Analyst: Use of Conventional Global Strike Weapons Not Likely to Spark Nuclear War
“The general concept to doing more with conventional rather than nuclear has been a goal of both Republican and Democrats for decades,” Scheber said at a Washington, D.C., forum hosted by the National Defense Industrial Association and the Air Force Association.
“Technology has been the main limitation, not to mention money. But technology has advanced in this regard,” he said.
A decade ago, when the concept of conventional global strike was first introduced, technological limitations hampered its adoption as a strategic weapon system. At the time, the only vehicles capable of delivering a prompt strike anywhere in the world at a moment’s notice were the same systems designed to deliver nuclear weapons. “Nuclear ambiguity” — the worry that a conventional strike could be mistaken for a nuclear offensive — derailed efforts to outfit legacy nuclear delivery systems with conventional warheads.
An initial 2003 plan to equip Trident missiles with conventional warheads and base them on ballistic missiles submarines was scuttled for that reason, Scheber said. If a conventional weapon were launched from a submarine with a ballistic trajectory, Russian satellites could detect it but would be unable to distinguish the missile from a nuclear launch without prior notification.
Technology has since progressed to a point where nuclear ambiguity can be managed, Scheber said. Basing conventional strike missiles far away rom nuclear weapons and using new hypersonic front-end and terminal delivery systems with distinguishable trajectories, ambiguities can be eliminated, he said.
“These three characteristics determine the applicability of arms control limits and provide observable differences from nuclear weapons,” Scheber said. “Each of these the Russians can observe and use to quickly determine” whether a strike is nuclear or conventional.
Several non-nuclear global strike systems are under development. Most are what Schreber called "notional" concepts. All are sea- or land-based hypersonic missile systems less likely to be mistaken for nuclear weapons, he said. Air-delivery or space-based systems are “outside the realm of what’s near-term” and are not feasible at present, Scheber said.
The only concept being actively pursued as a program of record is the “conventional strike missile,” which would be based on land within the United States, Scheber said. Its first-stage rocket would be a modified Peacekeeper missile booster with a hypersonic delivery vehicle as its terminal stage.
The vehicles, being developed by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Army and Air Force, are capable of reaching speeds of 13,000 miles per hour. DARPA and the Air Force are developing the Hypersonic Test Vehicle 2 under the so-called Falcon Program. The program seeks a conventional weapon that strike anywhere in the world within one hour. A prototype was successfully tested over the Pacific Ocean in August 2011.
The Advanced Hypersonic Weapon, which the Army is developing at Redstone Arsenal, Ala., can reach speeds of at least 3,600 miles per hour. A prototype of that vehicle was successfully test flown in November 2011 from the Pacific Missile Range Facility, Kauai, Hawaii, to the Reagan Test Site in the Marshall Islands.
Either would be readily identifiable as a conventional weapon that flies without a ballistic trajectory at one-eighth to one-tenth the altitude of a nuclear launch, Scheber said.
Even a Trident missile armed with a conventional warhead, which has the lowest distinguishing profile of any concept, the National Academy of Sciences concluded that nuclear ambiguity was “entirely manageable,” he said.
Unlike worries about Russia, there is little concern that the Chinese would mistake a conventional weapon for a nuclear strike, Scheber said. China doesn’t have advanced radars and other sensors that can see U.S. missile launches, a capability in which the Soviet Union invested heavily during the Cold War.
There is, however, a concern that U.S. sensors would not be able to tell whether a Chinese missile launch was nuclear or conventional. Recent reports have shown that China stores both types of weapons at the same facilities and inside the same missiles, Scheber said.
With new weapon designs, nuclear arms control treaties are less of a barrier to fielding prompt global strike capabilities. The Intermediate Nuclear Forces Treaty bans only ground-launch ballistic and cruise missiles. Hypersonic, non-ballistic weapons would not fall under that document.
The New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, which limits the number of nuclear weapons a country can deploy, would only have an impact on U.S. arsenals if the conventional Trident concept were adopted, Scheber said. It would not preclude the use of those missiles, only curtail the number that could be fielded and would require a deactivation of some nuclear weapons in turn, he said.
Given these advances, “the rationale for prompt global strike remains valid,” Scheber said.
They allow quick reaction to regional threats anywhere in the world, especially places where other forces or weapons could not be deployed in a timely manner.
“The need is we might not have forces in range in time, if forces are in range,” Scheber said. “They might have the wrong capabilities … and might be vulnerable to defenses.”
The weapons also make enemy nuclear installations less valuable because the United States could strike them with conventional weapons, which should not provoke nuclear retaliation, he said. The systems also can be seen as a more potent deterrent than nuclear arms by sidestepping reluctance to use nuclear weapons except as an act of last resort, Scheber said.
Conventional global strike weapons also reduce the overall role of nuclear weapons in national security, he said.
The adoption of conventional global strike weapons could spur innovation in rocket boosters, guidance systems and other high-tech sectors that were traditionally associated with the delivery of nuclear weapons, Scheber said.
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