New Paradigms Forum
July 23, 2010
by Christopher Ford
As anticipated, the fight in the U.S. Senate over the so-called “New START” strategic arms treaty with Russia has relatively little to do with the actual limits the agreement sets upon numbers of strategic arms. As previously discussed, the cuts the draft treaty imposes in aggregate numbers of missile and warheads are not dramatic, and may be to some extent even illusory. In this sense, at least, the treaty is neither particularly problematic nor particularly interesting. The agreement may be a great disappointment for disarmament enthusiasts who have been led to expect so much from the Obama Administration, therefore, but the “New START” numbers, in and of themselves, do not seem greatly to alarm even the most hawkish of conservatives – and therefore will presumably not impede ratification.
Instead, the controversy currently being played out in the legislature is over the new treaty’s impact upon non-nuclear weaponry – specifically, the degree to which it may impede the development of U.S. ballistic missile defenses and limit conventionally-armed “prompt global strike” (PGS) capabilities. (There is also controversy over the authorities given to the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) that would be created by the new treaty.) I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here, but this website hasn’t dealt with these issues yet, and they are indeed worth discussing. Accordingly, this posting – the first of two anticipated NPF essays on the ancillary issues of “New START” – will deal with PGS.
The controversy over “prompt global strike” is relatively straightforward. Because the treaty limits the total number of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers each side may have, irrespective of what sort of warhead sits atop them, it sets up a zero-sum trade-off between nuclear and conventionally-armed missiles. If we want to hold intercontinental-range missiles in readiness to deliver a regular high-explosive or kinetic energy warhead to a fleeting terrorist target in some distant land, for instance – and in this regard one frequently hears comparisons to the now well-known failure of slower-moving U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit Osama bin Laden and his senior lieutenants when they stopped briefly at a camp in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 1998 – we would have to reduce our nuclear-armed missile arsenal by a corresponding number. This limitation would effectively turn the development of PGS, a policy goal supported by both the Bush and Obama administrations, into a tool of unilateral nuclear disarmament: every intercontinental-range ballistic missile devoted to PGS has to be taken out of nuclear service.
This impediment to using ICBMs and SLBMs for conventional strike might not be much of a problem if we had other means by which to accomplish PGS missions, but we do not – and we will not for some time. The only available near-term PGS delivery option of which I am aware involves putting conventional weapons atop intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, but this is precisely the class of missiles that are limited by “New START” and the use of which would therefore necessarily entail nuclear trade-offs.
The White House is said to have requested some $250 million to explore exotic new PGS technologies, but any new system – if it is in fact ultimately developed at all – would take years to reach deployment. The U.S. Air Force, for example, is presently testing a hydrocarbon-fueled scramjet that holds out the prospect of being able to hit distant targets quickly by traveling at hypersonic speeds. This technology is many years from maturity and operational availability, however. (In its most recent test in May 2010, it managed to fly under its own power at about Mach 5 for 200 seconds. This was a significant improvement over the mere 12 seconds this technology managed to run in a previous test, but it is clear we still have far to go in basic engine development – let alone in turning such an approach into a usable weapons system.)
It is not too hard to put conventional high explosive or kinetic energy (i.e., solid penetrator) warheads in otherwise ordinary ballistic missile re-entry vehicles (RVs), and we could presumably do so fairly quickly to create a stopgap PGS capability. (The Bush Administration wanted to do this several years ago with some submarine-launched Trident missiles, but Democrats in Congress killed the effort.) For the medium term, the United States is apparently looking into developing a hypersonic boost/glide vehicle that could be launched atop a ballistic missile before separating and maneuvering itself to a target thousands of miles away. Even optimistic projections, however – and one must always be suspicious of rosy predictions from Pentagon procurement officials – do not envision anything of this sort being available within the next few years, nor available as a real weapons system (e.g., with missiles, warheads, and command and control systems) before the end of the decade. Both of these short- and medium-term approaches, moreover, would still use ballistic missile boosters – and if we want to do that, “New START” will keep us subject to its zero-sum trade-offs. The proposed treaty, in other words, will force us to trade PGS off against nuclear missions for years, until something exotically non-ballistic comes on line.
It’s not hard, of course, to see why “New START” is structured to limit our PGS options. Russia hates our development of PGS, correctly perceiving that long-range precision strike is a critical component of America’s conventional military strength and current position as the preeminent military power on the planet, and seeing PGS as the “coming thing” in our continued development of such capabilities. For these reasons alone, it is for Russia almost axiomatically to be detested. Making things worse, moreover, the Putin-era siloviki state, in its semi-paranoiac insecurity, also professes to fear that U.S. PGS capabilities might someday be used in some kind of non-nuclear “first strike” against Russia. (Russia is said to have been pursuing development of its own hypersonic glide vehicle [HGV] for years, by the way. If Russian officials’ boasts to the press are to be credited, however, this program has more to do with getting nuclear warheads past missile defenses than with delivering conventional payloads. For Moscow, HGVs are not about reducing reliance on nuclear weapons but rather about prolonging such reliance.) At any rate, notwithstanding American promises that “New START” would only deal with strategic nuclear arms, Russian negotiators seem to have done a pretty good job in ensuring that the agreement constrains PGS, at least in the short term.
From an American perspective, this limitation on PGS is somewhat paradoxical, given that the Obama Administration’s ostensibly enthusiastic embrace of PGS has been undertaken on the theory that developing such capabilities will help us reduce our reliance upon nuclear weaponry. If PGS were only about maintaining some capability to hit a high-value terrorist target or rogue state WMD facility on a near-real-time basis – the original rationale for the Pentagon’s pursuit of such technologies – the new treaty’s limitations might not be too damaging: very limited numbers of PGS missiles might do the trick.
But the Obama Administration also claims PGS is key to reducing our reliance upon nuclear weaponry, and this suggests both a much broader potential mission set and the need for a considerably larger number of PGS missiles. (If PGS capabilities in some respect substitute for nuclear weaponry, as we are assured they will, the solidity of our strategic deterrent will depend in part upon not using up PGS assets in prosecuting time-urgent terrorist or other targets: if we use them for the latter mission, they won’t be available for the former. If the Obama Administration wants to use PGS to facilitate nuclear disarmament in any way beyond simply waving it around as a conveniently empty debating point, in other words, we’ll need quite a bit more PGS.) This would not be problematic – and here we should remember that the Bush Administration also talked of PGS as a means to help reduce reliance upon nuclear weapons – except that it is precisely the availability of PGS missiles that President Obama’s “New START” agreement will effectively limit. If you’re free to build as many PGS missiles as you want, the emerging dual-mission assignment is straightforward. If you aren’t, it isn’t.
Even assuming that PGS capabilities can “replace” nuclear weaponry for anything more than some subset of counterforce missions, moreover – a theory on which there is not universal agreement – the Obama Administration seems to assume both that PGS technologies are currently mature enough to replace nuclear weaponry for at least some missions and that such substitution can occur on a missile-for-missile basis. (If PGS were not mature enough to do this yet, the Obama Administration’s nuclear disarmament agenda might be premature: we would not yet be ready to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons, or at least it would be too early to cite PGS as a reason why it is acceptable to reduce our armaments now. Similarly, if one-for-one substitution cannot work, then “New START” is misguided – and perhaps even an obstacle to U.S. nuclear disarmament – precisely because of its trade-off requirement. Since Obama officials do cite PGS and do want this treaty to be ratified, one can only infer that the White House believes neither of these things.) Are such assumptions justified? Are they based upon any actual analysis? If so, can we please see it?
The Obama Administration clearly wants everyone to believe that the conceptual elements of its partly PGS-dependent “reducing reliance” argument all hang together coherently, but its officials have not bothered actually to offer an explanation of how this works. Senators being asked to ratify the constraints “New START” would place on near- and medium-term PGS thus have good reason to press for clear accounts of precisely how (and when) PGS is expected to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons, what PGS capabilities will be needed in this regard, what additional PGS weaponry will be needed to make possible missions not related to reducing reliance upon nuclear devices, what the impact will be of limiting our ability to use ballistic boosters for PGS delivery, and how the “New START” limitations on near-term PGS are consistent with the President’s own ostensibly PGS-facilitated disarmament agenda.
Christopher A. Ford was formerly Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Technology and Global Security at Hudson Institute.
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