Thursday, April 26, 2007

What happens to Prompt Global Strike when START stops?

So after Congress killed the Conventional Trident Missile, the U.S. Air Force has stepped up to plate with a "midterm solution": Conventional Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles.

[Col. Richard Patenaude, chief of the deterrence and strike division for Air Force Space Command] said the missile may be based in the continental United States or abroad, and “may or may not” be considered an intercontinental ballistic missile under START Treaty counting rules.

In defending the Pentagon decision to move ahead with the conventional Trident, some defense officials have suggested a conventional land-based alternative could be problematic because Russia or China may misinterpret a launch as a potential nuclear threat to their nations.

Patenaude took pains to make clear the Air Force “has no plans to put conventional warheads on current operational ICBMs or [use] their silos.”

Other defense officials have described how a land-based missile could be configured so it is incapable of carrying a nuclear payload and use a trajectory to its target that would not threaten other nuclear weapons nations. It also could be inspected by the Russians under existing arms control regimes; based on a U.S. coastline in Florida or California so launch debris could fall in the ocean rather than on land; and made capable of being rapidly retargeted.

By contrast, critics have complained the Trident submarines would use a weapon virtually identical to its nuclear-armed twin; remain on patrol typically just off Russian coasts, potentially posing at least a debris threat to Russia; likely be closed to Russian onsite inspection; and possibly take hours or longer to receive target data and steam within range of nations where fleeting threats may appear.

There are two big holes in your plan Col. Patenaude. First, the inspection provisions of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty expire in 2009 and the Bush administration is doing little to renew it. In fact, the current STRATCOM commander, Marine General James E. Cartwright did a pretty smooth waltz around the subject when Arms Control Today brought it up in a June 2006 interview:

ACT: Speaking of treaties with Russia, the 1991 START, with its extensive verification and information exchange regime, is set to expire in December 2009. As a military commander, are you worried about losing that level of transparency and confidence provided by that regime, and would you like to see those mechanisms or measures extended or transformed in some way?

Cartwright: As a military commander, I would sure like to see them transformed; if not transformed, then to remain. I think you want something that is a little more responsive to the changes that occur in the world than the current treaty construct. That is someone else’s domain—the Department of State—to figure out. The attributes that you would seek are transparency, the ability to generate warning time, and confidence in what the intentions are of a counterpart. When talking about the United States and Russia before, I mentioned warning time. Warning time allows me to defend myself and not misjudge what it is that you are doing. A vehicle [for the attributes mentioned above] should allow the regime or protocol to keep up with the state of the technology in the future.

The State Department is working very hard on a Joint Data Exchange Center with the Russians. It has had some trouble getting its foundation laid down, but it looks like it is starting to move forward. This center would allow us to exchange information in real time and across more than just offensive weapons. We could start to look at missile defense, defensive weapons, and space sensors. There are any number of things that you could start to bring in to help create, like we did with warning time, better confidence of what each other is doing so misinterpretation becomes less of a problem. Whatever the construct is that we do with a treaty-like activity, you are trying to make sure that you can build confidence, understand the intentions of your adversary, and have time to react appropriately to those intentions. Usually, “appropriately” is defined as finding alternative ways to get out of a problem. You want to generate the time to be able to do that; the less time, the less options you have.

Treaty-like activity indeed. ACT gets the best interview quotes sometimes.

The second hole is that it may be impossible to gain international acceptance of the Prompt Global Strike concept. Even if the you could conclusively mitigate the potential for a mistaken nuclear attack, China and Russia still have cause to fear Prompt Global Strike because they couldn't defend against it. Does the military think that either nuclear power would accept the idea that the United State could launch a strike deep within its territory? The Bush administration feels so insecure about such a scenario happening to the United States that it is funding missile defense programs to the tune of $10 billion annually.

There are plenty of other reasons for other states to feel wary about conventionally-tipped long-range ballistic missiles. William Arkin correctly points out that the Prompt Global Strike concept occupies a fantasy land where the U.S. Intelligence Community incompetently misses all but the last minute warning signs of a catastrophic threat against the United States. The British-American Security Information Council argues that there is a very real chance the incredible time constraints applied to the system could lead to a 'shoot first, ask questions later' attitude. If anything, Russia should be wary of the slew of half-baked arguments that Prompt Global Strike advocates make to downplay the risk of misinterpretation over a U.S. launch. My favorite is "The Russians won't do anything because they know we're not after them."

Most importantly, military thinkers should realize that the Russians have been thinking about the implications of a long-range strategic strike capability for decades. Just check out this summary from Andrew Krepinevich's 1992 Office of Net Assessment study of Russian thinking on Military Technical Revolutions (the pdf version is down, I'm using a cached html version):

Strategic Strikes

It was observed that advanced technologies may provide the means for fielding an integrated group of networked systems (or architectures) that could execute conventional "strategic" strikes against an adversary. There has been some discussion, particularly in the Soviet/Russian literature, that this could occur through the employment of so-called aerospace operations, whereby airborne and space information (and perhaps weapon) platforms provide real-time targeting information to long-range precision-guided advanced conventional munitions, which may be land-, air-, or sea-based. If a sufficient information gap can be created , it may be possible to strike the entire range of enemy strategic targets comprising their center of gravity in a relatively short period of time,without first having to defeat the bulk of an enemy's military forces. Thus, strategic strikes would be expected to either coincide with, or follow on the heels of, operations to achieve information dominance, and perhaps air and space control as well. Strategic strikes would focus on a relatively small set of enemy targets—those comprising its center of gravity—i.e., those targets that, when disabled, will deny an enemy state the ability or the will to block an opponent from achieving its military objectives.

Furthermore, at some point in this revolution it may be possible, through the use of advanced simulations, to "test strike" a small subset of a target base, observe the effects—perhaps even matching the data obtained with simulations—and then deciding whether (and how) to continue eliminating the entire class of targets designated for destruction, or to identify more promising alternatives. There are two potential advantages to employing test strikes. First, they may allow a peer competitor to preserve time and resources critical to achieving its military objectives. The intent would be to avoid the situation the United States found itself in during previous strategic bombardment campaigns in World War II and the Vietnam War. In the former case, in the European theater the United States focused on several target sets (e.g., air frames)before finding Germany's weak point. During the Rolling Thunder campaign against North Vietnam, a progression of target sets was attacked (e.g., transportation, oil, electrical) without achieving the desired results. The importance of time and the high cost of advanced conventional munitions places a high premium on "getting it right the first time" in extracting the desired results from a chosen target set. Second, such an approach allows a peer competitor to avoid creating undesirable damage to the enemy state. Such unwanted damage may complicate war prosecution (one thinks here of the effect on domestic and world public opinion), war termination (will such damage stiffen the resolve of the target regime or its people?), and postwar plans (e.g., reconstruction).

In a war between peer competitors it seems clear that, unless an assured second-strike capability is established, the side that can execute its strategic strike operations first stands to benefit most, assuming that it retains sufficient information on the enemy target base, and overcomes active and passive defenses, to conduct its strikes effectively. This is an important point, since it is not yet clear that forces engaged in strategic strikes will have the requisite level of RSTA and battle-damage assessment (BDA) data, or that they will be able to negotiate successfully all enemy countermeasures. Therefore, in a war between peer competitors, it may not be possible to execute decisive strategic strikes,especially if the defender retains a sufficient level of its information structure intact to enable it to conduct an integrated, coordinated defense. As for nuclear weapons, they may become significantly more discriminate. Micronuclear weapons might be able to destroy targets with little collateral damage that conventional systems could not eliminate at an acceptable cost. While their employment may be useful in a purely military sense, there are obviously strong political factors and precedents for not employing nuclear weapons, save in extremis. However, nuclear weapons in the hands of radical regimes that possess ballistic or cruise missiles could emerge as the "poor man's" counter against peer competitor states.

But hey, I'm just crazy, right? Then again, I bet Bush didn't see Putin suspending Russian compliance in the CFE when he looked into his soul either...

Update: Dear readers, I apologize for all of the syntactical errors in this piece. Last Thursday was a lesson in why beer and blogging don't mix sometimes.

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