As the White House pushes for cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the
Pentagon is developing a weapon to help fill the gap: missiles armed
with conventional warheads that could strike anywhere in the world in
less than an hour.
U.S. military officials say the intercontinental ballistic missiles,
known as Prompt Global Strike weapons, are a necessary new form of
deterrence against terrorist networks and other adversaries. As
envisioned, the conventional missiles would give the White House a
fresh military option to consider in a crisis that would not result in
a radioactive mushroom cloud.
The Prompt Global Strike program, which the Pentagon has been
developing for several years, is already raising hackles in Moscow,
where Russian officials predict it could trigger a nonnuclear arms race
and complicate President Obama's
long-term vision of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. U.S. military
officials are also struggling to solve a separate major obstacle: the
risk that Russia or China could mistake the launch of a conventional
Prompt Global Strike missile for a nuclear one.
"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 told reporters Tuesday in Moscow.
The White House says that development of Prompt Global Strike is not affected by the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START),
which Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are scheduled to sign
Thursday in Prague. Analysts say, however, that any conventional
ballistic missiles would count the same as nuclear ones under the
treaty, which places new limits on each country's stockpile.
Deployment of a conventional ballistic missile is not expected until
2015 at the earliest. But the program has received a recent boost from
the Obama administration, which sees the missiles as one cog in an
array of defensive and offensive weapons that could ultimately replace
The administration has asked Congress for $240 million for next
year's Prompt Global Strike development programs, a 45 percent increase
from the current budget. The military forecasts a total of $2 billion
in development costs through 2015 -- a relative bargain by Pentagon
After years of preparation, the Air Force is scheduled to perform an initial flight test of a prototype next month.
"Capabilities like an adaptive missile defense shield, conventional
warheads with worldwide reach and others that we are developing enable
us to reduce the role of nuclear weapons," Vice President Biden said in a February speech
at the National Defense University. "With these modern capabilities,
even with deep nuclear reductions, we will remain undeniably strong."
Nuclear arms have formed the backbone of U.S. deterrence strategy
for six decades. Although the strategy worked during the Cold War,
military leaders say they need other powerful weapons in their arsenal
to deter adversaries who assume that the United States would refrain
from taking the extreme step of ordering a nuclear strike.
"Deterrence can no longer just be nuclear weapons. It has to be broader," Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a leading proponent of Prompt Global Strike, told a conference last month.
Some U.S. military officials say their current nonnuclear options
are too limited or too slow. Unlike intercontinental ballistic
missiles, which travel at several times the speed of sound, it can take
up to 12 hours for cruise missiles to hit faraway targets. Long-range
bombers likewise can take many hours to fly into position for a strike.
"Today, unless you want to go nuclear, it's measured in days, maybe
weeks" until the military can launch an attack with regular forces,
Cartwright said. "That's just too long in the world that we live in."
Other military officials said potential scenarios might include the
discovery of an imminent plot by terrorists to use a weapon of mass
destruction, or indications that an enemy state was preparing to launch
a missile attack on a U.S. ally.
The Air Force prototype Prompt Global Strike design is a modified
Peacekeeper III intercontinental ballistic missile. If it is
successful, the plan is to deploy a handful of the missiles at
Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
The weapons would be overseen by the U.S. Strategic Command, which is responsible for the U.S. nuclear arsenal. Air Force Gen. Kevin P. Chilton,
who leads the command, based near Omaha, has said he sees Prompt Global
Strike as a niche weapon, not one that could substitute for nuclear
"I look at that as an additional weapon in the quiver of the
president to give him options in time of crisis today, in which he
maybe only has a nuclear option for a timely response," Chilton told a
House committee last month.
Although it is technically simple to replace nuclear warheads on a
missile with conventional ones, Prompt Global Strike has been dogged by
a significant problem: how to ensure that Russia could tell the
difference if a launch occurred.
To alleviate the risk of an accidental Russian nuclear retaliation,
the Air Force is developing a conventional, land-based ballistic
missile that would fire into space at a much lower altitude than
nuclear warheads, something that could be detected by Russian
early-warning radar systems. U.S. military officials have also said
they might be willing to grant access to Russian inspectors, or warn
Moscow about a conventional strike on a third-party target.
The Army is working on a separate design that is not as far along in
its development. The Navy had been preparing yet another design -- a
conventional version of its submarine-based Trident missile -- but
Congress curtailed that program two years ago because of concerns that
it was too difficult to distinguish from a nuclear-armed Trident.
Critics acknowledge that the technological hurdles are surmountable.
But they say a more basic problem is that taking the nuclear part out
of the equation could make it too easy for the White House to order a
Prompt Global Strike attack. Intelligence in fast-breaking crises is
rarely rock-solid, they note, and could result in a rushed strike on
the wrong target.
"People watch '24' and think that's how intelligence comes in," said
Jeffrey G. Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and Nonproliferation
Initiative at the New America Foundation. "It's not like the president
has his brain cybernetically linked to satellite images."
But proponents of Prompt Global Strike said its primary value would
be in adding a level of deterrence to the U.S. nuclear arsenal. "At the
end of the day, anybody who would be your adversary walks away
thinking, 'If I'm going to do this, I'm going to pay dearly,' "
Cartwright said last month. "There just can't be any doubt in their