Pentagon pushing for non-nuclear missiles

Submarine-launched weapon could be aimed at terrorist targets

May 29, 2006|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon is pressing Congress to approve the development of a new weapon that would enable the United States to carry out non-nuclear strikes against distant targets within an hour after a threat is detected.

The proposal has set off a complex debate about the best way to strengthen the military's conventional capabilities and reduce the risks of nuclear confrontation.

The Pentagon plan calls for deploying a non-nuclear version of the submarine-launched Trident II missile that could be used to attack terrorist camps, enemy missile sites, suspected caches of biological, chemical or nuclear weapons and other potentially urgent threats, military officials say.

If deployed, it would be the only non-nuclear weapon designed for rapid strikes against targets thousands of miles away and would add to the president's options when considering a pre-emptive attack.

Marine Gen. James E. Cartwright, the chief of the U.S. Strategic Command, said that the system would enhance the Pentagon's ability to "pre-empt conventionally" and "pre-empt precisely," while limiting the "collateral damage." The program would cost an estimated $500 million over five years, and the Pentagon is seeking $127 million in its current spending request to Congress to begin work.

But the plan has run into resistance from lawmakers who are concerned that it may increase the risk of accidental nuclear war. The Trident II missile that would be used for the attacks is a system that has long been equipped with a nuclear payload. Indeed, non-nuclear and nuclear-tipped variants of the Trident II would be loaded on the same submarines under the Pentagon plan.

"There is great concern this could be destabilizing in terms of deterrence and nuclear policy," said Sen. Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee. "It would be hard to determine if a missile coming out of a Trident submarine is conventional or nuclear."

Reflecting the worry that Russia and other nations might misinterpret the launch of a non-nuclear Trident as the opening salvo in a nuclear barrage, lawmakers have insisted that the Bush administration present a plan to minimize that risk before the new weapon is manufactured and deployed.

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld has supported the idea, and the Pentagon wants to field the system in two years.

In justifying the program to lawmakers, Cartwright outlined a number of potential situations. "The argument for doing it is that there are instances, fairly rare, when time is so critical that if you can't strike in an hour or so you are going to miss that opportunity," said Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, a Western Maryland Republican who chairs the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Projection Forces and who is still weighing whether to support the plan.

One possible situation, Bartlett said, would be "people putting together some terrorist weapon and while they are putting it together we can take it out and if we miss that opportunity it may show up on the streets of New York City or Washington, D.C."

Given the considerable U.S. military presence in Iraq, Afghanistan and Korea, some critics say the circumstances in which a target may be beyond the reach of U.S. warplanes or armed Predator drones may be few. Acquiring the sort of precise intelligence that would give the president enough confidence to order the launch of a ballistic missile within an hour might also be a daunting proposition. Cartwright said that the weapon would give the president an option to respond quickly to the sort of immediate dangers that are likely to become more common in the 21st century without resorting to a nuclear-armed ballistic missile.

A major issue, however, is whether the Pentagon will prepare for new threats at the risk of aggravating old nuclear risks.

Under the Pentagon plan, each Trident submarine would carry two of the non-nuclear-armed Trident II missiles along with 22 nuclear-armed Trident missiles. Each of the non-nuclear missiles would carry four warheads. Two types of warheads would be developed. One type would be a metal slug that would land with such tremendous force it could smash a building. The other type of warhead would be a flechette, which would disperse tungsten rods to destroy vehicles and less well-protected targets over a broader area.

As currently planned, the weapon would not have the capability to destroy facilities that were buried deeply underground. The system would use satellite tracking to improve its accuracy.

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