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Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues

Amy F. Woolf
Specialist in Nuclear Weapons Policy

Prompt global strike (PGS) would allow the United States to strike targets anywhere on earth with conventional weapons in as little as an hour. This capability may bolster U.S. efforts to deter and defeat adversaries by allowing the United States to attack high-value targets or “fleeting targets” at the start of or during a conflict. Congress has generally supported the PGS mission, but it has restricted funding and suggested some changes in funding for specific programs.

Many analysts believe that the United States should use long-range ballistic missiles armed with conventional warheads for the PGS mission. These weapons would not substitute for nuclear weapons in the U.S. war plan but would, instead, provide a “niche” capability, with a small number of weapons directed against select, critical targets, which might expand the range of U.S. conventional options. Some analysts, however, have raised concerns about the possibility that U.S. adversaries might misinterpret the launch of a missile with conventional warheads and conclude that the missiles carry nuclear weapons. DOD is considering a number of systems that might provide the United States with long-range strike capabilities.

The Air Force and Navy have both considered deploying conventional warheads on their longrange ballistic missiles. The Navy sought to deploy conventional warheads on a small number of Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles. In FY2008, Congress rejected the requested funding for this program. The Air Force and DARPA are developing a hypersonic-glide delivery vehicle that could deploy on a modified Peacekeeper land-based ballistic missile—a system known as the Conventional Strike Missile (CSM). In FY2008, Congress created a single, combined fund for the conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) mission. This fund is supporting research and development into the Air Force CSM and two possible hypersonic glide vehicles. The Obama Administration has requested $239.9 million for the CPGS program in FY2011.

Congress may consider a number of issues when it reviews the budget requests for CPGS weapons. It may question DOD’s rationale for the mission, reviewing whether the United States might face circumstances in conflicts where it would have to attack targets promptly at the start of or during a conflict, and when it could not rely on forward-based land or naval forces. It might also review whether this capability would reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons or whether, as some critics have asserted, it might upset stability and possibly increase the risk of a nuclear response to a U.S. attack. This risk derives, in part, from the possibility that nations detecting the launch of a U.S. PGS weapon would not be able to determine whether the weapon carried a nuclear or conventional warhead. Congress has raised concerns about this possibility in the past.

Although the Air Force Conventional Strike Missile is the main contender for the CPGS mission, the Air Force may not be able to deploy this system until later in this decade, as the hypersonic glide vehicle has not yet had a successful test flight. Hence, Congress may review other weapons options for the PGS mission. These include not only ballistic missiles and boost-glide systems, but also bombers, cruise missiles, and possibly scramjets or other advanced technologies.

Finally, Congress is likely to question how the New START Treaty, signed by the United States and Russia in April 2010, would affect U.S. plans for the CPGS mission. Warheads deployed on boost-glide systems would not be affected by the treaty because these are new types of strategic offensive arms. But those deployed in existing types of reentry vehicles on existing types of ballistic missiles, like the Navy’s CTM program, would count against the treaty limits.

Date of Report: October 25, 2010
Number of Pages: 40
Order Number: R41464
Price: $29.95

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