OMAHA, Neb. — The concept sounds simple: arm land- or sea-based missiles such as the Minuteman or the Trident D-5 with conventional rather than nuclear warheads to give the U.S. military the ability to strike almost anywhere in the world within 60 minutes of a launch decision.
The fleeting “targets of opportunity” might be a well-known terrorist hiding temporarily in a compound or training camp beyond the reach of U.S. forces.
“There is a large part of the Earth that we can’t reach with Hellfire [missiles], bombers or cruise missiles,” said Marine Corps Gen. James E. Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, which has been a leading proponent of the so-called “conventional Trident” concept.
“This is not a general purpose weapon that you’re going to use against a thousand targets, but these are against those high value, unanticipated emerging type targets where today, all we have are nuclear weapons,” he said on the sidelines of the Strategic Space and Defense Conference.
The defense authorization and appropriation bills President Bush signed in October provide some seed money to study the concept. Five million dollars was approved to deliver a National Academy of Sciences report on the feasibility of the plan, which is due March 15. Another $30 million was appropriated in research and development funding. However, the Defense and State Departments will have to deliver their own reports by Feb. 1, outlining the concept’s foreign policy and security implications.
And there may be many implications, according to critics of the proposal.
Theodore Postol, professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, cautioned that the Russian early warning system designed to alert its forces to U.S. strikes may not be able to tell the difference between conventional and nuclear tipped missiles.
“Any launch of a long-range, non-nuclear armed global strike sea or land-based ballistic missile will cause an automated alert of the Russian early warning system,” he told military reporters in Washington. Such an alert would not automatically trigger a response, but the possibility of a nuclear accident would increase, he added.
High altitude nuclear explosions can cause blackouts for north and west looking radars. The system also has holes in its coverage facing the Indian and Pacific Oceans. Missiles launched at the Middle East or South Asia would confront the Russians with the possibility of a blinding attack, he said.
Pavel Podvig, a researcher with the Center for International Security and Cooperation at Stanford University said, “We should not really underestimate the probabilities or possibilities of misunderstandings ” that could lead to a nuclear accident.
Maj. Gen. Mark D. Shackelford, director of plans and requirements at Air Force Space Command, said at the conference that third parties could be allowed to inspect the warheads. The Russians, for example, inspect missile sites to verify nonproliferation treaties.
However, Postol questioned whether U.S. intelligence systems could identify such fleeting targets with sufficient confidence to launch an attack within an hour’s notice. Intelligence satellites, which can peer deep into hostile territories where these targets lie, are not designed for quick response times, Postol said.
And if there are ground-based assets in the area, why not use Predators or other unmanned aerial vehicles, he asked.
“Unless the Department of Defense can demonstrate capabilities that can lead to the acquisition of strategic targets on short notice, it is hard to see how a global strike system can credibly contribute to the military capabilities of the nation,” Postol said.
“Is it the right technology? Is it the right weapon?” Cartwright countered. “That’s something we’ve got to debate. But the fact that these targets exist in the world, and they can cause great regret for us, I think that’s beyond debate.”
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