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Trident 2s Targets

File photo: Trident submarine.
by Andrei Kislyakov
Moscow (UPI) Jun 12, 2006
If you see a gun hanging on the wall at the beginning of a play, famous Russian writer Anton Chekhov used to say, you can be sure someone is going to get shot in the end. The United States seems to be doing just that, even with a risk of shooting itself in the foot.

In a surprising and otherwise inexplicable move, the U.S. Air Force Space Command and the Pentagon's Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the defense research center, have sought congressional approval for the deployment of conventional warheads on part of America's Trident 2 submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

The basic reason for the existence of nuclear forces in the modern world is, paradoxically, the extremely low probability of their use. As nuclear weapons became ever better protected and ever more efficient and lethal, political leaders on both sides of the global divide that used to dominate the world stage gradually came to the idea of having their nuclear triads as a deterrent that should never be used.

True, that by no means meant wars became impossible. Nuclear as well as non-nuclear states have often engaged in conventional warfare, increasingly focusing on missile technology as a key factor of battlefield success. Here is a short list of most prominent recent wars.

1980 -- with the Soviets already stuck in Afghanistan, Iraq invades Iran on September 9 in a conflict that will last for nearly eight years.

1982 -- on April 2, Britain. and Argentina start unprecedented technologically innovative military action, including satellite surveillance, on the Falklands. On Aug. 6, Israel launches its Operation Peace for the Galilee in Lebanon.

1991 -- Operation Desert Storm.

1999 -- the NATO bombing and subsequent invasion of Yugoslavia: Operation Allied Force.

2001 -- the Allied invasion of Afghanistan: Operation Enduring Freedom.

Since 2003 -- the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq: Operation Iraqi Freedom.

For the United States, more conflicts seem to be in the pipeline. While it is rejecting a military option against Iran and has to keep an eye on anti-American leaders like Hugo Chaves of Venezuela, organized terrorist networks are closing in on nuclear stockpiles and infrastructure.

In such an environment, making good use of what will otherwise rust without action -- fitted with a non-nuclear warhead of course - might seem a good idea. Until such a change of purpose has to confront military and political reality on the ground, at least.

Strategic weapons are designed and deployed to kill strategic targets. Strategic targets -- key military installations, capitals of states, energy infrastructure sites etc. -- are well known and as a rule stationary.

This, on the one hand, allows the military to assign each missile its own target, but on the other makes re-targeting a lengthy and complicated procedure, exactly as it would be each time a missile had to be redirected against a newly built terrorist camp or something. This nullifies their short approach time, the key advantage of deploying missiles onboard submarines.

Former U.S. defense secretaries Harold Brown and James Schlesinger have campaigned in The Washington Post in their May 22, Page A17 article, "A Missile Strike Option We Need", for the deployment of four individually targetable conventional warheads on one or two of the Trident D5s carried onboard each of the submarines carrying them.

If this is true, then one might wonder which targets the U.S. military will be assigning to the other three re-entry vehicles if, as the former officials said, the terrorist target to be killed was a hijacked transport vessel carrying a nuclear bomb. Going for four IRVs, rather than a single warhead, implies that you have identified targets for all the munitions. A city hosting an enemy command post? A stationary missile deployment site? A nuclear power plant? Just anything.

The more so, the authors themselves say, "the new weapon would probably not be effective against most hardened targets, say, missile silos, or deeply buried targets such as command posts." This means you can kill a hundred unsuspecting people in a city, or reduce an NPP to rubble, causing a local environmental disaster, but cannot destroy a military or just a well-protected target. Calculations corroborate that.

The Trident 2's throw weight is 5,000 pounds, where explosive charges account for no more than a ton, the rest going to the re-entry engines, sensors, avionics, guidance system etc. This leaves a conventional Trident warhead with 550 pound of effective payload, 440 pounds below the sea-launched Tomahawk cruise missile, which effectively denies Tridents any firepower to speak of.

Accuracy upgrade is possible of course -- though at a cost that will probably take a separate congressional approval -- but even then a conventional strike will not eliminate a nuclear-protected warhead of an operational ballistic and/or cruise missile, should it end up in the hands of a terrorist network.

Already unwise militarily, deployment of conventional warheads on the Tridents is also inadvisable politically, because as Russian Chief of Staff Gen. Yury Baluevsky put it, "This might result in irretraceable responses from other nuclear weapons states who will not be able to identify where the destination of the just launched ballistic missile is and whether this is a nuclear [or a conventional] warhead they are dealing with."

"Our American partners have said these (missiles) might be used against (Osama) bin Laden, while what they suggest is in fact an overly expensive and ineffective solution," the Russian general said.

The Untied States has already made a good story of showing off a Trident "rifle" -- though an ineffective and very dangerous one. Wonder who is going to get shot in the end?

Andrei Kislyakov is a political commentator for the RIA Novosti news agency. This article is reprinted by permission of RIA Novosti. United Press International's "Outside View" commentaries are written by outside contributors who specialize in a variety of important issues. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of United Press International or the Post Chronicle. In the interests of creating an open forum, original submissions are invited.

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