Non-Nuclear Warhead Urged for Trident Missile

By Walter Pincus
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 16, 2008

A National Research Council blue-ribbon panel of defense experts is recommending development and testing of a conventional warhead for submarine-launched intercontinental Trident missiles to give the president an alternative to using nuclear weapons for a prompt strike anywhere in the world.

In critical situations, such an immediate global strike weapon "would eliminate the dilemma of having to choose between responding to a sudden threat either by using nuclear weapons or by not responding at all," the panel said in a final report requested by Congress in early 2007 and released yesterday.

Congress has delayed funding the conventional Trident program for two years while providing more than $200 million for research and development of additional, longer-term concepts for quick global strikes. One major congressional concern was that to other countries, such as Russia or China, the launch of a conventional Trident missile could not be distinguished from a nuclear one and could be mistaken for the start of a nuclear war.

The panel recognized that problem and suggested several ways to mitigate it, but in the end it concluded that the benefits outweighed the risks. The panel said that before any deployment takes place, there should be diplomatic discussions, particularly with partner countries. It said these talks should include "the doctrine for its use, immediate notifying of launches against countries, and installing devices (such as monitoring systems) to increase confidence that conventional warheads had not been replaced by nuclear ones."

The panel also said that few countries, other than Russia and perhaps China, would be able to detect a sub-launched missile "in the next five years," and that because of the few warheads that would be involved, "the risk of the observing nation's launching a nuclear retaliatory attack is very low."

In its study, the panel focused on scenarios in which it said the Defense Department in the past "seriously contemplated strikes." These involved the need for an immediate conventional strike to preempt an adversary whose missile system was poised to launch a nuclear weapon at the United States or an ally; a gathering of terrorist leaders; a shipment of weapons of mass destruction during a moment when it could be hit; and an opportunity when an opponent's command and control capability could be struck before broader combat operations began.

The panel also adopted the Defense Department's idea that the goal of having one-hour capability for execution of a strike anywhere in the world is "sensible." It noted that in the 1990s, several attempts to kill Osama bin Laden or other al-Qaeda leaders failed because weapons systems available then, such as sub-launched cruise missiles, were not fast enough.

The panel described sub-launched conventional missile programs as "attractive in the near term" as well as the longer term because they have lower technical risk and could be modified as time went on. But the panel added that technology development of longer-term delivery options, such as hypersonic cruise missiles, though technically risky "could provide some advantages" to sub-launched missiles.

The fiscal 2009 defense authorization bill, which has yet to pass Congress, authorizes additional funding for conceptual studies, and the Senate Armed Services Committee's version requires a report on all concepts before the presentation of the fiscal 2010 budget.

The panel was chaired by Albert Carnesale, former chancellor of the University of California at Los Angeles and former provost at Harvard who served as a negotiator on the SALT I arms-control treaty. The panel also included John S. Foster Jr., a former director of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Defense Department director of research and development and chairman of the Committee on the Present Danger; Richard L. Garwin, IBM fellow emeritus at the Thomas J. Watson Research Center who from 1993 to 2001 chaired the Arms Control and Nonproliferation Advisory Board of the State Department; and retired Air Force Gen. Eugene E. Habiger, former head of Strategic Command.

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