Russian Experts Question Role of Conventional “Prompt Global Strike” Weapons
Monday, April 6, 2009
WASHINGTON — Two Russian security experts today suggested that U.S. plans to develop fast-flying, long-range conventional weapons might pose a snag for nuclear arms negotiations between Moscow and Washington (see GSN, April 1).
Speaking at a conference sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Alexei Arbatov and Vladimir Orlov separately raised the notion that U.S. President Barack Obama might consider a broader disarmament agenda that includes limits on conventional weapons, as well as those that are armed with nuclear warheads.
The U.S. Defense Department is exploring technologies for “Prompt Global Strike” weapon systems that might be launched on a moment’s notice against faraway targets, such as a nuclear missile being readied for launch by a rogue nation or a terrorist leader located in a safe house (see GSN, Nov. 7, 2008). Pentagon leaders have said such new combat systems could allow them a viable alternative to launching a nuclear weapon.
“There are very few countries in the world that are afraid of American nuclear weapons,” said Arbatov, a scholar in residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center. “But there are many countries which are afraid of American conventional weapons. In particular, nuclear weapons states like China and Russia are primarily concerned about growing American conventional, precision-guided, long-range capability, [or] Prompt Global Strike systems.”
Russian defense leaders have expressed their worries about these developmental weapons in meetings with their U.S. counterparts, particularly in regard to a now-shelved plan to fit Navy Trident submarine-based missiles with either nuclear or conventional warheads (see GSN, Sept. 5, 2006).
Lawmakers on Capitol Hill warned that launching such a system could trigger dangerous ambiguity, because Moscow could not rapidly discern what type of warhead a missile in flight was carrying.
Posing a question from the audience to panelists discussing “The Nuclear Order — Build or Break,” Arbatov added that “threshold states” are similarly concerned about U.S. conventional capabilities. Those are nations with unannounced potential for developing a nuclear weapon.
“Without addressing these issues, it will be very difficult to move forward both in nuclear disarmament … and nuclear nonproliferation,” he said. “How do you think America would suggest addressing these issues?”
In the interest of nuclear disarmament, some over the past two decades have urged the United States to “find other capabilities to fill some of those [nuclear] missions,” responded panelist Brad Roberts of the Institute for Defense Analyses. “The commitment to non-nuclear strike [or] Prompt Global Strike goes back to the late 1980s.”
He said any apprehension about the details might be worked out through further U.S.-Russian discussions.
The issue could be “much trickier” in the context of Chinese or smaller nations’ worries about U.S. conventional power, Roberts added.
“After all, we want them to be concerned,” he said of the smaller states, particularly those eyeing the possibility of acquiring their own arsenal. “We don’t want them to be so concerned [that] they’re getting nuclear weapons. But we see ourselves as having security commitments to allies which require our power projection.”
Speaking on a subsequent panel, Orlov said Moscow might raise the issue of conventional weapons in an anticipated follow-on phase of U.S.-Russian negotiations over deeper nuclear arms reductions, which could begin after an initial treaty is completed by this December. Of particular concern, he said, are “strategic weapons which can be used not only in nuclear but in conventional” modes.
Washington’s efforts to ease international anxieties about Prompt Global Strike should be just the beginning, Orlov suggested.
“Very dramatic reductions in military expenditure in the world: This is where the United States clearly — even more than in nuclear disarmament — should take the lead,” Orlov said. “And they really don’t do that.”