The most important security initiative the Obama Administration can take in the remainder of its term is the development of a credible prompt conventional global strike capability. The 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review made a point of the growing anti-access threat and the need for improved U.S. standoff strike capabilities (as well as penetrating ISR and air-breathing weapons delivery). In addition, the Obama Administration is determined to reduce the relevance of nuclear weapons in this country’s defense strategy. But in order to achieve this goal, as acknowledged in the new Nuclear Posture Review, the military will need a host of new capabilities, most significantly, non-nuclear prompt global strike for use against time-urgent regional threats. Whether it is to reassure allies, counter the growing challenge posed by anti-access/area denial threats or reduce reliance on nuclear weapons, the ability to attack a wide range of targets at intercontinental range promptly and without resort to nuclear weapons, is of central importance to U.S. national security.
Prompt global strike is not a new concept. The Bush Administration proposed it as part of the last Nuclear Posture Review. Then the idea was to convert some number of ICBMs or SLBMs into conventional weapons delivery systems. The idea was to be able to use such a system to attack a fleeting target of opportunity such as a terrorist in control of a weapon of mass destruction or a rogue nuclear state with a small number of long-range ballistic missiles such as North Korea and, potentially, Iran.
The Bush proposal fell afoul of arms control zealots who were concerned that the conversion of ICBMs and SLBMs to other uses was a way of prolonging the existing of strategic nuclear forces. Some observers raised the additional concern regarding how nations such as Russia or China might perceive and respond to the launch of a U.S. ballistic missile in their general direction. Neither country would be able to know for certain that the U.S. missile was not being launched against them or that it was not carrying a nuclear warhead. This argument ignored the ability of both Moscow and Beijing to understand the security context which would lead to such a launch or the certainty that the U.S. would inform both parties if it undertook such an action. But these objections were enough to scuttle the idea.
Now the idea has been resurrected. But the same concerns apply. Therefore, it might make sense for the United States to invest in a new long-range missile as the delivery system for a prompt conventional warhead. Foreign observers could be reassured about the purpose of this new system by being allowed to observe its test flight program. Also, the new missile should not be based in existing ICBM silos. These two steps, coupled with some form of onsite inspection would provide high confidence assurance to other countries that the launch of such a weapon did not signal the beginning of a U.S. nuclear strike on anyone.
The other advantage of developing a new launcher is that this would help support the U.S. solid rocket motor industrial base. This is a critical sector of the defense industrial base. In the aftermath of the administration’s decisions to retire the Space Shuttle and cancel its replacement, the Constellation, this vital sector is at risk. The administration has committed billions of dollars to preserve and modernize the scientific and industrial bases that support nuclear weapons. It should take sensible steps to also protect the solid rocket motor industry. A program to develop a prompt global strike ballistic missile would be one such step.
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