Things That Go Bump in the Night 1.0: Conventional Trident Missiles

There are times when I wonder if I am not part of a different species. The debate and ongoing interest in the Pentagon's desire to arm a small number of the Navy's Trident 2 submarine launched ICBM's with conventional warheads certainly triggered that sentiment. Before I go into this frightening saga, a couple of things need to be said. Technically, this plan was allegedly terminated by Congress in 2007, but based upon a few bread crumbs I discovered, one could infer that it has merely gone underground or under a new name. I can't really tell and it's not something that I can call the Pentagon and ask them. I'm on enough lists as it is... So why bring this up if I'm not sure it's still an active program? Because while we go about our lives and struggle with the economy, people keep coming up with bonehead crap like this that puts us all at risk. And it's got to stop. This is the kind of story that shows up as a couple of paragraphs from the AP on page 9 below the Walmart ads. Some of the scariest stuff barely rates a comment - particularly if we are enthralled by the latest Scott Peterersonesk exploits.


During the Bush years (my isn't that the preamble for a whole lot of bad ideas...) the Navy came up with a plan to remove the multiple warheads from a couple of its long-range Trident 2 missiles and replace them with conventional ones. This all came about in the wake of the debate about Tomahawk cruise missiles having missed killing Ben Laden because of their slow speed (around 500 mph), limited range (~1500 miles) and long time to target. Ships carrying Tomahawks had to be positioned pretty close to where the target are to have a shot. A submarine launched ballistic missile could cover thousands of miles in minutes so technically it could solve these problems. This would give the President a rapid response weapon of considerable accuracy that he or she might use to kill off some unsavory enemy- at the expense of creating a couple of new problems which you clever readers probably already picked up on. More on that in a minute.

In the fall of 2008, the following article was in the Washington Post:
Non-Nuclear Warhead Urged for Trident Missile

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post
Saturday, August 16, 2008

"A National Research Council blue-ribbon panel of defense experts is recommending development and testing of a conventional warhead for submarine-launched intercontinental Trident missiles to give the president an alternative to using nuclear weapons for a prompt strike anywhere in the world.

In critical situations, such an immediate global strike weapon "would eliminate the dilemma of having to choose between responding to a sudden threat either by using nuclear weapons or by not responding at all," the panel said in a final report requested by Congress in early 2007 and released yesterday."
This report to Congress was looking at this rapid response problem and Congress's concerns articulated in the next paragraph:
"Congress has delayed funding the conventional Trident program for two years while providing more than $200 million for research and development of additional, longer-term concepts for quick global strikes. One major congressional concern was that to other countries, such as Russia or China, the launch of a conventional Trident missile could not be distinguished from a nuclear one and could be mistaken for the start of a nuclear war."
Yup - that seems like a doozy of a problem to old Pliny. But the panel was nonplussed.

"The panel recognized that problem (that would be the Russia seeing the launch, and starting a nuclear war problem) and suggested several ways to mitigate it, but in the end it concluded that the benefits outweighed the risks. The panel said that before any deployment takes place, there should be diplomatic discussions, particularly with partner countries. It said these talks should include "the doctrine for its use, immediate notifying of launches against countries, and installing devices (such as monitoring systems) to increase confidence that conventional warheads had not been replaced by nuclear ones."

The panel also said that few countries, other than Russia and perhaps China, would be able to detect a sub-launched missile "in the next five years," and that because of the few warheads that would be involved, "the risk of the observing nation's launching a nuclear retaliatory attack is very low."
Benefits outweighing the risk? Hmm. Seems a bit like the old Pascal's Wager issue where the risk of being wrong is well - nuclear obliteration. I don't know about you but the benefits would have to be pretty amazing for me to feel good about this one.
"In its study, the panel focused on scenarios in which it said the Defense Department in the past "seriously contemplated strikes." These involved the need for an immediate conventional strike to preempt an adversary whose missile system was poised to launch a nuclear weapon at the United States or an ally; a gathering of terrorist leaders; a shipment of weapons of mass destruction during a moment when it could be hit; and an opportunity when an opponent's command and control capability could be struck before broader combat operations began."
The panel also adopted the Defense Department's idea that the goal of having one-hour capability for execution of a strike anywhere in the world is "sensible." It noted that in the 1990s, several attempts to kill Osama bin Laden or other al-Qaeda leaders failed because weapons systems available then, such as sub-launched cruise missiles, were not fast enough."
Again that sounds all well and good until you factor in the risk of nuclear war. Call me madcap but I'd rather let that murderous bastard Ben Laden go free a while longer rather than risking the USA turning into a burned out cinder. I guess I'm not patriotic enough or something. This just seems like a pretty big gotcha to old Pliny. Particularly when we link this thread to the incident in 1995.

Near Miss or Media Event?

On January 25 1995, the world may have come as close to nuclear war as it had during the Cuban Missile Crisis and the wargames fiasco during Reagan's term. A Norwegian rocket launch, about which Russia had been notified, was detected and triggered an alert. Now some claim that the confusion was exaggerated while others are convinced that Boris Yeltsin's decision to ride this one out saved our country from obliteration. All that angst because of one missile launch. It's not like it suddenly shot up out of the Pacific headed for GUT knows where. DoH! Sorry, that's the scenario we are talking about. Who knows for sure, but is it worth the risk? Let's use some empathy here, you are the leader of a nuclear power, the US suddenly launches a sub based missile, that may traverse your territory. They may have called you a couple of minutes ago and told you not to worry. What would you do?

I once had a notion that every ten years or so, all the world leaders and a selection of influential people should trot off somewhere to witness an atmospheric nuclear weapons test. There'd be some issues of course with the fallout but in the long run it might be worth it. I think sometimes we get pretty glib about what it means if one 300 kt warhead detonates let alone the thousands we have. Seeing is believing. I know, we can't, but would it be a bad thing for our leaders to really understand what's at stake?

Is the plan dead? Hard for me to tell. It may well be but the fact remains that it was seriously considered at all. I doubt this is the only idea of this type being considered. Plus, I found this from GlobalSecurity.Net:
"The FY2008 budget requested $175.4 million. But the Conventional TRIDENT Modification (CTM) program was "cancelled" in FY08 Appropriations Bill and funding was realigned to a defense-wide account [0604165D8Z - Prompt Global Strike Program] to investigate all prompt global strike alternatives and technologies."
??? Does that mean it's gone or just under a new name? A rose by any other name would smell as sweet but take care to remember that cow dung relabelled is the same..



Michael Lockridge said...

You know, if we trot enough leaders out just close enough to that test, it might just solve a whole lot of problems.

Of course there is the problem of making the list of sentient planets. Apparently we once made the list, but were struck from the list when it was learned that we tested our nuclear weapons on the surface of our planet.

It seems that they did not desire a planet of idiots as members.

Oh, the report came in the form of a science fiction story, but we know it is true. MIB, remember?


pboyfloyd said...

I think those nuke-boys are getting bored.

"How about if we filled onw with rose petals and exploded it over Moscow?"