Science and Global Security (sciencesecurity) wrote,
Science and Global Security

Prompt Global Strike and Conventional Counterforce: You're Mad and I'm Not.

One thing that I have been meaning to mention, in of itself, but also in the context of the North Korean nuclear issue is the small matter of “prompt global strike” and its relationship with “conventional counterforce” and the “logic of accidental nuclear war”.

Thus far coverage of the North Korean crisis has focused on the danger of allowing a nutter like Kim Jong IL to have a nuclear weapons capability, in contrast to the responsible nuclear custodianship of the NPT recognised nuclear weapon states, especially the United States.

Yet on the same weekend that the North Korean’s moved to “test” their nuclear “weapon” an important conference was held under the auspices of the Center for Science, Technology and Security Policy of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. The conference was titled “Conventional Missiles and Early Warning Systems: The Proposed D5 Trident Conversion and the Impact on Russia’s Early Warning System”. The two headline speakers were Ted Postol and Pavel Podvig, both brilliant world class analysts.

The San Francisco Chronicle published a good article describing the conference. The flavour of the argument is neatly captured in the article,

”…A Pentagon project to modify its deadliest nuclear missile for use as a conventional weapon against targets such as North Korea and Iran could unwittingly spark an atomic war, two weapons experts warned Thursday.
Russian military officers might misconstrue a submarine-launched conventional D5 intercontinental ballistic missile and conclude that Russia is under nuclear attack, said Ted Postol, a physicist and professor of science, technology and national security policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Pavel Podvig, a physicist and weapons specialist at Stanford.

"Any launch of a long-range nonnuclear armed sea or land ballistic missile will cause an automated alert of the Russian early warning system," Postol told reporters.

The triggering of an alert wouldn't necessarily precipitate a retaliatory hail of Russian nuclear missiles, Postol said. Nevertheless, he said, "there can be no doubt that such an alert will greatly increase the chances of a nuclear accident involving strategic nuclear forces…"

This is a reference to a Pentagon plan to create a “prompt global strike” capability that would enable the military to hit targets anywhere on Earth within 2 hours or less of an order being issued to that effect.

An idea here is to mix up Trident D-5 missiles with nuclear and conventional armed RVs on the same Trident submarine. As Postol and Podvig point out a Russian commander in the Strategic Rocket Forces may not be able to discern a conventionally armed missile from a nuclear one hence increasing the threat of an accidental nuclear war, especially if the trajectory of a conventional D-5 puts it on a flight path that is construed by Russian early warning systems as an attack against Russia. The same applies to China.

The plan has hit a snag in Congress but the executive continues to push the envelope on “Prompt Global Strike” much in the same fashion as the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator.

This plan is so crazy that many are scratching their heads in disbelief. Like, what the hell are they up to in Washington! I think, for what it’s worth, this may actually be related to Russia and China via something known as “conventional counterforce”.

In other words, Moscow and Beijing would be the envisaged targets of conventionally armed D5’s as much as any of the so called “rogue states”. So, the former deputy head of the Los Alamos National Laboratory, Stephen Younger, during the Clinton era wrote a very interesting report on “Nuclear Weapons in the Twenty First Century” which stated that,

”…Reasonable assumptions about the development of advanced conventional munitions leads to a scenario where the strategic workload is carried by a combination of nuclear and nonnuclear forces. It is possible to envision nonnuclear components to each of the arms of the strategic triad. Using conventional ICBMs and SLBMs, or their projected replacements, one could design reentry warheads to achieve high accuracy. These warheads would contain “smart" guidance systems that would receive intelligence handoffs from satellites or other sources before and/or during flight. Such systems would know that a target exists in a general area, be aware of its potential movement and signatures, and be able to home in on it. Given the kinetic energy of a reentering warhead, it might not be necessary for the system to contain high explosives. Hitting the target might be sufficient to destroy it…”

Younger clearly argues that Russia and China would be targets of conventional counterforce,

”…A nonnuclear long-range weapon would be especially useful against limited numbers of time-urgent weapons of mass destruction targets such as biological weapons warheads that were in preparation for use against U.S. forces. Long-range nonnuclear weapons would enable such targets to be destroyed without causing the United States to be the first to employ nuclear weapons in a conflict. The use of nonnuclear strategic weapons against Russia, China, or other nuclear states would require care, since the appearance of such a weapon on long-range sensors might be indistinguishable from a nuclear attack by the United States…”

Me thinks that “prompt global strike” is a Trojan Horse for “conventional counterforce” and this clearly increases the threat of not only accidental nuclear war but perfectly deliberate nuclear war on the basis that with “conventional counterforce” (and space weaponisation) the US would be highly tempted in a crisis to knock out key Russian and Chinese nuclear forces and command and control facilities with conventional armed ICBMs and SLBMs. The Russian and Chinese would be aware of this danger and would be presented with a severe “use them or loss them” dynamic in relation to their strategic nuclear weapons.

An English executive summary of an excellent study on conventional counterforce that appeared in Russian is a must read.

An excellent and highly valuable draft paper by Podvig to be published in the journal “Science and Global Security” is absolutely brilliant and must be mastered by anybody interested in the fate of Man. We will have much more on the issues in these pages.

Recall also that in US Strategic Command’s “Essentials of Post Cold War Deterrence” it is stated that the United States must appear “irrational”, “out of control” and “vindictive” if its “vital interests” are attacked.

Notice the big difference in the press coverage of these issues? Reams and Reams on the madness of Kim Jong IL but hardly a word about “prompt global strike” and the “logic of accidental nuclear war”.

Who is more crazy?

Tags: weapons

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