Global-Strike Arms Pose Little-Recognized Stability Risks: Report

Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
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Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
Sept. 3, 2013, 9:02 a.m.

WASH­ING­TON — A new re­port warns that fu­ture U.S. non­nuc­lear rap­id-strike arms could pose a little-un­der­stood risk of cross­ing trip­wires to glob­al con­flict if a ma­jor mil­it­ary power could not de­term­ine wheth­er it is be­ing tar­geted in a quickly un­fold­ing at­tack.

“Non-bal­list­ic CP­GS weapons, which are highly man­euver­able, could pos­sibly lead an ob­serving state to wrongly con­clude that an in­com­ing weapon was head­ing for its ter­rit­ory,” states a Carne­gie En­dow­ment ana­lys­is, ex­plain­ing how so-called “con­ven­tion­al prompt glob­al strike” arms might pose what it terms “des­tin­a­tion am­bi­gu­ity.”

A for­eign na­tion with ad­vanced early-warn­ing in­tel­li­gence cap­ab­il­it­ies — such as Rus­sia fields today and China may have in the fu­ture — also might be un­cer­tain wheth­er a U.S. man­euver­able, fast-strike weapon is on the verge of tak­ing out its own atom­ic weapons, ac­cord­ing James Ac­ton’s re­port, “Sil­ver Bul­let? Ask­ing the Right Ques­tions About Con­ven­tion­al Prompt Glob­al Strike.”

“A state could mis­takenly be­lieve that its nuc­le­ar forces were un­der at­tack when its con­ven­tion­al forces were really the tar­get,” a situ­ation that the au­thor calls “tar­get am­bi­gu­ity.”

“This situ­ation could arise, for in­stance, if a state’s nuc­le­ar and con­ven­tion­al as­sets were ‘en­tangled’ be­cause of dual-use com­mand-and-con­trol sys­tems,” he writes.

The risks of such mis­un­der­stand­ings could run high, he says.

“A state that feared its crit­ic­al weapon sys­tems — par­tic­u­larly nuc­le­ar weapons — were vul­ner­able to a pree­mpt­ive CP­GS strike could feel pres­sure to use or threaten to use those weapons first, [cre­at­ing] crisis in­stabil­ity,” ac­cord­ing to the re­port.

Ac­ton, a seni­or as­so­ci­ate in Carne­gie’s Nuc­le­ar Policy Pro­gram, ar­gues that while there has been much de­bate on Cap­it­ol Hill about po­ten­tially destabil­iz­ing as­pects of de­ploy­ing and us­ing con­ven­tion­al prompt-strike weapons, con­cerns have fo­cused too much on war­head am­bi­gu­ity when a broad­er set of press­ing is­sues should be ad­dressed.

U.S. law­makers in past years re­jec­ted a concept for con­ven­tion­al prompt glob­al strike that would have swapped out nuc­le­ar war­heads for con­ven­tion­al front ends on Tri­dent D-5 sub­mar­ine-based bal­list­ic mis­siles. They cited con­cerns that Rus­sia or China might someday de­tect a U.S. Tri­dent launch and, un­aware which type of war­head the mis­sile car­ried, could re­spond pre­cip­it­ously with atom­ic arms.

With the “Con­ven­tion­al Tri­dent Modi­fic­a­tion” ef­fort put on the back burn­er, war­head am­bi­gu­ity is no longer the most press­ing crisis-sta­bil­ity is­sue fa­cing the de­vel­op­ment of prompt-strike weapons, Ac­ton ar­gues.

An ar­ray of tech­no­lo­gic­al al­tern­at­ives re­mains for the non­nuc­lear prompt-strike mis­sion. Those in­clude:

— The Army’s Ad­vanced Hy­per­son­ic Weapon, a fu­tur­ist­ic cap­ab­il­ity that, if tech­nic­ally feas­ible, could be either land- or sea-based;

— The Hy­per­son­ic Tech­no­logy Vehicle-2, de­veloped by the De­fense Ad­vanced Re­search Pro­jects Agency but re­cently put back in­to risk-mit­ig­a­tion after test fail­ures;

— A Navy Sea-Launched In­ter­me­di­ate Range Bal­list­ic Mis­sile, which Ac­ton re­ports could carry either a hy­per­son­ic glider or steer­able reentry vehicle, but which re­cently ex­per­i­enced some bur­eau­crat­ic set­backs; and

— An Air Force High Speed Strike Weapon, an air-launched hy­per­son­ic cruise mis­sile that Ac­ton de­scribes as be­ing de­veloped out­side of the prompt glob­al strike pro­gram.

Ac­ton urges the De­fense De­part­ment to fully ex­plore the pro­spect­ive strengths and draw­backs of each op­tion, keep­ing in mind that each al­tern­at­ive may pose less risk of one kind of am­bi­gu­ity dur­ing a crisis while ag­grav­at­ing am­bi­gu­ity in an­oth­er way.

“The most dis­cussed stra­tegic risk is the pos­sib­il­ity that a CP­GS weapon could be mis­taken for a nuc­le­ar weapon,” states the phys­i­cist in the 197-page doc­u­ment. “Oth­er es­cal­a­tion risks are, however, more ser­i­ous.”

As Ac­ton ex­plains it, “An ob­serving state might mis­takenly be­lieve that a CP­GS weapon was head­ing for its ter­rit­ory, not only ex­acer­bat­ing the risk of war­head am­bi­gu­ity but also cre­at­ing new risks of es­cal­a­tion.”

The re­port’s bot­tom-line re­com­mend­a­tion for the Pentagon is “to look at the ques­tion of CP­GS ac­quis­i­tion hol­ist­ic­ally,” the schol­ar told Glob­al Se­cur­ity News­wire in an e-mailed re­sponse to ques­tions.

“On the one hand, there is a very plaus­ible ar­gu­ment that CP­GS weapons will en­hance de­terrence and make war less likely,” he said. “On the oth­er hand, the po­ten­tial es­cal­at­ory im­plic­a­tions of boost-glide weapons have been neg­lected.”

Though Pentagon of­fi­cials dis­cuss an ar­ray of counter-ter­ror­ism and counter-pro­lif­er­a­tion tar­gets that might be the fo­cus of non­nuc­lear prompt-strike weapons, the De­fense De­part­ment has not form­ally de­term­ined for what mis­sions these arms would be pro­cured, he states in the re­port.

Bey­ond the stub­born am­bi­gu­ity chal­lenges, “there are ques­tions about the mil­it­ary util­ity of can­did­ate CP­GS tech­no­lo­gies, es­pe­cially in the ab­sence of needed en­abling cap­ab­il­it­ies,” he told GSN, re­fer­ring to com­mand-and-con­trol sys­tems; in­tel­li­gence, sur­veil­lance and re­con­nais­sance re­quire­ments; and post-at­tack battle dam­age as­sess­ment sys­tems.

“And,” Ac­ton said, “there needs to be a com­par­is­on of wheth­er non-prompt al­tern­at­ives might be more cost ef­fect­ive.”

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