How could the Commander in Chief respond today offensively to a long-range threat from a ballistic missile to the U.S. homeland, overseas forces or the territory of a key ally? National missile defense and the planned deployments of theater missile defenses would provide some protection from such attacks. But if the imperative is to halt such an attack before it is launched, there is only one capability available to the President: a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile.
Nuclear weapons may be an appropriate means of deterring, responding to or, if required, preempting a large scale nuclear strike by a nation state such as Russia or China. That is why the nation continues to maintain the combination of Minuteman ICBMs and SLBMs. These two systems provide both a prompt retaliatory capability and an absolutely secure second strike deterrent.
But what about lesser threats, say from a nuclear capable Iran or North Korea? Should the only response or the first offensive action be to launch a nuclear strike at an aggressor? Would it not be more logical to provide the President with the option to rapidly strike an aggressor’s threatening systems with a conventional weapon? There are many instances in which a nuclear threat may not be credible but the possibility of conventional action would have deterrent value.
That is the logic behind the Pentagon’s effort to develop a Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) capability. For a limited set of potential targets, the nation requires the capability to rapidly (in approximately thirty minutes) place a conventional warhead on a potentially hard target. The military would not require a lot of such weapons because there is a limited but very dangerous set of scenarios for which it would be folly to wait until we or our friends are attacked but where the use of nuclear weapons would be excessive. As Secretary Panetta wrote in response to questions from the Senate during his confirmation preparations, “Conventional Prompt Global Strike weapons would provide the nation with a unique conventional capability to strike time-sensitive targets, so that distant, hard to reach places would no longer provide sanctuary to adversaries. CPGS may be the only systems available in situations where a fleeting, serious target was located in an area not readily accessible by other means.”
In view of the growing threat from rogue nations with ballistic missiles and terrorist groups intent on acquiring weapons of mass destruction, it makes no sense for the House Appropriations Committee to reduce funding for CPGS by half. Such a deep cut will make it virtually impossible for the Pentagon to explore the technological options for CPGS much less develop and deploy the desired capability. Meanwhile, both North Korea and Iran are actively developing and deploying long-range ballistic missiles and even nuclear weapons.
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