Andrew Lichterman

“Global is defined as the capability to strike any target set in the world.” Prompt Global Strike (PGS) Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) Study Plan Draft 28 Oct 2005, p.10

The Air Force has put out a “Prompt Global Strike Request for Information,” beginning the process of examining alternatives for new weapons capable of hitting targets anywhere on earth. Supporting materials state that the Prompt Global Strike Analysis of Alternatives will examine “a range of system concepts to deliver precision weapons with global reach, in minutes to hours.” Prompt Global Strike (PGS) Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) Study Plan Draft 28 Oct 2005, p.9 The PGS AoA Study Plan Draft provides a laundry list of the kinds of concepts under consideration:

  • “High Speed Strike Systems. This approach requires development/adaptation of a piloted, remotely controlled, or autonomous subsonic/supersonic/hypersonic vehicle (aircraft, sea craft, or missile) to deliver precision standoff or direct attack subsonic/ supersonic/ hypersonic munitions.
  • Operationally Responsive Space. An expendable and/or reusable launch vehicle that can deliver precision guided munitions.
  • Military Space Plane. A reusable launch vehicle that could directly deliver precision guided munitions.
  • Ground or Sea-based Expendable Launch Vehicle. This approach consists of either modification of current space launch vehicles, conversion of deactivated intercontinental ballistic missiles or sea-launched ballistic missiles, or building a new launch vehicle to deliver weapon payloads; such as small launch vehicle or submarine launched intermediate range ballistic missiles. An advanced reentry vehicle/body; such as, a common aero vehicle could be developed to accompany these missile systems.
  • Air-Launched Global Strike System. This concept consists of an aircraft that air-launches Pegasus-like space launch vehicles configured with weapons and/or an aircraft delivering supersonic or hypersonic long-range cruise missiles.” Prompt Global Strike (PGS) Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) Study Plan Draft 28 Oct 2005, p.9

Several of these concepts already are being examined in other studies or already are under development. (see, for example, the Land Based Strategic Deterrent Analysis of Alternatives and the Force Application and Launch for the Continental United States (FALCON) program. While these plans for new kinds of strategic weapons are ramping up, the Pentagon also wants to upgrade existing long-range forces, making its bombers more capable and putting conventional warheads on Trident submarine launched ballistic missiles. (see William Arkin’s Early Warning blog for an overview of these programs.) New long-range weapons are a high priority to the Bush administration, which announced in the recently released Quadrennial Defense Review that it plans to “begin development of the next generation long-range strike systems, accelerating projected initial operational capability by almost two decades.” U.S. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report, February 6, 2006 p.6

The “Prompt Global Strike” concepts under consideration currently are slated to deliver only non-nuclear weapons, but many of the technologies, such as more maneuverable and accurate missile re-entry vehicles and delivery of weapons with some variety of military reuseable launch vehicle could, if developed, be used to deliver nuclear weapons should the government decide to do so. This has been acknowledged in other planning documents. The 1997 Air Force Space Force Application Mission Area Development Plan noted the common aero vehicle’s potential to provide new nuclear, as well as non-nuclear capabilities:

“Common Aero Vehicles (CAVs) can deliver both nuclear and non-nuclear weapons to targets anywhere on the globe from CONUS [continental U.S.] bases with appropriate deployment systems. The CAV can be deployed from multiple deployment vehicles including missiles, Military Spaceplanes (MSPs), or space based platforms. The inherent maneuverability of the CAV, provides increased accuracy, lethality, and enemy defense evasion.” U.S. Air Force, 1997 Space Force Application Mission Area Development Plan, p.38.

These programs — some of which, it is important to note, were already in their early stages before Bush took office — threaten to blur the distinction between nuclear and conventional weapons from both ends. There has been considerable discussion of the dangers posed by making nuclear weapons more useable, for example by improved accuracy allowing lower yields on long range missiles. There has been far less attention given to the dangers that may arise if the United States is able to develop non-nuclear weapons with global reach that are able to inflict severe damage on an adversary — for example, destroying air defenses in preparation for an overwhelming U.S. air offensive or even killing leadership — in a world where the only “strategic” weapons other states can afford are nuclear weapons.

All of this is taking place in a context where the U.S. has declared its willingness to engage in preventive warfare against unilaterally declared “threats.” The “Global Strike” concept is envisioned as a primary instrument of such preventive warfare, designed to strike quickly, without warning, anywhere on earth:

“Because many Global Strike scenarios involve threatened (or actual) preemptive attacks on very-high value targets that will only be exposed for brief periods, Global Strike capabilities must also be highly reliable. Single-string operations lacking the redundancy commonly associated with traditional military operations will be common. The Global Strike philosophy will be “one shot equals one kill.” Simultaneous attacks against all the major targets in a given category, e.g., all division headquarters, all WMD facilities, may be required against more capable adversaries, although the total scope of operations will remain dramatically less than those associated with major combat.” U.S. Department of Defense, Strategic Deterrence Joint Operating Concept, February 2004, p.37

In order to allow such unwarned preemptive strikes, the Pentagon wants Congress to further delegate its war making authority to the President. Among the desired “capabilities” identified by the Quadrennial Defense Review is

“Prompt and high-volume global strike to deter aggression or coercion, and if deterrence fails, to provide a broader range of conventional response options to the President. This will require broader authorities from the Congress.” U.S. Department of Defense, Quadrennial Defense Review Report February 6, 2006 p.31

The Prompt Global Strike Analysis of Alternatives (AoA) Study Plan Draft also states that “[a]ny system must comply with US international obligations and national policies; however, if analysis identifies advantages to changing obligations/policies that enable the PGS capability, these changes will be documented in the analysis for decision maker consideration.” at p.12 This could amount to little more than a hit list for for Bush regime “arms control” officials, who perhaps might be better described as arms decontrollers (for recent developments regarding the marginalization of long-time State Department arms control professionals by Bush political appointees hostile to arms control measures, see the Warren Strobel’s recent Knight Ridder piece, “An exodus of arms experts.”)

According to the Quadrennial Defense Review Report, the aim of this new round of strategic arms development, of which the “Global Strike” technologies are only a part, is to “possess sufficient capability to convince any potential adversary that it cannot prevail in a conflict and that engaging in conflict entails substantial strategic risks beyond military defeat.” at p. 31. This passage — threatening adversaries with “strategic risks beyond military defeat” — calls into question U.S. commitment to fundamental principles of international law, particularly those limiting the use of force to that proportional to an armed attack and necessary to defend against it:

“‘[T]here is a specific rule whereby self-defence would warrant only measures which are proportional to the armed attack and necessary to respond to it, a rule well established in customary international law.’” International Court of Justice Advisory Opinion on the Legality of the Threat or Use Of Nuclear Weapons, 8 July 1996, General List No. 95, paragraph 41, quoting Military and Paramilitary Activities in and against Nicaragua (Nicaragua v. United States of America) (I.C.J. Reports 1986, p. 94, para. 176)

For over half a century, American military and political elites have wrestled with the dilemmas at the heart of nuclear “deterrence” — that nuclear weapons by their nature inflict such horrific damage that a war between nuclear-armed adversaries is likely to constitute mutual suicide, and that using nuclear weapons against an adversary that has none is likely to inflict damage so horrific that it far exceeds anything permissible under the laws of war. Both the Quadrennial Defense Review and the path of U.S. weapons development suggest that those in power in the United States now have chosen to fully embrace the technological capacity to destroy societies as a first principle of warfare. Backed by the threat of societal destruction, whether inflicted with nuclear or non-nuclear strategic weapons, U.S. conventional expeditionary forces will be able to operate freely world wide. As a recent Air Force long term planning directive put it,

“The NR [Nuclear Response] CONOPS [Concept of Operations] will provide a credible deterrent umbrella under which conventional forces operate and, if deterrence fails, strike a wide variety of high-value targets with a highly reliable, responsive and lethal nuclear force… Desired effects include: Freedom for U.S. and Allied forces to operate, employ, and engage at will…” United States Air Force Strategic Planning Directive for Fiscal Years 2006-2023 p.20

With no new arms control negotiations on the horizon, those in power in the United States apparently have decided to wager all of our futures on the permanent pursuit of high-tech military advantage. As we enter another, larger round of military budget requests and another, more dangerous round of military threats purportedly to counter “proliferation of weapons of mass destruction,” the questions that can be asked in “mainstream” U.S. debate remain largely confined to peer review for those who pursue military dominance in service of a global empire: What is the best way to prevent countries that are not our allies from obtaining nuclear weapons (without really questioning the right of those who already have them to keep them for the foreseeable future?) What is the most efficient and least risky mix of nuclear and high-tech conventional weapons to accomplish “the mission” (without really questioning what the “mission” is?) The fundamental questions that concern the rest of us remain taboo: Who profits from the endless U.S. pursuit of global military dominance? Does it really make ordinary people here or anywhere else safer?