The development of a capability to deliver conventional warheads to any point on Earth within minutes "would be a valuable option for the president to have at his disposal," CIA Director Leon Panetta told lawmakers ahead of a hearing on his nomination to succeed Robert Gates as Defense secretary.
Panetta's statements suggest that the Pentagon under his leadership would continue with the controversial program.
A "conventional prompt global strike" capability would enable the United States "to strike time-sensitive targets, so that distant, hard-to-reach places will no longer provide sanctuary to adversaries," Panetta said in written testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee.
"It is my understanding that the only current prompt global strike capability in the U.S. inventory is a nuclear-armed ballistic missile," he said.
The United States might consider employing such a system against "regional adversaries considering an attack using weapons of mass destruction," "high-priority" nonstate entities, or "situations where a fleeting, serious threat was located in a region not readily accessible by other means," Panetta said.
The CIA chief declined to express a preference for any of the technologies now being studied for carrying out a rapid nonnuclear strike. One such system would involve use of a hypersonic drone aircraft designed to travel at speeds of up to 4,000 mph.
"I understand that [the Defense Department] is developing and testing technologies relevant to both land-based and sea-based CPGS [conventional prompt global strike]," Panetta said in his written testimony. "It would be premature to make any decisions regarding a future deployed system until the results of these tests are in-hand.
The White House informed Congress earlier this year that the Defense Department "at present has no plans to develop or field" ICBMs or submarine-launched ballistic missiles that would be tipped with conventional warheads and delivered "with traditional ballistic trajectories," Arms Control Today reported in April. Earlier discussion of such a scheme had prompted concerns that other nuclear powers would be unable to distinguish such a weapon from a nuclear-tipped ballistic missile, potentially leading to catastrophe.
Effective use of such a weapon system "would depend on the availability of timely and accurate intelligence on the nature, location, and disposition of a potential target," Panetta stated. "If confirmed, I will consider what specific improvements in intelligence capabilities may be needed to enable effective use of CPGS systems for various types of targets."
Separately, Panetta did not rule out recommending that new underground nuclear test detonations be conducted if he could not "certify the stockpile as safe, secure, and reliable." His "recommendation ... would depend critically on the root causes of problems in the stockpile," Panetta said.
The CIA director endorsed expansion of the U.S. Cooperative Threat Reduction Initiative to regions outside the former Soviet Union, and backed the program's broad goals of countering threats posed by weapons of mass destruction and related materials (see GSN, April 14).
Speaking before the Senate panel on Thursday, Panetta reaffirmed Obama administration stances in, among other things, U.S. nuclear weapons modernization and the atomic threats posed by Iran and North Korea.
Asked by Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., whether the failure to oust Libyan dictator Muammar el-Qaddafi from power would signal that Iran has no need "to fear America when it comes to developing nuclear weapons," Panetta appeared to agree.
"I think it tells them that our word isn't worth very much if we're not willing to stick to it," he said. President Obama has demanded that Qaddafi step down.
Gates is slated to exit the Pentagon's top post on June 30. Panetta is expected to be confirmed by the Senate and to take his new job on July 1.