Sunday, April 25, 2010

Delayed Criticism On Prompt Global Strike

It’s always nice to see the New York Times pick up on a story we covered here a couple of weeks earlier…

On Thursday, the Times published a long story on the proposed weapons system called “Prompt Global Strike”, something we covered here as part of the post on the signing of the new START treaty between the United States and Russia. MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow and nuclear reduction advocate Joseph Cirincione also picked up the story of Prompt Global Strike late in the week.

To recap PGS – the project would replace the nuclear warheads on some of the Untied States’ arsenal of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) with conventional ones, with the goal of being able to deliver a non-nuclear strike against a target anywhere in the world within an hour or two. The “target” described in PGS launch scenarios is one that is highly mobile and that won’t remain in place long enough for the US to strike with other weapons in the arsenal - say like cave-hopping Osama bin Laden (that is if the US ever got a bead on his location in the first place). Advocates say that only PGS could deliver a strike in a short enough time to take out such a target.

Critics, meanwhile, say that such a scenario is highly unlikely to occur and that the United States has such a military presence around the world it’s hard to imagine that there wouldn’t be other US forces in the region ready to strike a highly-mobile target using other means. The bigger problem, they say, is that it would be impossible for another nuclear power – particularly Russia or China – to know that a sudden American ICBM launch was really a PGS strike against some other adversary and not the prelude to a sneak attack against them, which could prompt them to launch their ICBMs at the US in reply. Such a scenario almost unfolded in January 1995, when Russia’s missile defense system almost mistook the launch of a scientific research rocket from northern Norway for the launch of an ICBM from an American submarine under the polar icecap. Only a quick decision by a Russian officer in their nuclear chain of command prevented the Russians from launching a retaliatory strike against the United States. According to the Times, the Obama administration would allow Russia and other interested countries to inspect PGS missile silos to ensure that there were not nuclear warheads aboard the missiles, though in the same article the Times also reports that the administration is looking at basing some PGS weapons on US submarines, which would negate the whole spot inspection idea.

And others wonder if PGS would be yet another case of the Pentagon throwing billions of dollars at a weapons system without knowing if it will ever work. That’s the gist of Cirincione’s piece in Foreign Policy magazine, where he reports that officials in the Pentagon have the PGS concept down, but really don’t know what the final weapon will look like. Both FP and the Times are reporting that the PGS vehicle would be some sort of “space plane” that would be able to maneuver in orbit and would carry a weapons payload that it would drop on its target. That has me wondering if PGS has anything to do with the launch of the Air Force’s super-secret X-37B (artist rendition above) earlier this week. The X-37B is described as a computer-guided mini-Space Shuttle. Like the Shuttle it is suppose to be reusable and can carry a payload within its cargo bay; but unlike the Shuttle it is entirely computer-guided, Air Force officials even claim to not know “when it’s coming back.” Since the Air Force is being so vague and since the X-37B fits the speculation surrounding the PGS so well, you have to wonder if the two are related.
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