A Missile Strike Option We Need

By Harold Brown and James Schlesinger
Monday, May 22, 2006

Imagine the following dilemma facing an American president one day in the future (when, we hope, our real-time intelligence will have reached a high degree of accuracy, precision and timeliness):

Within the past hour, a terrorist organization, known to have acquired several nuclear weapons, has been observed by a U.S. imaging system loading the weapons onto vehicles and preparing to leave for an unknown destination. A delay of even an hour or two in launching a U.S. strike on that location could mean the group would depart, contact might be lost, and the weapons would be smuggled into the United States or an allied nation and detonated.

If the terrorist group happened to be close to an Air Force deployment or the right kind of Navy force, an air attack might conceivably be carried out within a few hours -- possibly catching the group still in camp and unaware. But if the terrorists were far from U.S. aircraft or cruise missiles, the only option available to the president would be to order the use of a ballistic missile -- a land-based Minuteman or submarine-based Trident D5 -- either one of which could hit a target almost anywhere on the globe within a half-hour. One big problem, though: At present, all of these missiles are equipped only with nuclear warheads.

Would the president order a preventive nuclear strike in such circumstances? It's conceivable, but very unlikely. There would still be doubts as to whether the intelligence was accurate, and even if it was, the consequences of an unprecedented action of this kind might well be regarded as unacceptable -- in terms of the risk to innocent lives, of environmental damage and of the expected political repercussions around the world. More than likely, the president would order U.S. intelligence and military forces to try to track the terrorist group and seek later opportunities to hit it with Special Forces or aircraft armed with conventional weapons. This might work, but if it didn't the consequences could be catastrophic.

It is because of the increasing likelihood of such scenarios -- requiring prompt, precise, nonnuclear strikes -- that the Pentagon is seeking congressional authorization to replace the nuclear warheads on two of the Trident D5 missiles on every deployed strategic submarine with a new type of warhead incorporating four highly accurate, independently targetable, nonnuclear reentry bodies. These are likely to be very effective against surface targets, such as exposed missiles, docked ships and vehicles, and aircraft on the ground -- capable of attacking such targets virtually anywhere in Europe, Africa or Asia within one hour of a command to do so. And not only would the strike be prompt and precise, it could also hit the target without warning. The new weapon would probably not be effective against most hardened targets, say, missile silos, or deeply buried targets such as command posts. It is not intended for, nor would it be capable of, countering the deterrent capability of Russian or Chinese nuclear forces.

The early missile stages would be programmed to splash down in the ocean, thus avoiding potential problems of damage from their reentry. Later stages of the missile's trajectory might fly over the territory of other countries, but they would not fall outside the target area. Only the Russian early-warning system has any possibility of detecting a launch from the submarines' standard operating areas, and the risk of a misinterpretation of the aim point would be lower than with the launch of a land-based intercontinental ballistic missile.

Nevertheless, to our surprise, there has been opposition to the proposal on Capitol Hill. Some have argued that it is unwise to substitute conventional warheads for nuclear ones on strategic submarines even if it's only on two missiles per submarine. They fear it could be the beginning of a wholesale attempt to replace nuclear capabilities with conventional weapons. Given that submarine-based warheads constitute roughly two-thirds of the U.S. deterrent, and are the component best able to survive, these capabilities should not be compromised, they maintain. But the concept does not require a reduction in submarine-based warheads. Additional nuclear warheads would be added to the remaining nuclear-armed missiles on each submarine to keep the number constant.

Others assert that mistakes could be made in the action messages conveyed to the submarines or that, for some other reason, the granting of a dual mission to strategic submarines could compromise the strict controls that ensure that nuclear missiles are not launched inadvertently. But the Navy has worked out both procedural and physical measures that will avoid any such problems, and it has high credibility in this regard. For decades during the Cold War the Navy maintained both conventional and nuclear versions of air defense missiles, cruise missiles, torpedoes and bombs on its ships and submarines without serious incident.

Still others are concerned that the launch of even one long-range ballistic missile, nuclear-armed or not, could trigger an adverse reaction from Russia and even a counter-launch if Russian leaders feared that they themselves were under attack. Past experience indicates that detection of a single missile launch (especially from a submarine operating area), even if detected and unannounced, might raise a diplomatic issue, but it wouldn't trigger a military response. In any case, Russian leaders could be notified and the reasons for the strike disclosed as the missile neared its target.

The detonation of a nuclear weapon in the United States by a terrorist group would be an unprecedented disaster. It is essential that Congress approve the funds for this program. Moreover, a small reprogramming action in the current fiscal year could accelerate the missiles' initial deployments. In a world in which terrorist groups may have access to nuclear weapons, it is imperative to give future U.S. presidents more options to prevent nuclear attacks.

Harold Brown was secretary of defense from 1977 to 1981 under President Jimmy Carter. James Schlesinger was secretary of defense from 1973 to 1975 under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company