Friday, March 10, 2006

Why Converted Trident Submarines Will Not Unleash an Unintended Nuclear War

Headline in The Nation (Hat tip: The Sub Report) Could This Unleash an Unintended Nuclear War?

The Pentagon would spend $503 million toward converting 24 Trident missiles (now armed with nuclear warheads) into conventional warhead missiles.

Anonymous Defense officials (ed. Air Force suspected), "acknowledge a major risk is that other nations could conceivably misinterpret a conventional missile attack as a nuclear strike." Democrats, including Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), have opposed similar modifications in past years.

M.E.'s Casual Analysis:
With ICBMs there could be inherent drawbacks to conventional use, since they must inevitably flyover say Russia or China. But using land based ICBMs would give up two, critical advantages: #1- speed (shorter distances to targets); and #2- surprise (faster response from submarines on patrol in seas near potential targets).

M.E.'s Sober Analysis:
While anything is possible, countries currently capable of detecting SLBM launches (satellites required unlike silo monitoring), misinterpreting trajectories that do not intersect their shores and responding erroneously with nuclear action do not include (yet) rogue states. Those that might have mutual defense treaties with a rogue state would react to the Pentagon's conventional missile conversion plan by revising such treaties, or pausing judiciously.

Another advantage of the conversion program is that the Marines want it. DoD Defends New Sub-Launched Missiles Gen. James Cartwright, the head of U.S. Strategic Command, is expected to pitch the idea in March 16 testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The conventional Trident missile would be capable of hitting a fleeting target -- such as an enemy nuclear weapon being prepared for launch or terrorist leaders in an underground facility -- without using a nuclear warhead that runs a higher risk of killing innocent civilians nearby, according to a senior defense official.

The submarine-launched missile is expected to have a flight time of just 12 to 24 minutes and could hit targets up to 6,000 miles away with an accuracy of 10 yards, said the senior official, who spoke on condition of not being named.

The Navy would modify its D-5 missile with alternative, conventional warheads: a standard “slug” to penetrate bunkered targets and a “flechette” to destroy larger, surface targets.

Super! I Support our Marines, how about you, Senator McCain?

3 Comments:

At 11 March, 2006 10:02, Anonymous Anonymous said...

The high speed of a ballistic strike is not just a function of time to target, but also the force/penetration of the device. A submarine could position itself anywere, so overflight of other countries(fear of nuclear strike) is not as large an issue as some would have you believe.
D5's are very costly, so a target would have to be a VERY inportant one, indeed, to warrent such a strike. Moving targets(material or people) would have much less time to get away, or move. These ballistic strikes could penetrate deep targets(Irans nuclear sites?) due to the high energy of the ballistic strike, not possible with Tomohawks. A slippery human target(Osama?) would have very little time to be warned or flee, if found.
Of course, placing these on nuclear deterrent boats does give them more flexibility and utility, but WE would have to ask ourselves if we wish other countries and thier nuclear deterrent forces to threaten us in a simular way...

 
At 11 March, 2006 15:30, Blogger Vigilis said...

Anonymous
Exactly, -the flyover issue is applicable more to land-based ICBMs than sub launched SLBMs (the DOD article seems to agree).

You make an excellent point about concern for other countries threatening us in a similar way. I suspect this option is already in the contingency planning of nations who could (mostly our allies) and the dreams of those who actually would (self-described, mortal enemies).

Thank you for your insights.

 
At 07 February, 2008 22:29, Blogger David said...

Regarding the ed comment I doubt the Air Force is making the case for potential misinterpretation as they have a similar concept.

Additionally, the Air Force concept uses launches from the coast (Patrick AFB, FL and Vandenberg AFB, CA) and does not over fly Russia or China for obvious reasons.

Finally, the ICBM is the most responsive leg of the triad, not the SLBM. While actual flight time is shorter, other elements such getting into the proper launch depth and stabilizing the sub can take longer than the ICBMs 30 minute flight time. Finally, with the sub launches you must account for where the first stage motor will fall (typically the other stages impact near the target.

 

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