The concept of delivering a conventional warhead anywhere in the world within an hour has been discussed since the Bush administration. Conventional prompt (formally global) strike may help reduce the role of nuclear weapons, acting as a substitute against some targets where existing conventional forces are incapable of attacking quickly but nuclear weapons are inappropriate. It is intended as a niche capability to be deployed only in extraordinary circumstances.
Congress ended one such proposal, designed to replace the nuclear warheads on Trident D5 missiles with conventional munitions, by cutting all funding for the Conventional Trident Modification program in the Fiscal Year 2007, 2008, and 2009 budgets.
At a press conference previewing the Fiscal Year 2013 defense budget request, Secretary Panetta announced plans to move forward with a similar plan that would use intermediate-range (1800-3500 miles) ballistic missiles without allaying the concerns which left previous efforts dead in the water. We will not know for certain how much the Department of Defense plans to allocate to this new program until the budget is released in another week.
One of the primary concerns among experts and Members of Congress has been that any weapon carried by a ballistic missile (conventionally armed or not) could be misinterpreted by Russia or China (or India or Pakistan, depending on where they are launched or headed) as a nuclear attack. Then-President Putin said during his 2006 address to the Federal Assembly of Russia that:
“The launch of such a missile [a conventionally armed ballistic missile] could provoke an inappropriate response from one of the nuclear powers, could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.”
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey noted at the budget preview that by depressing the trajectory of conventional strike weapons, there would be no issues with discrimination between conventional- and nuclear–armed ballistic missiles. How the Russians will be able to tell a conventional missile with a depressed trajectory from a nuclear missile with a depressed trajectory has not adequately been addressed.
The Pentagon has sought ways to deliver a conventional payload via a means of delivery that doesn’t follow the trajectory of a ballistic missile throughout its entire flight. Research on hypersonic glide vehicles has sought to match the speed of a ballistic missile with the in-flight maneuverability of a cruise missile. These weapons have frequently failed during previous tests, calling into question the efficacy of continuing to fund such programs, especially in the face of other glaring problems.
A significant flaw of prompt conventional strike is that in order to strike a target within one hour’s notice you need precise intelligence. Such intelligence is often extremely difficult to come by. Missile strikes against suspected targets in the past have frequently failed to achieve the expected results. Furthermore, the use of shorter range missiles for the prompt conventional strike mission means that they must already be in position to launch against a target, lest the ability to launch promptly is lost as the weapon is transited in range of the target.
In the Department of Defense Fiscal Year 2011 Budget Estimates, conventional prompt strike research and development was estimated to cost over $2 billion through Fiscal Year 2015. Congress appropriated $180 million for prompt global strike development in Fiscal Year 2012, with $10 million of that amount ear-marked for the Navy’s newest intermediate range concept. Though prompt conventional strike may be intended to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons, the costs (including the danger of inadvertently starting World War III) hardly seem worth the limited benefits.
For an excellent summary of conventional prompt global strike plans and programs, check out Amy Woolf’s Congressional Research Service report here.