U.S. Navy Plans August Test for Conventional Trident-Related Technology

(May. 21) -The Trident D-5 missile lifts off during a test. The U.S. Navy plans in August to test a version of the missile modified for conventional warfare (Getty Images).
(May. 21) -The Trident D-5 missile lifts off during a test. The U.S. Navy plans in August to test a version of the missile modified for conventional warfare (Getty Images).

WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Navy in August plans to conduct a flight test of Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile technologies modified for conventional strike operations, despite congressional admonitions against developing such weapons (see GSN, Nov. 7, 2008).

The experiment could help the Pentagon assess the feasibility of equipping the Trident with a conventionally armed and maneuverable re-entry body. The D-5 missile's re-entry body, which normally carries nuclear warheads, would receive a precision guidance system and modified control surfaces to help boost its accuracy.

However, Congress has warned the Defense Department against developing or fielding submarine-based conventional weapons that might be mistaken for nuclear salvos when launched, and moved last year to cancel fiscal 2009 funding for such efforts. It is unclear whether lawmakers would attempt to stop the August flight test from proceeding.

Brief references to the upcoming experiment appear in a Pentagon report on conventional "prompt global strike" research, development and test plans, submitted to Congress last month and obtained by Global Security Newswire.

A second related flight test is scheduled for late 2012 or early 2013, according to the Pentagon's "Research, Development and Testing Plan for Conventional Prompt Global Strike, FY 2008-2013."

The conventional prompt global strike mission area is relatively new, driven by a Pentagon desire to respond more effectively to fleeting targets that might pose serious threats.

Once new weapons are developed and deployed, a U.S. president could order an attack carried out within just 60 minutes against targets halfway around the world. Potential time-sensitive targets might include "the transfer of weapons of mass destruction to terrorists, the preparation for launch of a WMD-armed ballistic missile, or pending employment of an antisatellite weapon," according to the Pentagon document.

Today, the only U.S. weapons readily available for such long-range strikes are tipped with nuclear warheads and thus unlikely to be used, according to defense officials.

The conventional-weapons approach generally enjoys strong congressional support. However, last year Capitol Hill rejected a funding request for conventional Trident as the first weapon system that the Pentagon proposed developing for the mission. Lawmakers have voiced concern that Moscow's misinterpretation of a conventional Trident launch could trigger a nuclear war (see GSN, April 7).

Congress last year eliminated $43 million in Navy funds from a multiservice prompt global strike account (see GSN, Sept. 15, 2008).

The move followed action by lawmakers several years ago to ax similar Trident re-entry vehicle modifications that would have given the weapon maneuvering capabilities, which lawmakers have worried could be used for conducting a destabilizing nuclear first strike (see GSN, Aug. 17, 2007).

From a technical perspective, such accuracy modifications could be made regardless of whether the re-entry body carried a nuclear or conventional payload, but in recent years Pentagon discussion has focused on the conventional mission.

For the current fiscal year, lawmakers did fund development and testing for other Army and Air Force land-based concepts for the mission in a $74.6 million multiservice funding account.

The fiscal 2009 defense appropriations law also earmarked an additional $21 million for the Army to develop and demonstrate Advanced Hypersonic Weapon technologies and $4.8 million for the Air Force to begin validating its Conventional Strike Missile. The Air Force effort is regarded as more likely to be available for prompt global strike in the near term, with a first weapon potentially fielded as early as 2012 (see GSN, Sept. 3, 2008).

The $43 million in Navy funds that Congress eliminated in fiscal 2009 was for two technology development efforts related to the Conventional Trident Modification. Most of the funding -- $40 million -- was to develop a "Medium-Lift Re-entry Body," a larger-scale version of designs for the controversial Trident modification program (see GSN, March 20, 2008).

At the time, critics on Capitol Hill said funding this alternative submarine-delivered weapon would have prolonged international concerns about launch "ambiguity."

The remaining $3 million in eliminated Navy funding was for a related "Life Extension Test Bed-2" flight demonstration in 2009, which also has been described as contributing to the development of the banned conventional Trident missile (see GSN, April 3, 2008).

The so-called "LETB-2" is a modification that defense contracting giant Lockheed Martin has proposed making to the Trident D-5 missile's Mk-4 re-entry body, aimed at significantly increasing the weapon's accuracy, according to industry officials.

The Navy intends to carry out the LETB-2 experiment in a longtime strategic missile assessment venue. The trial planned for August is to fly on a Trident D-5 during a "Follow-on Commander in chief Evaluation Test," according to Navy officials.

The commander evaluations, conducted since the 1960s, are "to ensure that the Navy's strategic weapons and command and control systems will always operate as designed, and to provide strategic planners with up-to-date and accurate missile performance data," according to the service.

The event will constitute a test of major components of a conventional prompt global strike system aboard the Trident missile, leveraging earlier Trident "Enhanced Effectiveness" developmental tests, officials say. The 2002 experiments similarly were centered on giving the Navy weapon a maneuvering capability so that it could hit targets with precision accuracy, according to a study released last year by the National Academies of Science.

The August flight test would be "separately funded" using money from "outside" the current $74.6 million defense-wide funding account for conventional prompt global strike, according to the new Pentagon document. The report does not specify from where in the Defense Department budget the funds for the test originated.

The document -- approved in early March by then-top defense acquisition official John Young and sent to key congressional committees in early April -- notes that Congress had said there would be "no funding for testing, fabrication or deployment of a [Conventional Trident Modification] program."

However, Pentagon officials have interpreted the congressional directive to allow for demonstration funding, as long as it comes from outside the multiservice conventional prompt global strike account.

"The department understands that [defense-wide] funds are not to be used for [Conventional Trident Modification]," the document reads. "Significant work, however, was completed in the CTM program that will be valuable as we move forward with timely technology application to a [conventional prompt global strike] capability. It is our understanding from congressional language and discussions with congressional staffers that leveraging previous CTM subsystems or technologies is permitted -- including leveraging of scheduled Trident II (D-5) tests for [conventional prompt global strike] development."

"What they did is get out ahead of Congress and spent money on [conventional Trident] programs for which they didn't have new-start authority," said one former nuclear-weapons officer. "And now, instead of stopping the program, they just keep rolling forward."

The former officer spoke on condition of anonymity, citing the sensitivity of criticizing the Pentagon's approach.

Ironically, Young -- a Bush administration appointee replaced April 27 by Ashton Carter -- last year publicly cast doubt on the national security value of conventional prompt global strike weapon systems.

During a question-and-answer session with reporters in November, he also voiced skepticism that the Pentagon would cease work on the Conventional Trident Modification effort, suggesting that it might continue under a different project name.

"My experience in the Pentagon is ideas never die, they just get new labels or different things like that," he said. "To the extent that there's an advocacy that has a voice, that voice will find its way as far as it can. So I wouldn't tell you it's dead" (see GSN, Nov. 26, 2008).

For fiscal 2010, President Barack Obama's defense budget request includes $166.9 million for the multiservice prompt global strike funding account. It is unclear how much, if any, of those funds the Pentagon intends to spend on Navy technology development efforts.

May 21, 2009
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WASHINGTON -- The U.S. Navy in August plans to conduct a flight test of Trident submarine-launched ballistic missile technologies modified for conventional strike operations, despite congressional admonitions against developing such weapons (see GSN, Nov. 7, 2008).