Global Strikeout

Global Strikeout

New weapons systems should always meet three requirements: They should be feasible, needed, and affordable. The proposed Prompt Global Strike program, which according to U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates has been “embraced by the new administration,” does not meet any. Using intercontinental ballistic missiles to hurl conventional warheads at caves is a truly bad idea. It would use technology that doesn’t work for a capability the United States doesn’t need at a cost it can’t afford. Oh, and it could also start a nuclear war.

The plan is to build new weapons that can hit a target half a world away in under an hour. Defense contractors concerned about the shrinking market for long-range missiles began promoting this to George W. Bush’s Defense Department, where it was rejected as unworkable. Now, as they take steps to reduce the U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons, Obama defense officials are resurrecting it.

Would such a system even work? The diagram of the concept is almost a Rube Goldberg scheme: an intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) launches and releases a space plane that glides through the atmosphere and flies to strike area where it drops a bomb on target. A more complete schematic would include other necessary features like a heat shield that would try to stop the glider from melting on re-entry as it screams in much faster than the space shuttle. Proponents of the program say it will rely on “cutting-edge technology.” (Read: “We don’t know how to do it.”)

It is not that America hasn’t tried. This program is basically another version of the now discredited “space plane” — a pipe dream that, as nonproliferation analyst Dennis Gormley notes, the United States has been chasing for decades. In 2001, President Ronald Reagan’s former missile-defense chief, Henry Cooper, told a congressional panel that, after three decades of work and $4 billion in development, the U.S. program had only produced “one crashed vehicle, a hangar queen, some drop-test articles, and static displays.” Now the contractors have repackaged the idea and are re-peddling it to the Pentagon.

But does the United States need this capability? No. It is difficult to imagine a scenario in which the United States would use this weapon. The Pentagon has better weapons in its arsenal that, if updated, could accomplish long-range strikes. Joint Chiefs of Staff Vice Chairman Gen. James Cartwright favors using modern, precision-guided conventional munitions to replace nuclear weapons now assigned to such missions. He’s right.

The United States is currently fighting two wars against enemies with no air defenses, planes, or ships. The terrorists and insurgents on the other side are effectively handled by ground forces, tactical air forces, and, increasingly, drones. Drones are already deployed, and they can track and kill fleeting targets. Why would the U.S. military need to launch a missile from California to deliver a bomb to a cave in Afghanistan, when it already has drones on bases, ready to drop a bomb within minutes?

For the global strike scheme to work, it would require unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to track fleeting targets and relay information to the space plane. Without the intelligence the military would not know what to shoot the missile at, nor be able to hit it. But if the drones are already on the target, who needs an ICBM? If the Pentagon needs more ordnance on targets, it can further develop and deploy the longer-range UAVs it already has, such as the Global Hawk.

Then there is the unpleasant matter of the bill. The Global Strike Program could be the most expensive bomb America has ever built. There are no accurate cost estimates for the program, largely because the technology is unproven. Even if the program comes in at a bargain price of $10 billion and fields 10 missiles — which is about what is under consideration — each missile with its tiny payload could easily go over $1 billion each. By comparison, the MX missile program cost approximately $30 billion (in 2010 dollars) for 50 deployed missiles, but each one carried 10 nuclear warheads.

At a time when Congress and the public are railing against deficit spending, is this really the time to start new, untested programs that will siphon funds away from true military needs? Let’s be honest. U.S. soldiers do not need this capability, especially at a time when they could use better armor in battle and better health care when they return home.

Finally, the reason Bush officials abandoned this idea was that they realized Russian concerns about the weapon were true: How would another country know if the ICBM launch they detected was conventional or nuclear? They wouldn’t. There is no sure way around this problem.

As Noah Shachtman’s at Wired‘s Danger Room blog notes, although the United States needs more capability against terrorist targets, “relying on conventional ICBMs to do the job, and risking a nuclear showdown, is just plain crazy.” There are better, cheaper ways to give U.S. troops the weapons they need.