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Non-Nuclear Missile: The New US Tool Against Terrorism!

Gp Capt Ajey Lele (Retd.) is a Consultant at the Manohar Parrikar Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile.
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  • June 22, 2006

    The 'spirit' of the US global nuclear policies can be easily described in two words - 'nuclear ambiguity'. From NPT (Non-Proliferation Treaty) to CTBT (Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty), and from START I/II to the ABM (Anti-Ballistic Missile) Treaty, the US has mostly taken a selfish position. Till recently, even as American nuclear ayatollahs were debating various global disarmament measures, the Pentagon was working on concepts like 'usable nukes' and was also projecting a need to undertake nuclear testing for the purposes of weaponisation.

    A recent New York Times report suggests that the Pentagon is pressing Congress to approve the development of a new weapon that would enable the United States to carry out non-nuclear missile strikes against distant targets within an hour. What the Pentagon intends is to deploy a new non-nuclear warhead to be placed atop the submarine-launched Trident II missile. It proposes to use these warheads to attack terrorist camps, enemy missile sites, suspected caches of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons and other potentially urgent threats. The natural conclusion one can arrive at is that in all likelihood these weapons are expected to enhance the US' pre-emptive capabilities.

    The Trident II (D-5) submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) system was introduced in the US Navy around 1990 as a replacement for Trident I (C-4). The entire conceptualisation of the Trident II programme including research, development and testing was supposed to be the largest and costliest in the history of US strategic ballistic missiles at that point in time. Its basic purpose was to create a state-of-the-art platform for nuclear warheads. Now the Pentagon is proposing that this be used for delivering non-nuclear warheads.

    The downside of such a course, as has been argued by many analysts, is that such a strengthening of the US military's conventional capability could actually increase the risk of an accidental nuclear confrontation. Because the US will end up using the same platform for delivering both conventional and nuclear warheads, it is likely to create confusion in the mind of an enemy state. Any indication of a likely attack with the Trident II system could be mistaken for a possible nuclear attack, and the targeted enemy state may even react by using nuclear weapons.

    The Pentagon contends that by using these weapons it can avoid overflight over other countries, which raises political concerns about respect for sovereignty. However, the fact remains that SLBM trajectories are determined by the location of the submarine and the target at which it is fired. Given this, it is difficult to understand how the US could avoid its SLBMs overflying the territories of nuclear weapon states like Russia (the largest country in the world) and China (the third largest country in the world) while attacking targets which in all likelihood are likely to lie in the Middle East region. Experts also contend that the US will find it difficult to avoid debris from these SLBMs falling over Russian territory. Thus, the use of non-nuclear Trident missiles against any rogue target could also appear threatening to nuclear weapon states like Russia or China.

    The US Navy, for its part, proposes to modify the D-5 missile to make it 'conventional warhead friendly'. It seems to have two different conventional warheads in mind: a standard 'slug' useful in penetrating buried targets and a 'flechette' designed to attack bigger targets on the surface. To compensate for a possible decrease in energy compared to a nuclear weapon, it would also modify the Trident with a manoeuvring capability to increase accuracy.

    Reports suggest that the Pentagon expects Congress to grant it authority to build a US$503 million conventional version of the Trident and that it is demanding $127 million for the effort in fiscal year 2007. But it appears that there is considerable concern about the proposal among US congressmen, especially among prominent Democrats.

    This new demand for non-nuclear missiles is based on a 2001 Pentagon study titled "Prompt Global Strike". It is reflective of the thinking of the US Strategic Command, which is looking for a new non-nuclear weapon that could respond to a threat in no more than an hour (including the time needed for getting the president's authorisation) and fly thousands of kilometres to deliver its payload with great accuracy.

    Even though the Pentagon claims that this system is intended to fight threats from terrorism, it is apparent that it does not envisage attacking any particular terrorist group with it. The Trident II platform essentially came into being during the Cold War period to mainly address concerns of that era. It now appears that the US may like to use it against so-called rogue states like Iran and North Korea.

    Long-range ballistic missiles have never been used in combat in the last fifty years. Over the last few days, the US has repeatedly been expressing concerns about a missile test by North Korea, though the latter has the right to undertake such a test or a satellite launch provided it follows certain international protocols like giving prior notification, etc.). But the US itself is proposing to take a major risk by mating non-nuclear warheads with what has hitherto remained primarily a nuclear delivery system. Weapons systems like these will work effectively only if adequate safeguards are worked out to avoid the risk of unintended nuclear confrontation.