10 March 2006

The Last Straw

(Editor’s note: I studied political science, and strategic planning for nuclear war as an undergraduate. I’m less a dilettante than it might appear at first glance)

The Department of Defense proposes, in its most recent budget submission, to spend US $500 million to develop a conventional warhead to replace nuclear warheads on at least one Trident submarine. The Washington Post published the story on Wednesday; I’d read about it before, but was preoccupied by other issues.

This is, simply put, the most dangerous and destabilizing weapon imaginable.

The new warhead, proposed as part of the “Prompt Global Strike” capability, would be used to attack both hardened targets and “soft” threats such as terrorist groups. Now, on the surface, this seems like a perfectly fine idea. However, there’s a major problem.

There is no way to determine whether a ballistic missile has a conventional or nuclear warhead, based on any known method of observation (I don’t pretend to know if, somewhere in the so-called “Black Budget” such a system has been developed). Given that the Russian, Chinese, French, and British (and presumably the Israeli, Indian, and Pakistani) nuclear arsenals are on a “launch on warning” basis to avoid being destroyed in a pre-emptive “first strike”, the firing of a ballistic missile from a nuclear submarine would presumably trigger an immediate response from one or more of the nuclear powers.

Think about it for a minute.

Let’s say some future President receives “definitive” intelligence that Osama bin Laden has been spotted entering a compound near, oh, let’s say Lahore, Pakistan. She authorizes the use of a flight of ballistic missiles to destroy the compound. A message is sent to a Trident submarine in the Indian Ocean carrying the conventionally armed missiles. It comes up to firing depth (about 10 meters under the surface) and fires the missiles towards the sub-continent.

China and Russia know immediately of the launch from satellite reconnaissance, and begin launch preparations for launch of land or sea-based ICBMs. This may happen as soon as 30 seconds after launch. As neither India nor Pakistan have orbital reconnaissance, they only see the missiles once they enter radar range – perhaps five to six minutes after launch, depending on the location of the submarine. Given that both India and Pakistan have land-based ballistic missiles, they immediately prepare their weapons for launch. All four countries are potentially targets, and given the development of maneuverable re-entry vehicles (MARVs) – which are required to ensure the accuracy and effectiveness of a ballistic missile carrying a conventional warhead, all must respond because based on the launch phase trajectory of the missile as there is no way to determine the final targets of the warheads.

Imagine you’re the head of Pakistan’s missile unit: where do you target your missiles? Well, they won’t reach the U.S. (and besides, we’re allies, right?). Russia’s missiles in Asia are far to the north, in Siberia, and on the Kamchatka Peninsula. China has land-based missiles based in the Taklamaklan Desert on the other side of the Karakoram and Himalayan mountains. India has their land-based missiles in the Gujarat Desert. The Israelis might have submarine-based ballistic missiles, but Israel proper is outside the operational range of your missiles. You have approximately two minutes to make a targeting decision.

The head of the Indian missile unit is in the same situation.

Both China and Russia have slightly more time (and much more sophisticated warning and tracking capabilities – they can probably determine what type of missiles were launched, and from what platform). And unlike the Pakistanis and the Indians, their ballistic missiles have global reach. And they have many more missiles, maintained both on land and at sea. So their immediate need to respond is not as great.

Now, our future President may – or may not – choose to notify the appropriate states prior to launching the strike. If she does, she threatens her chances of eliminating the intended target because leaked information would, almost inevitably, reach OBL – and quickly. If she does not, any of the four nuclear countries will think they are targets for the warheads.

So, your two minutes are up. Do you launch your missiles, and if so, where?

This is why this is a destabilizing and dangerous weapon system. Put simply, it kicks open the door to Armageddon. Unlike most “traditional” ballistic missiles, there is no deterrent effect with its deployment. In fact, a ballistic missile with a conventional warhead almost forces a nuclear power with ballistic missiles to an immediate launch on warning posture.

Tell your Representatives and Senators this, now: no funds for development of conventional warheads for ballistic missiles. If we need “bunker busting” and soft target strike capability (which, honestly, are good things to have), then we should do it with a combination of special forces, human intelligence, and stealth aircraft delivering precision guided munitions.

And if you have questions, ask yourself this: do you trust Donald Rumsfeld’s Department of Defense to make prudent decisions about how other countries will respond to our actions?

Thought so.

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