Correction to This Article
The article misidentified the intercontinental ballistic missile that the Air Force is modifying for its prototype. It is the Minuteman III, not the Peacekeeper III. There is no Peacekeeper III missile.

U.S. looks to nonnuclear weapons to use as deterrent

By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post staff writer
Thursday, April 8, 2010

As the White House pushes for cuts in the U.S. nuclear arsenal, the Pentagon is developing a weapon to help fill the gap: missiles armed with conventional warheads that could strike anywhere in the world in less than an hour.

U.S. military officials say the intercontinental ballistic missiles, known as Prompt Global Strike weapons, are a necessary new form of deterrence against terrorist networks and other adversaries. As envisioned, the conventional missiles would give the White House a fresh military option to consider in a crisis that would not result in a radioactive mushroom cloud.

The Prompt Global Strike program, which the Pentagon has been developing for several years, is already raising hackles in Moscow, where Russian officials predict it could trigger a nonnuclear arms race and complicate President Obama's long-term vision of ridding the world of nuclear weapons. U.S. military officials are also struggling to solve a separate major obstacle: the risk that Russia or China could mistake the launch of a conventional Prompt Global Strike missile for a nuclear one.

"World states will hardly accept a situation in which nuclear weapons disappear, but weapons that are no less destabilizing emerge in the hands of certain members of the international community," Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters Tuesday in Moscow.

The White House says that development of Prompt Global Strike is not affected by the new Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START), which Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev are scheduled to sign Thursday in Prague. Analysts say, however, that any conventional ballistic missiles would count the same as nuclear ones under the treaty, which places new limits on each country's stockpile.

Deployment of a conventional ballistic missile is not expected until 2015 at the earliest. But the program has received a recent boost from the Obama administration, which sees the missiles as one cog in an array of defensive and offensive weapons that could ultimately replace nuclear arms.

The administration has asked Congress for $240 million for next year's Prompt Global Strike development programs, a 45 percent increase from the current budget. The military forecasts a total of $2 billion in development costs through 2015 -- a relative bargain by Pentagon standards.

After years of preparation, the Air Force is scheduled to perform an initial flight test of a prototype next month.

"Capabilities like an adaptive missile defense shield, conventional warheads with worldwide reach and others that we are developing enable us to reduce the role of nuclear weapons," Vice President Biden said in a February speech at the National Defense University. "With these modern capabilities, even with deep nuclear reductions, we will remain undeniably strong."

Nuclear arms have formed the backbone of U.S. deterrence strategy for six decades. Although the strategy worked during the Cold War, military leaders say they need other powerful weapons in their arsenal to deter adversaries who assume that the United States would refrain from taking the extreme step of ordering a nuclear strike.

"Deterrence can no longer just be nuclear weapons. It has to be broader," Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and a leading proponent of Prompt Global Strike, told a conference last month.

Some U.S. military officials say their current nonnuclear options are too limited or too slow. Unlike intercontinental ballistic missiles, which travel at several times the speed of sound, it can take up to 12 hours for cruise missiles to hit faraway targets. Long-range bombers likewise can take many hours to fly into position for a strike.

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