A Weapons System Not Yet Out Of Short Pants

Robert Farley at Lawyers Guns and Money:

I’ll have an article about the NPR coming out tomorrow at TAP, but suffice to say that I’m not particularly impressed with the Obama NPR. Every policy document requires compromise, and this is particularly true of a document focusing on nuclear weapons. A multitude of different agencies and vested interests have fingers in the pie, and each demands to be part of the decision-making process. In this case, the administration has managed to achieve a caveated-to-death no first use pledge at the cost of two apparent compromises; missile defense, and prompt global strike. Josh Rogin takes a look at the missile defense bit here; I raised some questions about the presence of prompt-global strike language back in the QDR, and suffice it to say that the NPR does not assuage my concerns. Prompt global strike is mentioned a several points in the NPR as a replacement for first strike nuclear capabilities and a large nuclear stockpile. While prompt global strike doesn’t necessarily mean conventionally armed SLBMs and ICBMs, nothing in the language of the NPR excludes such options. Prompt global strike sounds, on the surface, like a good idea; an Ohio class submarine could deliver a conventional warhead in half and hour to almost any target in the world. The devil is in the details; intel is rarely good enough to require such speed, and the possibility of conventional SLBMs being regularly launched from submerged subs would freak the hell out of the Chinese and the Russians. In other words, not such a good idea. Perhaps the thinking is that rhetorical support of the program now won’t necessarily mean appropriation for it later. If that’s true, I’m not sure that the history of the missile defense program is terribly comforting.

Noah Shachtman at Danger Room at Wired:

Over and over again, the Bush administration tried to push the idea of these conventional ICBMs. Over and over again, Congress refused to provide the funds for it. The reason was pretty simple: those anti-terror missiles look and fly exactly like the nuclear missiles we’d launch at Russia or China, in the event of Armageddon. “For many minutes during their flight patterns, these missiles might appear to be headed towards targets in these nations,” a congressional study notes. That could have world-changing consequences. “The launch of such a missile,” then-Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a state of the nation address after the announcement of the Bush-era plan, “could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.”

The Pentagon mumbled all kinds of assurances that Beijing or Moscow would never, ever, never misinterpret one kind of ICBM for the other. But the core of their argument essentially came down to this: Trust us, Vlad Putin! That ballistic missile we just launched in your direction isn’t nuclear. We swear!

Former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld couldn’t even muster that coherent of a defense.

“Everyone in the world would know that [the missile] was conventional,” he said in a press conference, “after it hit within 30 minutes.”

The new “Prompt Global Strike” plan is a little different from the old one. It relies on land-based missiles, instead of sub-based ones. The idea is that these conventional missiles sites would be open to Russian inspection, and wouldn’t accidentally drop debris on a superpower.

But Moscow doesn’t exactly seem soothed by this new plan. “World states will hardly accept a situation in which nuclear weapons disappear, but weapons that are no less destabilizing emerge in the hands of certain members of the international community,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov said earlier this month.

When the idea of Prompt Global Strike was first proposed, the goal was to hit anywhere on the planet in under an hour. Old-school weapons had proved ineffective at catch terrorists on the move. Newer, quicker arms might be able to do the job, instead. Flight tests for some of those weapons — like a hypersonic cruise missile — are just getting underway. Until then, relying on conventional ICBMs to do the job, and risking a nuclear showdown, is just plain crazy.

Yeah, I’m really not sure that changing to an atmospheric quasi-ballistic missile from SLBMs really helps. For one, the shift would somewhat reduce the promptness of the global strike (although probably not by much). More importantly, it doesn’t really solve the dilemma. If Putin/Medvedev/Hu/Whomever are inclined to worry that a detected launch was the prelude to an all-out nuclear attack, they’ll likely not be reassured by the news that it comes from some “special” location in the US. If the US decided to launch a preventive nuclear assault on Russia or China, wouldn’t we initiate the attack in the most deceptive way possible?

This isn’t to say that we should eschew research of any weapon that can decrease the time between order and KABOOM.
Questions of strategic stability, however, need to be taken very seriously. How willing would we be to use these weapons in a war over the Taiwan Straits? In response to another Russia-Georgia War? Or, perhaps even more disconcerting, what if we decided we needed to kill Osama Bin Laden with 30 minutes notice during the midst of a Russia-Georgia War that we were otherwise uninterested in?

Spencer Ackerman at The Washington Independent:

It’s an immature weapons system, barely in development, that looks for the moment like it was imagined by Wile E. Coyote. And the Nuclear Posture Review basically held it out as the conventional alternative to nuclear weapons.

Partly because elements of the technology behind Prompt Global Strike are “not yet even invented,” it’s hard to say what the system will ultimately cost or when it can be deployed. The New START accord with the Russians even had to limit its development because once launched from an intercontinental ballistic missile, it would be hard for Russia or any other power to determine with confidence that such a missile didn’t carry a nuclear payload.

Relatedly, here’s something that should warm Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) New START-opponent heart but surely won’t: Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton told a NATO forum that the U.S. won’t withdraw its tactical nuclear weapons from Europe until there’s a follow-on treaty with Russia ensuring the Russians will do the same.

Kevin Drum:

Even if the Russians and Chinese and Indians and Pakistanis are provided with some reliable way of identifying non-nuclear ICBM launches, they could never be sure that the United States hadn’t figured out some way to fool them. So they’d always be on a short fuse. And do we really want to make that particular fuse even shorter than it already is?

Sometimes bad ideas are just bad ideas. This really seems like one of them.

Matthew Yglesias:

The deeper issue, I would say, is that the pursuit of whiz-bang air power capabilities is often done with no thought as to the strategic implications. Every time we develop new offensive weapons designed to let us attack anywhere around the world with impunity, the more we’re incentivizing other countries to develop WMD capabilities to counter us. The mentality inside the Air Force is a sort of autopilot pursuit of better and better equipment that’s detached from any realistic vision of what we’re trying to achieve as a nation.

Tom Maguire:

The basic problem is that land-based missiles are vulnerable to a first strike attack by incoming missiles.  Consequently, anyone with land-based missiles, such as Russia or China, faces a “Use it or lose it” dilemma when their screen lights up with missiles launched from the US – do they wait to see what lands and goes “Boom”, or do they launch their own missiles while they still can?  This is not a new issue – people have been talking about first-strike weapons from the dawn of the nuclear age (It’s why we have hotlines).

Mitigating Russian concerns to some extent would be the number of missiles they actually see launched.   One or two missiles would not take out their entire land-based capability, so if (IF!) they could be confident of maintaining their command and control structure, they might be persuaded to sit back and await developments.

However!  All of that is covered by the Times.  What the Times utterly ignores, or overlooks, is the problem a weapon such as this would cause for Iran, North Korea or any other small crazy country with a much smaller nuclear arsenal.  The US weapon could be deployed around 2020.  Will North Korea or Iran have a missile or two capable of reaching the US by then?  If so, they will be stuck with the “Use it or lose it” problem, and may feel obliged to launch on warning.

Now, maybe the plan is that North Korea won’t develop the surveillance capability by 2020 to know whether we have launched our own missiles.  That’s reassuring!  Or maybe we can count on crazy countries not to do something crazy.  But this is a weapon that should not be built until these problems have been hashed through.

Legal Insurrection:

According to the article in The Times, the Russians and Chinese have a concern that these weapons could have a destabilizing effect because it would not be known if they carried a nuclear or conventional weapon, so if it is deployed, steps would need to be taken to make clear that they were non-nuclear.

That is all well and good. Verification with the Russians and Chinese to prevent a destabilizing effect is one thing. Counting conventional weapons the same as nuclear weapons, however, is nonsensical.

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