by Andrew Lichterman

In its current budget request, the military is pushing ahead with its proposals for “prompt global strike,” a broad effort aimed at giving the United States the ability to hit targets anywhere on earth in an hour or two. In the near term, the military wants to deploy conventional warheads on Trident submarine launched ballistic missiles, taking advantage of accuracy improvements resulting from programs conducted in recent years that have received little public attention. In the current proposal, two missiles on each ballistic missile submarine would be conventionally armed. At the same time, the U.S. is exploring other technologies and weapons concepts, ranging from land-based missiles with accurate, maneuverable re-entry vehicles to hypersonic glide vehicles that could deliver a variety of weapons. Although the technologies that would be developed in the Global Strike program currently are slated to be used to deliver only conventional weapons, there is nothing, aside from current policy, to prevent them from being adapted for nuclear weapons delivery in the future, potentially resulting in significant increases in the capabilities of the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Together with initiatives to rebuild the U.S. nuclear weapons production complex and to design new warheads with the flexibility to be fitted to a variety of delivery systems, the pieces are being put in place for a renewed arms race in the 21st century, with the U.S. leading the way.

In testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces subcommittee last week, high ranking military officers and administration officials insisted that the United States absolutely must have the ability to strike targets inside any country, anywhere, anytime, in short order. Rear Admiral Stephen Johnson, Director of Navy Strategic Systems Programs noted that the budget request “frontloaded the funding,” asking for $175 million for FY2008 in order to allow the Conventional Trident to be deployed by 2010. Statement of Rear Admiral Stephen Johnson, Director of Navy Strategic Systems Programs before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 28, 2007, p.5. Johnson noted that considerable development and flight testing of technologies allowing the requisite accuracy already has been done:

“CTM [Conventional Trident] will use existing D5 missiles, MK4 reentry bodies equipped with aerodynamic controls, GPS-aided terminal guidance, and a conventional warhead. Advanced error-correcting reentry vehicles with GPS-aided Inertial Navigation Systems have been flight proven in a previous D5 test program. Total time from decision to weapons-on-target is about 1 hour. CTM technology can be rapidly developed and deployed within 24 months.” Johnson Statement, p.5

Strategic Command (STRATCOM) Commander James Cartwright lamented the lack of “the means to deliver prompt, precise, conventional kinetic effects at inter-continental ranges.” Statement of General James E. Cartwright Commander United States Strategic Command Before the Strategic Forces Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee, March 28, 2007, p.14. Neither Cartwright nor any other witness thought it relevant to mention that no other country has any such capability, or shows any signs of developing one). Cartwright noted that in addition to the Conventional Trident, the “Air Force Space Command is developing a promising concept for a CONUS [Continental United States] -launched conventional strike missile (CSM), which capitalizes on the maneuverability and precision-to-prompt-effects offered by maneuvering flight technology to produce effects at global distances.” (Id., pp.14-15). Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategic Capabilities Brian Green told the subcommittee that the Defense Department also “is considering other, longer-term solutions, both sea- and land-based, to broaden the portfolio of prompt, non-nuclear capabilities. The additional concepts include sea- and land-based conventional ballistic missiles and advanced technologies, such as hypersonic glide vehicles, employing precision guidance, advanced conventional weapons, and propulsion.” Statement of Mr. Brian R. Green Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Strategic Capabilities for The Senate Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces Subcommittee Hearing Regarding Global Strike Issues, March 28, 2007, p.8. Conventional Prompt Global Strike, Green concluded, “is critical to meeting evolving U.S. security needs in the 21st Century.” id. p.11.

At the same time that work is beginning on a variety of Global Strike concepts with global reach, the military also is pushing for a new paradigm for nuclear weapons production, dubbed the Reliable Replacement Warhead” (RRW). The RRW is intended to be produced by modernized nuclear weapons production facilities, the product of a rebuilding process for the nuclear weapons complex already almost two decades old. The latest plan for this endless project is called Complex 2030, the target date for completing new core nuclear weapons facilities–giving a good indication that U.S. national security elites plan to keep large numbers of nuclear weapons more or less forever.While repeatedly assuring Congress that current plans call for the RRW to merely replace existing nuclear warheads without changing their capabilities, the program and the modernized nuclear weapons complex is intended to assure that new nuclear weapons capabilities could be developed, should the government make a decision to do so. The November 2006 National Nuclear Security Administration FY2007-2011 Stockpile Stewardship Plan Overview calls for a “responsive nuclear weapons infrastructure.” “Responsive” is defined there as “the agility of the nuclear weapons enterprise’s capabilities to respond to unanticipated events, such as a technical issue in the stockpile or the emergence of a new threat, as well as the ability to anticipate and counter innovations by an adversary before the Nation’s deterrent is degraded.” The Stockpile Stewardship Plan Overview makes this muddy verbiage a bit more clear by stating its intention to “[i]mprove the capability to design, develop, certify, and complete production of new or adapted warheads in the event of new military requirements.” (At pp.6-7). And as the Defense Science Board noted in a 2004 report, Future Strategic Strike Forces, nuclear weapons with a variety of new capabilities, including lower yield and earth penetrating ability, could be developed and deployed without underground testing, mainly by adapting already tested designs.

At the Strategic Forces subcommittee hearing, STRATCOM Commander Cartwright noted that one of the military’s main goals for the RRW concept was its ability to fit a variety of delivery systems:

“Modularity and interoperability remain top warfighter priorities for the RRW concept. These attributes will significantly increase the operational flexibility and responsiveness of the nuclear weapons stockpile and improve our ability to introduce new technologies and respond to technological and/or geopolitical surprise.” Cartwright Statement, March 28, 2007, pp.18-19.

Most of what debate there is about U.S. nuclear weapons programs focuses on whether the warheads that will be built in the “reliable replacement warhead” program are “needed,” and on assuring that their capabilities will not exceed those of existing warheads. At the same time, however, development of the next generation of long-range delivery systems is proceeding, with the express goal of providing a variety of new capabilities, nuclear as well as conventional. The 2002 Air Force Space Command Final Mission Need Statement, Land Based Strategic Nuclear Deterrent stated that

“…a future credible land-based strategic nuclear deterrent force must be capable of rapidly holding at risk a wide range of surface and subsurface targets to include, but not limited to, fixed soft and hard targets; hard and deeply buried targets; chemical and biological production, storage, and delivery system facilities; strategic relocatable targets; heavily defended targets; and targets that emerge unexpectedly on short notice. The land-based strategic nuclear deterrent force must be structured to counter these existing and emerging targets on a global scale by providing on-demand force application, flexible force application, and flexible effects. Quantum advances in information processing and advanced technologies may produce warfighting capabilities that include delivery means for payloads with self-contained sensors; accuracy to enable sufficient lethality within the sub-kiloton yield; search, loiter, and redirection capability; and/or enhanced defense penetration. Not only must the future land-based strategic nuclear deterrent force continue to provide the robust capabilities which exist today (i.e., responsiveness, damage expectancy, payload margin, operational flexibility, and cost-effectiveness), but it must also take advantage of emerging technologies to ensure deterrent effectiveness in an uncertain future strategic environment.” (at p.3)

For now, the Air Force apparently has decided to go forward with incremental upgrades to the existing Minuteman III land-based intercontinental ballistic missiles. (See written Presentation of Major General Roger Burg to the Senate Armed Services Committee Strategic Forces subcommittee, March 28, 2007, p.4). As the Land Based Strategic Deterrent Final Mission Need Statement noted, even a system based on upgrades to the existing Minuteman missiles might be able to provide significant new capabilities:

“As sub-systems are replaced, updates in component technology may be inserted to meet emerging requirements. To augment the current ballistic delivery of reentry vehicles, a new post-boost section incorporating advanced technologies could be designed into the existing missile system to provide additional operational flexibility. Potential payloads could include the Mk12A, Mk21, a newly designed reentry vehicle that could incorporate low or multiple yield weapons, and a trajectory shaping vehicle (TSV) carrying weapons capable of holding at risk the range of targets previously described and each delivered with enhanced accuracy.” at p.5.

A “Global Strike” program that has been considered in the past for both conventional and nuclear roles and that is slated for continued funding in the fy2008 budget request is the Common Aero Vehicle (CAV). (See Air Force RDT&E Budget Item Justification
0604856F Common Aero Vehicle
, February 2007) A gliding reentry vehicle that would be able to deliver a variety of munitions, CAV could be launched by missile or could be delivered by more exotic means, such as an unmanned reuseable launch vehicle or an orbiting satellite platform. The generic CAV concept, with versions that vary in size and in range, appears to have a considerable amount of momentum. It has its own joint program office for Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and Air Force program integration, and has been kept alive through a combination of government funding and contractor initiatives for over a decade. Last year, the Congressional Budget Office evaluated several versions of CAV in a lengthy report on alternatives for long range strike, comparing its strengths and weaknesses with other options such as new, stealthy medium and long range bomber aircraft. See Alternatives for Long-Range Ground-Attack Systems, Congressional Budget Office, March, 2006.

CAV also illustrates the fact that the separation between conventional “prompt global strike” missile and reentry vehicle technologies and nuclear weapons delivery systems is maintained mainly by policy–policy that can change. The 1997 Air Force Space Force Application Mission Area Development Plan discussed the CAV’s potential to provide new nuclear, as well as non-nuclear capabilities, stating that “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.”. (Obtained via the Freedom of Information Act by Western States Legal Foundation, p.38). Nuclear weapons listed in the Space Force Application Mission Area Development Plan as potential payloads for the CAV included the W78 and the W87, both existing high yield nuclear missile warheads missiles, the “B- 61 [a versatile bomb design with many variants, including a limited earth penetrator] or penetrator,” and an unspecified “low-yield nuclear weapon.” at pp.38-39. The purely political divide separating a nuclear from a non-nuclear CAV was accentuated by a message stamped on the cover of the 1997 Space Force Application Mission Area Development Plan. It read:

“References to using the Common Aero Vehicle (CAV) to deliver nuclear weapons should be disregarded. AFSPC is no longer considering using the CAV to deliver nuclear weapons. Where CAV is mentioned for nuclear weapons, the term Maneuvering Reentry Vehicle (MaRV) should be used. (Refer to the 1996 development plan.) These changes reflect current political realities and were brought to light after printing.”

Concerned about the possibility that long range missiles carrying conventional payloads could spark a nuclear war if mistaken for a nuclear launch by another nuclear power, Congress has restricted work on the CAV, prohibiting tests with actual weapons payloads. Congress last year expressed similar reservations about the Conventional Trident proposal. According to Deputy Assistant Defense Secretary Green’s Strategic Forces subcommittee testimony, the Departments of State and Defense submitted a classified report to Congress in February addressing these concerns. In his public statement, Green downplayed the dangers, asserting that few states can detect and track a missile launch, and that the Russians (who do have this capability) would easily be able to distinguish a conventional strategic missile launch from a nuclear attack on their territory. Green Statement, pp.8 et seq. Green also argued that “the United States and the Russian Federation now have a more cooperative and less adversarial relationship than during the Cold War, and this new relationship provides a much-changed context in which any launch of a ballistic missile would be understood.” Green Statement, p.9.

It should be noted in this context that there is an unacknowledged contradiction in the government’s position on strategic weapons. It argues that a constantly modernized arsenal of thousands of nuclear weapons and production complex capable of producing yet more must be sustained in case relationships with existing nuclear powers worsen dramatically or new adversaries emerge, but at the same time claims that the risks of accidental war posed by highly capable new strategic delivery systems can be “managed” in large part due to the absence of tensions among the major military powers . There is no reason to believe that a U.S. conventional ballistic missile launch years or decades into the future will be properly “interpreted” by Russia, China, or some other unspecified adversary in some unforeseen future crisis. In addition, even if U.S. does not equip new, highly capable delivery systems with nuclear weapons, very accurate, powerful conventional weapons capable of destroying some targets previously targeted with nuclear weapons could have profound and so far largely unanalyzed effects on the military balance among the existing nuclear weapons states. As General Cartwright put it two years ago,

“If you can put effect precisely on target, you really change the dynamic. Now this is a duh for the Air Force, but the reality here is it’s not that well understood. If you can use just one safe, sure, reliable, secure weapon for the right effect–whether that weapon be nuclear, conventional, or non-kinetic–and you can do it in minutes and seconds, you start to change the fundamental characteristic of the stockpiles, you start to change the fundamental characteristic of the delivery platforms, and it ripples on down.” General James Cartwright (USMC), Commander, U.S. Strategic Command, speech at Air Warfare Symposium - Orlando, Florida, February 18, 2005

One lesson we should have learned from the Cold War is that it is extremely difficult, if not impossible, to stop a full-blown arms race in mid-course. The nuclear armed powers may not be engaged in the kind of confrontation, military probing, skirmishing, and proxy wars that dominated most of the second half of the last century, but there is no guarantee that more intense antagonisms among major powers will not emerge in the future. The general shape and tenor of global economics and politics, in fact, tend more and more towards the conditions that in the past have led to such antagonisms, and to global wars. These include not only competition between established and emerging economic powers, but profound disparities in wealth within states of a kind that in the past have been symptomatic of a focus by ruling groups on foreign trade and investment rather than on the social and economic development of their own populations. These social stresses only will be intensified by competition for diminishing supplies of fossil fuels and other key resources, and by environmental disruptions caused by global warming and other effects of a global economic system whose central organizing principles engender constant, largely uncontrolled growth. The relative lack of conflict among leading industrialized states of the post Cold War period may prove to be only the last portion of a longer phase in which such wars driven by economic and resource competition were unlikely, a period that now may be ending.

Those in power in the United States are responding to these uncertain prospects by seeking to control them with overwhelming, technologically perfected violence. For the great majority of the people of this planet, for whom life and the future of humanity is more important than holding tight to great wealth and privilege, the logical response must be to seek to eliminate the most dangerous weapons, those that pose a fundamental threat to any future at all: nuclear weapons and the means of their delivery. In this light, it is alarming how much ground has been lost. The much-touted post Cold War reductions in the U.S. nuclear arsenal have only pared away rubble-bouncing extremes driven by ideology and profit. The thousands of nuclear weapons still deployed could end human civilization in a day, and there are no proposals for new rounds of nuclear arms control. There is little talk by governments, or even in the U.S. “arms control and disarmament community,” about controls on the ballistic missiles of the major powers. A decade ago, in contrast, the Canberra Commission, whose members included such figures as Robert McNamara, who had served as U.S. Secretary of Defense, and General Lee Butler, who had been commander of U.S. Strategic Command, as well as ex-diplomats and military officials from several other nuclear weapons states, stated:

“A global treaty controlling longer range ballistic missiles would provide a universal means of addressing the dangers to international security posed by ballistic missiles; it would also avoid the potential destabilising effect of ballistic missile defence systems. It would increase the confidence of nuclear weapon states that nuclear disarmament will not damage their security, and it would improve the security environment in a number of regions by eliminating destabilising missile arms races. Pending development of such a regime, confidence building measures such as a multilateral ballistic missile launch notification agreement and a ballistic missile flight test ban could be explored.” Report of the Canberra Commission on the Elimination of Nuclear Weapons, Part 2

Universal controls on ballistic missiles, beginning with a universal flight test ban (a relatively easy to verify and effective measure) remain a more practical and less risky response to purported missile threats than hundreds of billions of dollars in missile defenses, global surveillance networks, and “global strike” technologies. Such arms control measures, however, are far less profitable than an endless stream of high-tech weapons, cannot be used to expand power by coercive means, and reduce rather than sustain the climate of omnipresent fear and threat central to the current order of things; we should not expect them to be taken seriously any time soon.

In the early 1990’s, the collapse of the Soviet Union seemed to provide an opportunity to escape the dynamic of arms racing in nuclear weapons, their delivery systems, and the globe-girdling complexes of ground and space-based surveillance and communications that the nuclear arms race spawned. It has become clear that endless development and production of high tech weapons, including nuclear weapons, strategic delivery systems, and other weapons designed to project power far beyond the borders of a state, was not driven solely by the Cold War confrontation. The U.S. military-industrial complex has proved to be a vast, insatiable arms racing machine, demanding to be fed hundreds of billions of dollars a year and endlessly generating new “weapons concepts,” some of which must be developed and built if this immensely profitable and powerful enterprise is to continue. But it is only part of the constellation of powerful interests that have turned the United States into a country permanently at war, its foreign policy reduced almost entirely to the threat and use of force, the generation of military power valued over all other priorities at home. The first step towards any sensible disarmament strategy must be the identification of the organizations, institutions, and segments of society that sustain the permanent pursuit of global military dominance, with the ultimate instrument of national power being the threat of annihilation.

Some additional resources:

Amy F. Wolf, Conventional Warheads for Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues for Congress, Congressional Research Service Report, Updated February 9, 2007).

Hans Kristensen, Global Strike: A Chronology of the Pentagon’s New Offensive Strike Plan, Federation of American Scientists, 2006.

The Global Free Fire Zone: “Prompt Global Strike” and the Next Generation of U.S. Strategic Weapons February 10, 2006.

Andrew Lichterman, Zia Mian, M.V. Ramana, and Juergen Scheffran, Beyond Missile Defense, International Network of Engineers and Scientists Briefing Paper #10, by updated October 2002.

Andrew Lichterman, Missiles of Empire, Western States Legal Foundation Information Bulletin, Fall 2003.

Andrew Lichterman, The Military Space Plane, Conventional ICBM’s, and the Common Aero Vehicle: Overlooked Threats of Weapons Delivered Through or From Space, Western States Legal Foundation Information Bulletin, Fall 2002.