One divisive issue in U.S.-Russian talks on a future strategic weapons treaty is Russia's interest in having that agreement limit long-range missiles and delivery systems armed with non-nuclear warheads. The Bush administration is seeking such weapons to expand U.S. quick-strike options against targets around the world, but Congress and a recent government watchdog report have raised some concerns about the initiative.
Current U.S. efforts to develop long-range conventional-strike weapons grew out of calls for such a capability in the Pentagon's 2001 Quadrennial Defense Review and the Bush administration's Nuclear Posture Review the same year. (See ACT, January/February 2002 .) Administration officials contend that those weapons, now generally referred to as "prompt global strike" and intended to strike targets in less than an hour, would provide a military option when the United States might otherwise face the choice of using nuclear weapons or not acting against a potential danger. Officials acknowledge those moments might be rare, but they include scenarios such as terrorists meeting briefly in remote locations or foes preparing a missile launch threatening U.S. troops, allies, or satellites.
Russia objects, saying such weapons would be destabilizing because their use could be misconstrued as a nuclear attack against it, leading Russia to potentially launch nuclear weapons at the United States. U.S. officials maintain there are measures, such as pre-launch notifications or basing non-nuclear missiles separately from nuclear missiles, to minimize possible misperceptions. (See ACT, May 2006 .)
Still, Russian officials note that non-nuclear systems could be used to attack their country. In addition, a Russian government source May 15 indicated to Arms Control Today that another concern is that the United States could amass more potential long-range nuclear delivery vehicles than Russia by deploying unregulated non-nuclear delivery systems that could be modified quickly or secretly to carry nuclear warheads, undermining long-standing efforts to maintain U.S. and Russian strategic nuclear parity.
U.S. and Russian officials since March 2007 have been engaged in irregular and so far unproductive talks on a possible agreement to succeed the 1991 Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) , which is scheduled to expire Dec. 5, 2009. (See ACT, May 2007. ) START imposes ceilings on U.S. and Russian deployments of nuclear warheads and strategic delivery vehicles: land-based ICBMs, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), and heavy bombers. At the Bush administration's insistence, the May 2002 Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) , which expires at the end of 2012, limits only warheads.
In the ongoing talks, Moscow is pressing for an agreement that sets limits on both warheads and strategic delivery vehicles, unlike SORT, and counts all such vehicles against the ceiling whether they carry nuclear or conventional payloads. A second Russian government source May 14 told Arms Control Today that his government's "firm position" is that "all strategic weapons, no difference [between] nuclear or conventional loads, must be under strict mutual treaty control." He contended that the "prompt global strike effort is extremely dangerous [because] you can never tell what the load [is] when a strategic missile is launched."
The first Russian government source, however, noted that the United States "is reluctant to speak about ceilings on carriers." Although publicly stating for the first time that the Bush administration is open to new warhead limits, John Rood, acting undersecretary of state for arms control and international security, acknowledged May 21 before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee that Russia wants "a treaty with a broader scope, something which would also cover...conventional delivery systems." He said the administration opposes that position. In all likelihood, the question of whether to negotiate treaty limits on prompt global strike systems will pass to the next U.S. administration.
That administration also will face decisions on developing or deploying prompt global strike weapons. Congress rejected the Bush administration's initial two-year plan unveiled in 2006 to start substituting conventional payloads for nuclear warheads on two SLBMs on each of the 12 deployed U.S. ballistic missile submarines. Fearing that specific approach carried too much risk of Russian misinterpretation of launches, Congress called for further study of the general concept and more research into alternatives. (See ACT, January/February 2008 .)
In its February budget request for fiscal year 2009 starting Oct. 1, the Bush administration asked Congress for $117.6 million to fund a Prompt Global Strike program under the undersecretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics. The request includes funds to research a long-range, land-based Conventional Strike Missile and technologies for a submarine-launched system, as well as some funds for the Falcon project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Those funds are in addition to a separate $25 million request by DARPA to pursue the Falcon program, which involves research on a hypersonic technology vehicle that, unlike a ballistic missile, would travel at a flatter trajectory, spend more time flying inside the atmosphere, and be able to maneuver toward a target. The Army has done research into a similar hypersonic glide vehicle that some lawmakers are pushing to make part of the broader Prompt Global Strike program.
The Government Accountability Office (GAO), which conducts studies for lawmakers, released an April report charging that current prompt global strike efforts lack coordination. Observing that it had identified 135 projects and programs that could have applications for prompt global strike, the GAO contended that the Pentagon "has not yet established a prioritized investment strategy that integrates its efforts to assess global strike options and makes choices among alternatives." It further noted that key military stakeholders have different views about the global strike concept and how such future weapons might be used.
The GAO also indicated that too much attention is being paid to the potential weapons and not "critical enabling capabilities." For instance, the report pointed out that officials with the Pentagon's Strategic Command, which is tasked with promoting and facilitating prompt global strike, say "current intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance and command and control capabilities generally do not provide the persistent coverage, processing and sharing of information, and rapid planning required for compressed global strike time frames."
A panel of the National Academy of Sciences' National Research Council also referred in a report last year to "supporting enablers." The panel, which endorsed the general concept of prompt global strike (see ACT, June 2007 ), said it would provide a full analysis of those enablers in a final report on prompt global strike due this year to Congress. Although the panel estimated that report would be completed "by early 2008," a panel spokesperson April 28 e-mailed Arms Control Today that the report would not be out until "the later half of this year."
Corrected online September 3, 2008. See explanation.