U.S. Push for New Class of Weapons Alarms Russia
By DAVID E. SANGER and THOM SHANKER Published: April 22, 2010
WASHINGTON — In coming years, President Obama will decide on whether to deploy a new class of weapons capable of reaching any corner of the earth from
the United States in under an hour and with such accuracy and force that they
would greatly diminish America’s reliance on its nuclear arsenal.
Yet even now, concerns about the technology are so strong that the Obama
administration has acceded to a demand by Russia that the United States decommission one nuclear missile for every one of these conventional weapons
fielded by the Pentagon. That provision, the White House said, is buried deep
inside the New Start treaty that Mr. Obama and President Dmitri A. Medvedev
signed in Prague two weeks ago.
Called Prompt Global Strike, the new weapon is designed to carry out tasks like
picking off Osama bin Laden in a cave, if the right one could be found; taking out
a North Korean missile while it is being rolled to the launch pad; or destroying an
Iranian nuclear plant — all without crossing the nuclear threshold. In theory, the
weapon will hurl a conventional warhead of enormous weight at high speed and
with pinpoint accuracy, generating the localized destructive power of a nuclear
The idea is not new: President George W. Bush and his staff promoted the technology, imagining that this new generation of conventional weapons would
replace nuclear warheads on submarines.
In face-to-face meetings with President Bush, Russian leaders complained that
the technology could increase the risk of a nuclear war, because Russia would not
know if the missiles carried nuclear warheads or conventional ones. Mr. Bush and
his aides concluded that the Russians right.
Partly as a result, the idea “really hadn’t gone anywhere in the Bush
administration,” Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who has served both presidents, said recently on ABC’s “This Week.” But he added that it was
“embraced by the new administration.” Mr. Obama himself alluded to the concept in a recent interview with The New
York Times, saying it was part of an effort “to move towards less emphasis on
nuclear weapons” while insuring “that our conventional weapons capability is an
effective deterrent in all but the most extreme circumstances.” The Obama national security team scrapped the idea of putting the new
conventional weapon on submarines. Instead, the White House has asked
Congress for about $250 million next year to explore a new alternative, one that
uses some of the most advanced technology in the military today as well as some
not yet even invented.
The final price of the system remains unknown. Senator John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said at a
hearing on Thursday that Prompt Global Strike would be “essential and critical,
but also costly.”
It would be based, at least initially, on the West Coast, probably at Vandenberg Air Force Base.
Under the Obama plan, the Prompt Global Strike warhead would be mounted on
a long-range missile to start its journey toward a target. It would travel through
the atmosphere at several times the speed of sound, generating so much heat that
it would have to be shielded with special materials to avoid melting. (In that
regard, it is akin to the problem that confronted designers of the space shuttle
decades years ago.)
But since the vehicle would remain within the atmosphere rather than going into
space, it would be far more maneuverable than a ballistic missile, capable of
avoiding the airspace of neutral countries, for example, or steering clear of hostile
territory. Its designers note that it could fly straight up the middle of the Persian
Gulf before making a sharp turn toward a target.
The Pentagon hopes to deploy an early version of the system by 2014 or 2015. But
even under optimistic timetables, a complete array of missiles, warheads, sensors
and control systems is not expected to enter the arsenal until 2017 to 2020, long
after Mr. Obama has left office, even if he is elected to a second term.
The planning for Prompt Global Strike is being headed by Gen. Kevin P. Chilton
of the Air Force, the top officer of the military’s Strategic Command and the man in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal. In the Obama era — where every administration discussion of nuclear weapons takes note of Mr. Obama’s
commitment to moving toward “Global Zero,” the elimination of the nuclear
arsenal — the new part of General Chilton’s job is to talk about conventional
In an interview at his headquarters at Offutt Air Force Base, General Chilton
described how the conventional capability offered by the proposed system would
give the president more choices.
“Today, we can present some conventional options to the president to strike a
target anywhere on the globe that range from 96 hours, to several hours maybe, 4,
5, 6 hours,” General Chilton said.
That would simply not be fast enough, he noted, if intelligence arrived about a
movement by Al Qaeda terrorists or the imminent launching of a missile. “If the
president wants to act on a particular target faster than that, the only thing we
have that goes faster is a nuclear response,” he said.
But the key to filling that gap is to make sure that Russia and China, among other
nuclear powers, understand that the missile launching they see on their radar
screens does not signal the start of a nuclear attack, officials said.
Under the administration’s new concept, Russia or other nations would regularly
inspect the Prompt Global Strike silos to assure themselves that the weapons are
non-nuclear. And they would be placed in locations far from the strategic nuclear
“Who knows if we would ever deploy it?” Gary Samore, Mr. Obama’s top adviser
on unconventional weapons, said at a conference in Washington on Wednesday.
But he noted that Russia was already so focused on the possibility that it insisted
that any conventional weapon mounted on a missile that could reach it counted
against the new limit on the American arsenal in the treaty.
In a follow-on treaty, he said, the Russians would certainly want to negotiate on
Prompt Global Strike and ballistic missile defenses.
If Mr. Obama does decide to deploy the system, Mr. Samore said, the number of
weapons would be small enough that Russia and China would not fear that they
could take out their nuclear arsenals.