Strategic Arms Funds Tilt Conventional in 2009

(Nov. 7) -Hypersonic Test Vehicle technology, developed by the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, could be used in the first conventional “prompt global strike” weapon (U.S. Defense Departmentl).
(Nov. 7) -Hypersonic Test Vehicle technology, developed by the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, could be used in the first conventional “prompt global strike” weapon (U.S. Defense Departmentl).

WASHINGTON — With the U.S. Congress having eliminated funds for a Bush administration proposal to develop a new nuclear warhead for the second year in a row, the focus of the strategic arms budget for fiscal 2009 has largely turned to conventional weaponry (see GSN, Sept. 15).

The trend might just sit well with President-elect Barack Obama, who said last year that, if voted into the White House, he would “take the lead to work for a world in which the roles and risks of nuclear weapons can be reduced and ultimately eliminated.”

The impending rise of long-range conventional arms comes principally in the form of two futuristic efforts: an Air Force “Conventional Strike Missile” and an Army “Advanced Hypersonic Weapon.” These are the leading candidates to become “prompt global strike” weapons, which defense leaders envision as a partial alternative to nuclear arms under limited circumstances (see GSN, Oct. 29).

For the new fiscal year, Congress has appropriated nearly $82 million to develop prompt strike weapons, while zeroing a requested $33 million in Defense and Energy department funds for design work on a Reliable Replacement Warhead to upgrade the nuclear stockpile.

"A nuclear weapon is still a viable part of our inventory, but ... one size does not fit all," Gen. James Cartwright — at the time the top U.S. strategic commander — told a Senate Armed Services panel in March 2006. "What we'd like to do is ... field a [conventional] weapon that will give us a broader and potentially more appropriate choice for the nation."

For the emerging conventional mission, the Defense Department seeks the capacity to attack targets anywhere around the world within 60 minutes of a launch order. Commanders have said such a capability could be crucial if the nation were confronted by a serious but fleeting threat, such as a terrorist leader pinpointed at a safe house or a weapon of mass destruction being readied for firing by a rogue nation.

Currently, the only U.S. weapons with sufficient range and speed to undertake the mission are nuclear-armed ballistic missiles. As a U.S. president would be unlikely to launch a nuclear weapon against such targets, conventional ballistic missiles should be developed that might be used more readily, defense leaders have argued (see GSN, May 28).

“In light of the appropriately extreme reluctance to use nuclear weapons, conventional prompt global strike could be of particular value in some important scenarios in that it would eliminate the dilemma of having to choose between responding to a sudden threat either by using nuclear weapons or by not responding at all,” stated an August report by a National Academy of Sciences panel (see GSN, Aug. 15).

Ground-Based Conventional Missiles

Focus on the Army and Air Force efforts has grown this year following congressional moves to shelve a Navy concept for modifying submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Lawmakers have refused to fund a plan to equip 24 Trident D-5 missiles with conventional warheads, the Pentagon’s initial blueprint for prompt global strike. Opponents of the Navy project argued that Russia or other nuclear powers might mistake the conventional Trident’s launch as a nuclear salvo and unleash a devastating response (see GSN, Dec. 13, 2007).

Gen. Kevin Chilton, now the top U.S. commander for strategic combat, recently acknowledged Capitol Hill concerns, mandating that the Air Force take over the lead for prompt global strike weapons (see GSN, Sept. 3). Both the Air Force and Army missiles are being designed as new, ground-based weapons that would not have look-alike nuclear variants, potentially making them less likely to be misconstrued as atomic arms during a crisis.

The notional weapons would initially boost like missiles and then glide to their targets at hypersonic speeds. Both are imagined as being maneuverable, a feature that could help avoid violating the airspace of third-party nations en route to their targets, proponents say.

Beginning in fiscal 2008, Congress consolidated $100 million in prompt global strike funds across the military services into a single, defense-wide account. The multiservice funding pot allows the defense secretary’s office to parcel out money for strike technology projects to the services, in consultation with Capitol Hill (see GSN, April 3).

Lawmakers also chose to appropriate some funds for prompt global strike technologies directly to the services, outside of the defense-wide account, including more than $40 million for the Army’s hypersonic weapon (see GSN, Nov. 8, 2007).

The fiscal 2009 appropriations bill again funded prompt global strike via the pan-service account — and included a few more twists.

This year, neither the House nor the Senate Appropriations committees voted on a fiscal 2009 defense appropriations bill and lawmakers never met in a formal conference. Only the respective defense appropriations subcommittees marked up their bills, according to congressional aides.

After committee leaders met behind closed doors this summer, the two chambers in late September passed a reconciled defense appropriations bill. They appended the $487.7 billion in defense appropriations to a continuing resolution that combines funding measures for a number of agencies.

The enacted legislation included $74.6 million for the defense-wide account for prompt global strike in fiscal 2009, which began Oct. 1. The conference figure matches the earlier Senate version of the appropriations bill, which cut $43 million from President George W. Bush’s $117.6 million request for the program.

Defense officials had told Congress the $43 million would have been spent on a Navy concept for a Medium-Lift Re-entry Body, described as a scaled-up version of designs for the controversial Trident modification program (see GSN, March 20). The funds also would have gone toward a related Navy “Life Extension Test Bed-2” flight demonstration in 2009.

Critics said funding this alternative weapon would have renewed concerns about the “ambiguity” of ballistic missile launches from nuclear weapons-carrying submarines.

The House version of the 2009 bill, ultimately rejected in the reconciled bill, fully funded the president’s defense-wide prompt global strike request. It also separately added a total of $9 million to Air Force and Army coffers for the services’ respective missile development projects (see GSN, Sept. 9).


However, in similar fashion, the final House-Senate bill not only provided funds for defense-wide prompt global strike via its $74.6 million appropriation, but included additional funds for the mission outside the joint funding pot, in Army- and Air Force-specific line items.

For the Army, the conference bill appropriated an extra $2.4 million to help prepare a demonstration of Advanced Hypersonic Weapon technologies. The Army this fiscal year expects to begin testing technology components that could contribute either toward its own weapon development effort or toward the Air Force project.

The increase was a congressional earmark sponsored by Republicans from Mississippi and Alabama, home to the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command.

In addition, the legislation stated that “not less than one-fourth” of the $74.6 million in the prompt global strike defense-wide account — nearly $19 million — must “be available” for the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon. The combined total affords the Army more than $21 million for developing the weapon in fiscal 2009.

With the Army leadership’s funding priorities focused more on current operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the service has never requested funds for the Advanced Hypersonic Weapon.

For the Air Force, the appropriations legislation included an additional $4.8 million, to be spent on a Conventional Strike Missile “mission integration demonstration.” That service hopes to perform a first flight test of a “weaponized” Conventional Strike Missile “payload delivery vehicle” in 2010, according to Defense Department documents.

Representative Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) sponsored the Air Force earmark, according to the appropriations report.

Up for Assessment

Even some of those who were critical of the now-shelved Navy prompt global strike concepts harbor reservations about the more politically popular Air Force and Army weapons.

Hans Kristensen of the Federation of American Scientists said he worries that the mission for conventional prompt global strike weapons could easily expand beyond limited scenarios. U.S. intelligence might only rarely offer sufficient confidence about the nature and location of such critical targets in the short time frames discussed, said Kristensen, director of his organization’s Nuclear Information Project.

If based on less-than-perfect intelligence, a broader use of quick-strike weapons could increase unintended civilian casualties — perhaps of the kind seen recently as a result of U.S. air strikes in Afghanistan — and potentially intensify backlash against U.S. policies or presence around the globe, Kristensen said.

In “principle,” he said, “you’d be crazy not to” launch a prompt global strike attack under the urgent circumstances defense leaders describe for the mission. However, Kristensen sees a slippery slope in which the weapons’ high value could make them deceptively attractive tools under a wider set of scenarios.

“It’s just really hard to separate the urgency and the honest requirement [for a limited tool] from the hype associated with this antiterrorism mission,” he said.

Regardless of which systems are ultimately embraced for prompt global strike, the NAS review recommended that the Defense Department analyze, prior to deployment, “the potential for inappropriate, mistaken or accidental use; the implications for nuclear deterrence and crisis stability (including ‘ambiguity’ considerations); the impact of overflight and debris; and the implications for arms control and associated agreements.”

The defense authorization conference bill, also enacted in late September, said the Pentagon must undertake a review of prompt global strike policies, in consultation with the State Department, to be submitted to Congress by Sept. 1, 2009.

The report is to offer recommendations on how to mitigate the risk that such technology might be “misconstrued as a nuclear weapon or delivery system,” according to the authorization legislation. The document must also include “an assessment of the intelligence needed to support the use of any [prompt global strike] concept.”

The defense secretary is also required to submit a separate report to Congress by April 1, 2009, describing the prompt global strike technologies to be developed during the fiscal year and how they might be used in combat.

The legislation also directs the Pentagon to submit a report on these strike technologies along with the fiscal 2010 budget request.

On the Nuclear Front

Meanwhile, the administration’s most closely watched nuclear weapons effort took another significant hit.

For the new fiscal year, House and Senate lawmakers denied the Navy’s entire $23 million request for integration work on the Reliable Replacement Warhead. The Bush administration has argued that the United States should build the new warhead to boost the reliability, safety, security and maintainability of today’s nuclear stockpile.

This summer, the House and Senate also nixed $10 million in 2009 Energy Department appropriations for an RRW study (see GSN, July 10).

Lawmakers have repeatedly argued that funding a new nuclear warhead could undercut U.S. efforts to eliminate the development of atomic weapons abroad, particularly in regard to North Korea and Iran. Congress has said it might consider allowing the development of a replacement warhead only after the executive branch has shown how it would fit into an overarching nuclear weapons strategy.

Obama’s administration is expected to conduct such a strategy assessment, called a “Nuclear Posture Review,” beginning next year. As a candidate, Obama said he would not support "a premature decision to produce the RRW,” but he left open the possibility that his administration would pursue its development.

Congress did support a $10 million Navy request to begin conceptual design work on a new nuclear weapons-carrying vessel to replace today’s fleet of 18 Ohio-class submarines (see GSN, April 24). The request to kick off the program was submitted without fanfare under the heading of an “Underwater Launch Missile System.

Fourteen vessels in the current fleet, the so-called “SSBNs,” are capable of launching Trident D-5 nuclear-armed missiles. The remaining four boats, dubbed “SSGNs,” carry conventional cruise missiles and special operations forces.

The defense authorization bill also called on the president to submit a report about “nuclear weapons worldwide” that details “each country’s nuclear weapons arsenal and [includes] an assessment of the various risks associated with nuclear weapons deemed to be attractive to terrorists, states, and other nonstate actors.”

The submission must also recommend “mechanisms and procedures to improve the security of such weapons, monitor and track such weapons, and identify options to transparently and verifiably dismantle and dispose of such weapons.” Lawmakers said the unclassified report, due in one year, could include a “classified annex” in which sensitive data or issues might be discussed.

An unrelated atomic-weapons provision contained in the fiscal 2009 appropriations report prohibits the Defense Department from fitting its emerging missile defense system with nuclear-armed interceptors.

November 7, 2008

WASHINGTON — With the U.S. Congress having eliminated funds for a Bush administration proposal to develop a new nuclear warhead for the second year in a row, the focus of the strategic arms budget for fiscal 2009 has largely turned to conventional weaponry (see GSN, Sept. 15).