Nuclear Weapons

Make Trident Conventional

05.30.06 | 4 min read | Text by Ivan Oelrich

The week before last, Harold Brown and James Schlesinger argued in an op-ed in the Washington Post that the United States should arm some of the ballistic missiles on the Trident submarine with conventional warheads. Michael Gordon had a story in yesterday’s New York Times explaining that Rumsfeld fully supports the idea and hopes to get the system operational within two years. This is the implementation of the Global Strike plan that FAS’s Hans Kristensen has recently documented in detail.

The idea is that we might get some indication that something dire is about to happen but only have a moment to act because the vulnerability of the target will be fleeting, requiring that it be attacked within an hour. It is a challenge to try to think of any such situation. The Times article proffered a meeting of terrorists. Terrorists who we knew enough about to monitor their communications, but without knowing their locations (otherwise we could have attacked them earlier), terrorists who are going to get together for a meeting that will last an hour (if shorter, then even the Trident couldn’t get them), but no longer (because then cruise missiles have time to get to them). Readers should try their hand at thinking up other scenarios and ranking them for plausibility.

Our recent experience with intelligence should make us wary but intelligence that has to be digested in a half hour (the other half of the hour goes to the missile’s flight time) should be particularly suspect. One could even imagine the enemy spoofing the system, drawing a multi-million dollar missile onto an empty barn, or worse, the Chinese ambassador’s mistress’s apartment. Can we be confident, after half an hour’s research, that the target is not the Chinese ambassador’s mistress’s apartment?

Like many other proposals out of the Pentagon, this one is far too broad; it squanders resources on hypothetical threats because it fails to take into account the actual world we live in. We need this system because of some unnamed threat in some unnamed place. But where? North Korea? When are we likely to not have a military presence near North Korea that could launch air craft or cruise missiles? The same with Iran. If there were terrorists in Mongolia, this might make sense. So tell us that the system is for attacking targets in Mongolia. Then we can evaluate it honestly.

This proposal should (but probably won’t) raise some profound fundamental questions. The conventional warheads have to be mounted on Trident missiles because they are the only launch platform that is routinely forward deployed within the requisite half hour flight time. So the first question is: why? Why are Trident submarines—carrying missiles capable of flying thousands of miles in thirty minutes and armed with highly accurate nuclear warheads of hundred of kilotons yield—forward deployed at all times? If we ignore what the government says and just focus on the structure and deployment of our nuclear forces, their primary mission is clear: the US nuclear force is still deployed to execute a disarming nuclear first strike against Russia’s central nuclear forces. No other mission comes even remotely close to justifying the current force posture. This proposal would be a good thing if it resulted in a serious reevaluation of the role of the US nuclear forces and Trident in particular.

The implausibility of a target is really a minor problem; by itself that would mean this new system would be, at worst, simply a waste of money. A much graver concern is the dangers such a system might raise. If the Russians and the Chinese can detect Trident missiles launches (and both can to a limited degree), then, when the missile breaks the surface, how do these potential target nations know that the missile is a conventional missile headed toward North Korea and not a nuclear missile headed toward them? While thinking about this, consider that the Russians are not stupid, they can look at the US nuclear force posture and figure out what its primary mission is. Also, when considering nuclear weapons, a cautious worst-case analysis is called for. We should plan for a time when relations with China or Russia are strained. Does the “they’ll trust us” argument work the day after a US reconnaissance plane has been forced down? If the Chinese or Russians see a Trident launch, they will assume (a) that it is nuclear and (b) headed toward them until they get evidence that it is not.

Fortunately, I have the answer: de-nuclearize Trident. Don’t convert just one or two missiles per boat to conventional warheads but all of them. Follow the lead of the surface Navy and eliminate the nuclear/conventional ambiguity by removing all nuclear warheads from the Tridents and inviting in Russian and Chinese observers to confirm it. The Chinese do not have any intercontinental nuclear weapons on alert and if, as the US declares, we have no plans for a disarming first strike against Russia, there is absolutely no plausible justification for keeping Trident constantly forward deployed armed with nuclear warheads. A de-nuclearized Trident armed with conventional warheads would be a big improvement over what we have today.