In the latest issue of International Security, defense analyst Bruce Sugden’s article, “Speed Kills: Analyzing the Deployment of Conventional Ballistic Missiles,” weighs the pros and cons of deploying conventional ballistic missiles (CBMs) in support of the Prompt Global Strike mission.
Prompt Global Strike is an initiative that seeks to address rapidly emerging threats with non-nuclear means. Under both the ground- and sea-based iterations of the proposal, a conventional warhead would be mated to a long-range missile normally equipped with a nuclear payload. These conventionally-armed long-range missiles could then be used to engage time-sensitive targets globally, such as high-value terrorist encampments. CBMs based in the continental United States could strike an hour after the decision was made to launch, and would have a 15 minute advantage if forward-deployed on land or at sea.
Sugden evaluates the merits of short term deployment of CBMs versus both unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and manned aircraft based on nine attributes. He concludes that CBMs are superior in the short term in terms of prompt response (speed), combat radius, accuracy, and throw weight.
There are several limitations to deploying CBMs, however. The satellite technology used to identify targets is designed to monitor changes overtime, such as the movements of large military installations. The satellites are less useful for tracking small mobile targets like small groups of individuals. CBMs would also have to be paired with more persistent and multi-faceted surveillance such as localized human and aircraft reconnaissance. Thus, CBM prompt response and accuracy are contingent upon continued investment in, and reliance upon, multiple sources of quality ISR.
Former Secretaries of Defense Harold Brown and James Schlesinger, along with STRATCOM chief Gen. Kevin Chilton, have advocated deploying CBMs. But opponents express legitimate reservations. There is a real danger of a nuclear state confusing a CBM with a nuclear-armed missile and quickly launching a retaliatory response in order to avoid losing their weapons in what they believe is an incoming counterforce strike (the “use ‘em or lose ‘em” problem). Neither Russia nor China currently has the capability to distinguish between non-nuclear and nuclear missiles in the event of a fly-over, particularly in Russia’s case with its dilapidated radar infrastructure.
Nevertheless, Sugden recommends continued R&D and near-term (by 2013) deployment of the Navy’s conventional Trident missile.
For an comprehensive critique of Prompt Global Strike and the Conventional Trident Modernization program, see Steve Andreasen’s 2006 ACT article.