Nuclear Weapons Rarely Needed, General Says

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 10, 2007

The head of U.S. Strategic Command has told Congress that precision conventional weapons have replaced the need for nuclear ones in almost all areas, except when a quick intercontinental strike is required against unexpected or fast-moving threats.

"While America possesses dominant conventional capabilities second to none, we lack the capability to respond promptly to globally dispersed or fleeting threats without resorting to nuclear weapons," Gen. James E. Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command (STRATCOM), told the House Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces on Thursday.

Cartwright said the Air Force is studying a conventional-strike missile launched from the United States that is maneuverable at global distances. But he said the near-term solution is "to deploy a precision global strike missile" using current ICBMs, two years after Congress approves funding.

Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.), the subcommittee's chairman, pointed out that although a conventional-strike capability that can hit targets anywhere in the world "is a powerful concept," Congress last year expressed concerns about a proposal to modify Trident sub-launched ICBMs with conventional warheads. That is because countries such as Russia could not distinguish such a launched missile from one that is nuclear.

Cartwright voiced strong support for the Reliable Replacement Warhead (RRW) program, which could result in a new generation of U.S. nuclear warheads being produced by 2012. He tied the introduction of RRW weapons to the reduction of today's U.S. stockpile of roughly 6,000 warheads to 2,200 or fewer by that date. Cartwright said the new RRW would feature a security device that would render the warhead useless -- like "a paperweight" -- if it fell into the wrong hands.

Tauscher, whose district contains the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, which won the basic design for the first RRW, said Congress will not make a decision to build the weapon this year. But she added, "We need a public debate on the nature of strategic deterrence and the role of nuclear weapons."

Cartwright, who is also responsible for Pentagon space programs, said debris created by China's recent anti-satellite test introduced a new threat to astronauts and satellites from all nations. He told the subcommittee the United States "must have better space detection, characterization and assessment tools" to monitor objects in space.

With about 40,000 pieces of debris already in space, Cartwright said, collisions regularly occur. He added that it has become difficult to predict where debris will be when planning the launch of space shuttles and new satellites.

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