Andrew Lichterman

In a January 19 entry to his blog “Early Warning,” William Arkin notes the proposed conversion of Trident submarine launched ballistic missiles to carry conventional warheads:

“Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld has given the Navy go ahead to develop a conventionally armed Trident missile. Two dozen existing nuclear-armed submarine-launched missiles will be converted to carry conventional warheads. The missiles will then be assigned “global strike” missions to allow quicker preemptive attacks.

For the first time since intercontinental ballistic missiles were “captured” in arms control treaties 40 years ago as unique and potentially destabilizing weapons, the United States will muddy the waters by modifying an existing nuclear weapon for use in day-to-day warfare.

The conversion of Trident missiles abandons the strict segregation of nuclear from conventional weapons.”

Arkin credits Tony Capaccio of Bloomberg News with breaking the story, which can be found here: “U.S. May Arm Subs With Conventional Warheads for Quicker Strike”

There are other proposals and ongoing R&D programs to upgrade long-range missile capabilities. These range from incremental upgrades to existing systems like Trident and the land-based Minuteman ICBM to options like the Common Aero Vehicle (CAV), a maneuverable re-entry vehicle that could carry a variety of conventional or nuclear payloads and that could be delivered by either intercontinental ballistic missiles or by more exotic means, such as a space shuttle-like military space plane. Arkin was one of the first to write about the CAV in a 1999 piece in the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists ( not available on-line). I have followed some of these programs over the past few years in papers for the Western States Legal Foundation, including The Military Space Plane, Conventional ICBM’s, and the Common Aero Vehicle: Overlooked Threats of Weapons Delivered Through or From Space (2002), Missiles of Empire (2003), and War is Peace, Arms Racing is Disarmament: The Non-Proliferation Treaty and the U.S. Quest for Global Military Dominance (2005)

The bigger picture is that the United States is in the process of planning and developing a new generation of strategic weapons. Among other things, military planners hope to continue to make significant increases in accuracy for all kinds of weapons, from those delivered by aircraft to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Improved accuracy may allow them to do a number of things, particularly destroying some targets with less energy. This is why, for example, they are considering non-nuclear warheads now for intercontinental ballistic missiles — before, you couldn’t hope to get close enough at that range to destroy things reliably with non-nuclear payloads. These same improvements may also make it possible to destroy some targets with lower yield nuclear weapons. Other technologies being considered for long range missiles, and for associated sensing, targeting and command and control systems, may allow the destruction of other kinds of targets that previously were hard to hit with long range missiles, for example things that move, like mobile missiles.

Despite all this, delivery systems have received relatively little attention from mainstream U.S. arms control and disarmament advocates in recent years. Their main focus has been on a small set of proposals to add new capabilities to nuclear warheads, most likely by modifying designs already tested during the Cold War period. These include, for example, the proposed robust nuclear earth penetrator (RNEP) Funds specifically designated for RNEP design work were cut in last year’s budget, but work on both penetrators generally and on the effects of both nuclear and non-nuclear penetrators on various types of targets continues. At least some of this research could be useful for designing and planning for the use of improved nuclear or earth penetrators should Congress approve them in the future. As Strategic Command (StratCom) Commander General James Cartwright told the Air Warfare Symposium in February 2005,

“RNEP is nothing about anything going bang, it’s about running around into a cement wall on a sled and making sure that the modeling and simulation is accurate. Should we do that? Gosh, yes we should do that. Should we do it in the name of nuclear? Probably not. But to jam into the name of one particular test, one particular characteristic, really misses the point in how we do business today, and anybody in this room that’s in the private sector will tell you. I may make a discovery over here in this department, but if I don’t connect my departments, I’ll never get economic or competitive advantage. I’ve got to cross-pollinate all of my technology. That’s what we’re trying to do here.

So, from my standpoint, the great value added is that I will get to validate the environment in which my fuses and warheads, whether they be conventional or nuclear, have to live and convince myself so that I don’t have to go out and do a whole bunch of testing. Whether I’m testing a conventional weapon or a nuclear weapon.” General James Cartwright, Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, Speech at Air Warfare Symposium - Orlando, February 18, 2005

In the long run, delivery systems are likely to drive warhead design and choice, and not the reverse. Supposedly “practical” arguments that the “mission” (itself seldom questioned) of destroying all conceivable classes of targets can be achieved by new, more accurate and powerful conventional weapons rather than messy and politically unpalatable nuclear weapons may be less likely to prevent upgrades in nuclear capabilities than to add momentum to a broader technology development path that will result in a variety of new strategic weapons, both nuclear and non-nuclear. Unless there is a profound change in direction, military planning documents make it clear that the United States intends to keep nuclear weapons a significant part of the mix:

“Although advances in conventional kinetic and non-kinetic means (e.g., computer network attack (CNA), High Energy Radio Frequency (HERF), directed energy (DE), etc.) by 2015 will undoubtedly supplement U.S. nuclear capabilities to achieve these effects, nuclear weapons that are reliable, accurate, and flexible will retain a qualitative advantage in their ability to demonstrate U.S. resolve on the world stage. These capabilities should be further enhanced by improving our capability to integrate nuclear and non-nuclear strike operations. Providing the President an enhanced range of options for both limiting collateral damage and denying adversaries sanctuary from attack will increase the credibility of U.S. nuclear threats, thus enhancing deterrence and making the actual use of nuclear weapons less likely. Additionally, nuclear weapons allow the U.S. to rapidly accomplish the wholesale disruption of an adversary nation-state with limited U.S. national resources. While the legacy force was well suited for successful deterrence throughout the Cold War, an enhanced nuclear arsenal will remain a vital component of strategic deterrence in the foreseeable security environment.” U.S. Department of Defense, Strategic Deterrence Joint Operating Concept, February 2004, , p.33.

The militaries of other nuclear weapons states that see themselves as potential targets of new U.S. conventional weapons are unlikely to have the resources, technology, and supporting infrastructure to match them, and are likely to retain or even expand their nuclear arsenals in response. This in turn will give nuclear weapons advocates here and everywhere more arguments for either acquiring or keeping nuclear weapons.

We need a searching debate in this country about the real purposes of this continuous high-tech weapons buildup. What gives the United States the need, and the right, to deploy overwhelming force anywhere in the world? Can we really expect the militaries of other states to reduce their nuclear arsenals when we keep on building generation after generation of high tech weapons, both conventional and nuclear? Unless the United States takes concrete steps towards disarmament, can we expect anyone else to do so when we have shown we will attack other countries that have not attacked us? Does a permanent arms race make ordinary people in the United States, or anywhere else in the world, safer?

The contrast between the 24/7 headline hysteria about ambiguous signs concerning Iran’s still-hypothetical nuclear weapons capabilities, and the deafening silence concerning the endless refinement of the world’s most powerful arsenal of nuclear-capable strategic weapons, would be notable, were it anything other than business as usual.

(citation corrected 2/8/06)