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Moving away from missile programs

Authors: Charles D. Ferguson, Adjunct Senior Fellow for Science and Technology, and Dinshaw Mistry
June 19, 2006
The Boston Globe

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For decades, the United States has worked to stop ballistic missile proliferation and has been modestly successful. In the past 15 years, more than a dozen countries have renounced or considerably restrained their missile programs, and few countries are building ballistic missiles. Moreover, more than 30 countries have joined against transferring missiles and missile technology, and more than 100 countries have signed the Hague Code of Conduct against Ballistic Missile Proliferation, which further strengthens norms against missiles.

But the progress is threatened by a recent Bush administration proposal to deploy conventionally armed missiles on nuclear submarines, which could stimulate other countries to acquire missiles.

The Pentagon has proposed placing non-nuclear warheads on two of the Trident missiles in each of its ballistic-missile submarines. The driving force behind this proposal is to provide the United States with the capability to strike practically any adversary within an hour. Trident missiles are renowned for their continent-spanning long range, high speed, and extreme accuracy. According to General James E. Cartwright, the commander of the US Strategic Command, such a missile can travel thousands of miles and strike within five yards of a target.

Proponents argue that the United States must have the ability to destroy terrorists promptly before they can slip away. For example, the US military may have been able to kill Al Qaeda leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi much sooner if it had the conventionally armed Trident missiles. Yet the deployment of the non-nuclear Trident also raises concerns.

One worry is that Russia may mistake the launch of a non-nuclear Trident for the opening of a nuclear attack. General Yuri Baluyevski, chief of the Russian General Staff, told reporters in May, “This could be a costly move which not only won't guarantee his [Osama bin Laden’s] destruction but could provoke an irreversible response from a nuclear-armed state which can't determine what warhead is fitted on the missile.”

The missile trajectory in a conventional strike would likely look different from a nuclear-armed missile strike against Russia, though this difference may provide little room for correct interpretation. Also, a conventional Trident launch would usually use only one missile, but Moscow may still imagine that this single missile would represent the opening salvo in a larger attack—one that would first detonate a nuclear warhead above Russia to knock out its communications and warning systems, thus preparing the way for a full-scale nuclear assault.

If the United States wants to reduce the threat of accidental nuclear war and still develop the conventional Trident capability, it could replace all of the nuclear warheads on its Trident missiles with non-nuclear warheads. Yet this move would be opposed by those who believe that nuclear-armed submarines are necessary for ensuring that the United States has nuclear forces impervious to attack.

More important, replacing some or all nuclear-tipped missiles with conventional missiles would make these weapons systems more usable. This would reverse evolving global prohibitions against missiles. Once a ballistic missile is legitimized as a conventional weapon that would be widely used by the United States, there are few reasons for other countries to restrain their own development and use of such weapons. As a result, the norm against restraining the spread of ballistic missiles would erode, and pressure on regimes to control the spread of missiles would also weaken.

In November 2002, when the Hague Code was launched, John Bolton, then-under secretary of state for arms control and international security, warned: “Too often in the arms control and nonproliferation fields, countries make a great public flourish about adhering to codes and conventions, and then, quietly and deceptively, do precisely the opposite in private.” The United States should not become one of those countries. It should instead work toward President Ronald Reagan's vision of a world free of ballistic missiles.

While a conventional submarine-launched ballistic missile can help America in the fight against terrorists, long-term security rests more on developing and strengthening norms and regimes against ballistic missiles.

Charles D. Ferguson is a fellow for science and technology at the Council on Foreign Relations and a former US ballistic missile submarine officer. Dinshaw Mistry is an assistant political science professor at the University of Cincinnati and author of “Containing Missile Proliferation.”

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