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Blue-ribbon panelists of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) recommended Friday that American submarines have a few conventional arrows in their nuclear weapons quiver for special circumstances.
Presently, for example, the only immediate military response, for taking out a missile about to fire a nuclear weapon at the United States or one of its allies, is with a delivery system carrying a nuclear weapon.
That may not always be the best choice, the committee decided, depending on the situation.
In a longstanding policy disagreement, three former Secretaries of Defense, including Donald Rumsfeld, have supported the concept of a “prompt global strike” that offered a non-nuclear option for attacking high-value targets anywhere in the world within an hour.
The House Senate Armed Services last year wanted assurance that a conventional weapon fired from a nuclear-delivery system would not be interpreted ambiguously and accidentally unleash a nuclear war.
A two-day conference early last year in Washington D.C., hosted by Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories wrestled with the so-called “misinterpretation” problem as a part of a “Strategic Weapons in the 21st Century (SW21)” theme, subtitled “Rethinking nuclear and non-nuclear elements of deterrence.”
A report from the conference observed that the possibilities of errors in attributing the nature of the weapon were “grossly overstated, if not totally without merit given the fact that nuclear powers had launched over a thousand submarine-launched ballistic missiles without any misinterpretations.”
At the same time, “the political power of the attribution problem was so great that working group participants believed that it must be addressed head on.”
A second conference was held on Jan. 31, according to a more generalized summary of the event. Both meetings were held at the Ronald Reagan International Trade Center in Washington, D.C.
Tactical aircraft, cruise missiles, armed unmanned aerial vehicles and heavy bombers are typically employed to deliver conventional armament on a given target. But any object beyond 500-miles, would be out of reach for these “air-breathing” delivery system; and faster delivery offered by long-range ballistic missiles might appear to an observer to represent a nuclear attack.
Other scenarios cited by the science board included the “opportunity to strike a gathering of terrorist leaders or a shipment of weapons of mass destruction during a brief period of vulnerability; and the need to disable an adversary’s command and control capability as the leading edge of a broader combat operation.”
The committee acknowledged that open questions remained about “the potential for inappropriate, mistaken or accidental use,” of the conventional weapons, but called for comprehensive studies of such issues before deployment, as well as open-ended concerns such as “the impact of over flight and debris; and the implications for arms control and associated agreements.”
In conclusion, the committee recommended that the Pentagon proceed with a plan called Conventional Trident Modification.
The CTM alternative could be ready by FY2010. It involves the conversion of two Trident II (D5) missiles on each of the U.S. Navy’s 12 deployed nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines from nuclear-armed to conventionally-armed.