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Work Begins On Arming Trident Submarines With Non-Nuclear Weapons

A missile "leaps" from a Trident submarine.
by Pamela Hess
UPI Pentagon Correspondent
Washington (UPI) Apr 04, 2006
U.S. Strategic Command wants to deploy conventional weapons on Trident submarines within two years, the four-star general in charge of U.S. nuclear forces said. The conversion of some nuclear missiles to precision-guided conventional missiles is meant to better deter rogue states like North Korea from launching a ballistic missile, nuclear or otherwise.

During the Cold War, the threat of mutually assured destruction was sufficient to deter the Soviet Union from using nuclear weapons against the United States. USSTRATCOM believes the threat of a nuclear strike may no longer be sufficient to deter a rogue state from launching a missile, because the threat may not be taken seriously. The fallout -- both political and radiological -- from the use of a nuclear bomb makes it an unlikely option.

USSTRATCOM is embracing the notion of "tailored deterrence," that is, having many options to discourage, prevent or counter an attack without crossing the nuclear threshold.

So USSTRATCOM is trying to develop new fast, precise conventional weapons with the capability to strike fleeting, high-value targets, like mobile missile launchers, less than 30 minutes after detection. The capability is intended to have at least three effects.

First, it could dissuade a terrorist group or rogue state from using nuclear, chemical or biological weapons because -- if struck while still on the launch pad -- they would not be effective.

Second, if a WMD missile or other weapon was successfully fired, the United States would be able to respond with precise, deadly force to punish those responsible, while minimizing the effect on the surrounding area.

Third, the capability would likely also be used against underground or other weapons facilities, avoiding the calamitous effects of a nuclear weapon on civilian infrastructure.

The first initiative is to develop a Trident Sea-Launched Ballistic Missile capability by 2009, Gen. James E. Cartwright, commander of U.S. Strategic Command told the Senate Armed Services subcommittee on emerging threads and capabilities last week.

"While the department employs expeditionary forces around the globe, it is unlikely we will have forces in every place we need them at the crucial moment when we have an opportunity to stop a WMD-armed threat far from our shores," said Cartwright in prepared testimony.

"The United States has the capability to engage with high-quality conventional forces around the world, given days or perhaps weeks to respond. But ... the need to defeat attacks against the United States may require USSTRATCOM to interdict fleeting targets at global range. We have the delivery capability on alert today, but configured only with nuclear weapons. This choice is not credible against many of the extremist adversaries we will face."

The Pentagon envisions spending up to $500 million to replace up to 100 nuclear Trident missile warheads with conventional warheads. Because submarines can linger for so long in international waters undetected, they could be a continuous presence off a place like North Korea, ready to strike within minutes to prevent, preempt or respond to an attack.

The Navy has more than 300 D5 Trident missiles.

USSTRATCOM and the Air Force are also planning to develop a new land-based long-range strike capability to be fielded in 2018, a goal outlined in the Quadrennial Defense Review released in February. That aircraft would likely be optimized for a conflict with China, the country that was at the center of long-range planning in the QDR.

Exactly what that long-range strike capability will be is unclear -- whether it would be a missile, manned aircraft or unmanned air combat vehicle has not yet been determined. Cartwright told United Press International the choice is between a "prompt" or high-speed capability that can reach a target anywhere in the world quickly, or an "endurance" capability, which would loiter in high-threat areas, ready to launch closer to the target.

If the scales tip toward a long-endurance aircraft, it is likely to dictate an unmanned bomber. The current generation of long-range unmanned aerial vehicles can loiter over an area for more than 24 hours as far as 3,000 miles from its launch site, and are able to travel 14,000 miles without refueling. The Global Hawk UAV flies a pre-programmed route independent of any ground-based pilots.

The Air Force and the CIA have experience arming unmanned aerial vehicles from the Predator drone, a medium-altitude UAV that has been armed with Hellfire missiles. The Predator has a pilot "in the loop" -- directing the aircraft and its cameras, as well as controlling weapons fire. It is likely that an unmanned long-range strike aircraft would also be pilot "in the loop" for safety reasons.

STRATCOM is also studying hypersonic vehicles that can operate on the land, sea or in the air to deliver "prompt, precise conventional warheads." Hypersonic missiles that reach speeds exceeding Mach 4 could hit underground targets buried to a depth of 12 meters without needing nuclear warheads to penetrate the ground, according to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency.

DARPA has a number of hypersonic technology efforts underway, including development work on the Mach 4 HyStrike missile. It has also been pursuing since 2003 a project to develop by 2025 a reusable Hypersonic Cruise Vehicle. The HCV would be capable of autonomously taking off from a conventional military runway and striking targets 9,000 nautical miles away in less than two hours. It could carry a 12,000-pound payload consisting of Common Aero Vehicles, cruise missiles, small diameter bombs or other munitions.

Source: United Press International

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