August 18, 2008

How on earth is this a good idea?

Non-Nuclear Warhead Urged for Trident Missile, says the Washington Post.

In other words, and let's be clear, this 'blue-ribbon defense panel' thinks that we should absolutely invest national treasure in a system designed to allow a President to authorize the use of intercontinental ballistic missiles (because no matter what's on the front, that's what a Trident is and will be) in order to attack a target with conventional weapons.

Let's look at this. The number one objection that jumps to my mind is also mentioned in the article:

One major congressional concern was that to other countries, such as Russia or China, the launch of a conventional Trident missile could not be distinguished from a nuclear one and could be mistaken for the start of a nuclear war.

The panel recognized that problem and suggested several ways to mitigate it, but in the end it concluded that the benefits outweighed the risks. The panel said that before any deployment takes place, there should be diplomatic discussions, particularly with partner countries. It said these talks should include "the doctrine for its use, immediate notifying of launches against countries, and installing devices (such as monitoring systems) to increase confidence that conventional warheads had not been replaced by nuclear ones."

The panel also said that few countries, other than Russia and perhaps China, would be able to detect a sub-launched missile "in the next five years," and that because of the few warheads that would be involved, "the risk of the observing nation's launching a nuclear retaliatory attack is very low."

In other words, "this is a risk, but gee, it's not enough of a risk to not do this. Anyway, the only people we'd scare are China and Russia, and we can use the hotline and brief them about where these things are so they don't get nervous when one pops the cork."

First point in rebuttal: Yes, you're quite correct, Russia and China are the only nations with a really good capability of detecting the launch of one of these. But since those are the only two nations with whom we're seriously worried about having an actual missile-based nuclear exchange, that would seem to me to make this argument entirely null and void. "Oh, don't worry, the only people that would see it anyway are the only other hostile ones with missiles." Uh, what?

Second point in rebuttal: Let me get this straight, you want to allow hostile nations the take from a monitoring system aboard our ballistic missile submarines? How is that a good idea? Honestly. Even if you dedicate a boat to this mission and only put monitors on that one, the only way that you're going to be able to offer any reassurance at the time of firing is by continuously telling your adversary where this submarine is. Color me stupid, but doesn't that completely miss the point of having a submarine in the first place? Also, even if you only give that information to Russia and China...wait, you're assuming Russia and China won't give the information to states we might be having issues with?

Moving on. Why, in fact, do they think we might want such a capability? They offer two main target sets. One: hostile missiles preparing for launch. Two: 'high-value' targets of opportunity, like, say, Osama bin Laden, who we need to hit before they can get away.

Sigh. Okay, let's start with number one. If you see somebody prepping a missile. There are three reasons this would concern us. One, that missile can hit U.S. sovereign territory (I WILL NOT use the fucking word 'Homeland.') Two, that missile can hit a U.S. ally. Three, that missile can hit deployed U.S. military forces. Let's take those in turn.

The only powers which at present can deploy missiles which threaten U.S. sovereign territory are...wait for it...yes, that's right: our allies, and Russia and China. No matter what they tell you about needing missile defense in central Europe, Iran cannot presently hit the United States with a missile. Even if they were to get a couple of nuclear weapons, you'd have to convince me that they'd think the best thing to do would be to stick them on a missile which (if past performance is any guide) has only a partial chance of working, and then fire it at us. Won't wash. Furthermore, the only type of missile where you're going to get this kind of warning is a liquid-fuelled missile. Who typically uses those? Well, Iran and other small missile players, and...China. Hm. If we can't deter China from using nuclear weapons on missiles, we've already lost, people. Unless you're trying for a splendid first strike against a nation that at least technically has SSBNs. Even if they only have one, don't you think they'd be smart enough to send it to sea before trying this mad stunt?

Moving on. Hitting an ally. Well, that's true - there are a lot of U.S. allies that are within missile range of our favorite threat axes. But again, is an ICBM the best way to handle this? Let me ask a more disruptive question - how do you know there's a nuclear weapon on top of that missile? If you don't know, then popping off an ICBM seems like a really bad response. It may make me a realist bastard, but I honestly can't say that firing an SLBM in anger is better than letting an HE warhead of the size you can stuff on top of an IRBM get launched, even at an ally. One thing we know about those missiles, from experience - they're incredibly inaccurate. And if they've only got HE on them, I'd prefer we not take the risk.

Three. Hitting deployed U.S. forces. If there are U.S. forces in sufficient numbers on the ground in the vicinity (I say on the ground, because you're not going to hit a moving ship with the kinds of missiles we're talking about) then there's no reason for them not to a) be prepared to take cover and b) attempt to engage the missile either with boost-phase systems or with last-ditch systems like THEL if possible. Again, though, there's no reason to be firing SLBMs.

The second target set is 'high-value targets.' Let me just ask this. Do we really want to get into the habit of using SLBMs to try to kill individuals? Even at the most optimistic, the Trident-II has a CEP in the dozens of meters, and it will take it twenty to thirty minutes to reach its target once it has been fired. And once it fires, it's going, there's nothing you can do about it. If the target is in any kind of built-up area, you've just called down an ICBM strike on that area, no matter what - and while you might not hit the target, you're going to do a shitpot of damage to something.

If we're going to be shooting at individuals, I want good enough intelligence that we can take the time to send a manned platform or at least a UAV with a man in the loop to take the shot. I cannot posit a target set of the 'ooh it might move!' type that is worth firing a nuclear strike system in anger over.

I keep harping on about this being a nuclear strike system. That's because it is. When you fire it, you will be firing a weapon system that has existed for fifty-five years with only one purpose, hammered into the minds of everybody in the world who cares about this: launching nuclear weapons. That's what an SLBM does, up to now. I don't care how well you know that this one is different - you're worried about every other force that sees it launch; and not only that, you're asking them to successfully decide, under the threat of immense pressure and short decision cycles, that this SLBM is 'different' and is 'not a threat.'

The only time I'm comfortable with the notion of firing these things at all is in designated test ranges, and with advance warning of scheduled tests.

So why this proposal?

I have to say that it's part and parcel of the struggle the Navy is having trying to figure out what its purpose and mission is in today's world. The Ohio boats, and the missiles they carry, are indeed an awesome technological achievement. They have served admirably (and will continue to do so) as a nuclear deterrent. Don't, whatever you do, do anything that might detract from that mission. These aren't attack submarines. They're boomers. We want them safe and concentrating on one job, which we hope they never have to do. I don't want Ohios as a 'first response option' in any way, shape or form.

If we're that desperate to spend the money on quick strike, put it into a hypersonic spaceplane which you can hang bombs off of. I'd support that.

Posted by jbz at August 18, 2008 10:46 PM | TrackBack


"I WILL NOT use the fucking word 'Homeland.'"

Me neither.

Elsewhere, I've seen the suggestion to refer to the governmental department as the Department of Fatherland Security. I like that suggestion.

Posted by: Michael Wolf at August 19, 2008 7:35 PM
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