the trajectory” of a weapon so that it is no longer akin to nuclear-armed ballistic missile flight, and the other is to “change the platform,” Creedon said.

She and Kristensen spoke at a symposium in Omaha, Neb., sponsored by U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for any long-range conventional or nuclear combat operations.

“The technical solutions we seek include boost-glide vehicles, which … have a distinctively nonballistic trajectory for more than 50 percent” of their flight path, Creedon said. “This will significantly reduce the risks that a state -- which would have to possess the capability to detect and characterize that attacking missile -- would misperceive the attack as a nuclear one, [rather than] conventional.”

She also described what she called “cross-maneuverability,” a capacity for a weapon to change direction repeatedly while in flight. In contrast to a ballistic path to target, which is locked into an inverted-U shaped trajectory, “we may be able to reduce or eliminate overflight concerns” in which Russia or others might worry they are under attack and could launch their own nuclear weapons precipitously.

Technology alternatives to developing conventionally armed ballistic missiles also “can be augmented by policy solutions that incorporate confidence-building [weapon] basing strategies and transparency measures into any deployment of such a system,” Creedon said.

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GSN ceased publication on July 31, 2014. Its articles and daily issues will remain archived and available on NTI’s website.

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