As thePentagon formulates its 2008 budget request, it is weighing several differentoptions for meeting its goal of developing the ability to strike targets aroundthe world within an hour, according to congressional aides.
One optionis to press forward with the concept of placing non-nuclear warheads on itssubmarine-launched Trident missiles. However, that idea encountered resistancefrom some members of Congress during the 2007 budget cycle. While there areother options under consideration that could have an easier time winningcongressional approval, some of those options might require more developmentwork, which would prevent them from being available as early as a conventionalTrident missile, the aides said.
Alternativesto the conventional Trident concept include shorter range submarine-firedmissiles as well as long-range rockets that could be launched from bases insidethe United States other than ICBM fields, the aides said.
ThePentagon requested $127 million for work on the conventional Trident concept in2007, but Congress provided only $25 million for prompt global purposes. The2007 Defense Appropriations Act allocates $5 million to the National Academy ofSciences to conduct a study on possible solutions for the prompt global strikemission from the near-term solutions to long-term approaches. That study, whichis due back to Congress May 15, must take into account military and politicalissues associated with the various options.
Theremaining $20 million is designated for the U.S. Navy to spend on developmentwork necessary for a variety of other unspecified global strike options. Theservice is not permitted to focus on Trident until completion of the NationalAcademy of Science report.
The 2007Defense Authorization Act also requires a report on the conventional Tridentconcept. The report, which is due Feb. 1, must be prepared in consultation withthe U.S. Secretary of State, and must cover:
- Scenarios in which a conventional sea-launched ballistic missile could be employed.
- The rationale for rejecting other options for prompt global strike.
- A detailed cost analysis broken down by fiscal year.
- The adequacy of intelligence capabilities needed to support use of such weapons.
- The implications for ballistic missile proliferation if the United States were to go forward with a sea-launched conventional ballistic missile.
- The implications for the U.S. missile defense systems if other countries were to use similar systems.
- How to deal with the ambiguity caused by using the same ballistic missile for nuclear and conventional payloads.
Proponentsof the conventional Trident concept say it offers a different paradigm from theuse of nuclear-tipped ICBMs -- one in which the military would seek uses for theweapon, rather than hope it is never used.
While themilitary has a variety of assets in its arsenal that are capable of strikingtargets around the world, including tactical aircraft, bombers and cruisemissiles, basing constraints slow the Pentagon's ability to hit a target thatcould move relatively quickly, according to Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright,commander of U.S. Strategic Command.
"Thedifficulty here for prompt global strike is [that] the adversary may not chooseto act near our bases or our patrol areas," Cartwright said during a March 29hearing with the Senate Armed Services strategic forces subcommittee. "And ifthat's the case, and we're dealing with targets that are associated withweapons of mass destruction, command and control, terrorist-type leadershiptargets, these targets tend to be fleeting. They don't present themselves forlong periods of time."
While theconventional Trident concept has received its strongest support from Republicanmembers of Congress like Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), chairman of the SenateArmed Services strategic forces subcommittee, the concept faces opposition frommembers of both major U.S. political parties.
Duringfloor debate on the appropriations bill Aug. 3, Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska),chairman of the Senate Appropriations defense subcommittee, said he is worriedthat the launch of a conventionally armed ballistic missile at a U.S. enemy could be misinterpreted by other countries as a launch of a nuclear warheadtoward their territory.
Currentintelligence and decision-making timelines are not well suited to the use of aweapon that would strike its target within an hour and could not be called off,Stevens said.
"Thiscapability would offer the opportunity for risky, even reckless strikes, ratherthan deliberate, clearly thought-out action," Stevens said.
Proponentsof the conventional Trident concept say that the system could be operationalbefore the end of this decade. However, if the Pentagon believes it will not beable to overcome the opposition to the Trident concept on Capitol Hill, and iswilling to wait longer to satisfy its desire for prompt global strike, it couldramp up its investment in research and development projects like the Army'sAdvanced Hypersonic Weapon, the congressional aides said.
TheAdvanced Hypersonic Weapon is envisioned as an unmanned vehicle that leaves theatmosphere briefly before flying back towards Earth like an aircraft during themajority of its flight, making it less likely that it would be mistaken for anICBM, the aides said. The system could launch from a U.S. base in Diego Garciain the Indian Ocean or Guam in the South Pacific.
The vehicleis envisioned as traveling 6,000 kilometers within 35 minutes, according to anArmy document.
While theArmy's Space and Missile Defense Command has conducted research into anAdvanced Hypersonic Weapon, it has not funded the effort on a level necessaryfor a flight test, the aides said.
Anothertype of project that could be funded as an alternative to the conventionalTrident to avoid confusion between the launch of an ICBM and a conventionalwarhead could involve using submarines to launch shorter-range ballisticmissiles, the aides said.
Anotheroption is developing a warhead that could be placed on top of a small spacelaunch vehicle, and launching the weapon from a military base other than itsICBM fields, the aides said. However, Congress already has expressed resistanceto this concept, and in 2004 directed the Pentagon to cease its work ondesigning weaponized payloads under the Falcon program.