Early in his tenure as defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld embraced a handful of new weapon initiatives intended to fill gaps in near-term military capabilities. Possibly the smartest was conversion of four Trident ballistic-missile submarines into carriers of non-nuclear missiles for attacking land targets. Rumsfeld and his advisors saw that the nation no longer needed the huge nuclear arsenal of Cold War years, and that parts of it could be adapted to accomplishing less destructive missions. Because weapons like the Trident subs had long since been bought and built, it was cheaper to modify them for emerging missions than to begin a series of costly new programs.
Among the emerging missions was the need to defeat enemies who tried to deny the U.S. access to contested areas, and the need to prevent adversaries from securing sanctuary in remote places such as Afghanistan. Some in the military questioned the need for Trident conversions, arguing that existing platforms had plenty of firepower and smart munitions were increasing the probability of killing a target on the first shot. But Rumsfeld and his advisors felt the large volume of the Tridents combined with their ability to avoid detection even when operating close to enemy coastlines offered unique advantages in terms of survivability and tactical agility. So they pressed ahead with plans to pack each of the 24 missile tubes on the Tridents with half a dozen non-nuclear cruise missiles.
The conversions are going quite well, and recent intelligence about overseas military developments has vindicated the argument that Tridents deliver unique capabilities to the joint force. That intelligence — which underpins three “major combat operation” scenarios for China, Iran and Korea in the quadrennial defense review — warns that operating non-stealthy warships and aircraft anywhere near such countries in the future could be fatally dangerous. Tridents are extremely stealthy, so equipping them with highly accurate conventional weapons for attacking distant land targets seems to answer the mail. That’s especially true if they’re connected to a global information grid of wireless networks that can provide timely information about where adversaries are.
There’s only one flaw in these plans: some targets are too fleeting or reinforced to be attacked with cruise missiles. Cruise missiles take a long time to get to distant targets, and they don’t pack much punch in terms of being able to penetrate the ground or hardened structures. What’s needed — as the Defense Science Board stated in 2004 — is a conventionally-armed ballistic missile that can get to “time-sensitive” targets fast with a range of kill mechanisms, from submunitions that explode across a wide area to penetrating warheads that burrow into the ground before exploding.
Now that option exists, in the form of a “Submarine Launched Intermediate Ballistic Missile” developed by rocket and munitions maker Alliant Techsystems (ATK). ATK would use proven components to fashion a missile that can cover 1,500 nautical miles in 15 minutes, landing within ten feet of intended aimpoints. The missile would carry a variety of non-nuclear warheads weighing up to 1,250 pounds, and would receive in-flight updates from satellites to assure maximum accuracy. With three of the missiles able to fit into each Trident tube for submerged launching, the proposed missile is a fast way of leveraging the full potential of converted Tridents — one of those rare instances in Pentagon procurement where quick and cheap also manages to be versatile and responsive.
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