What's it feel like to be well and promptly globally-struck?

THE DEPROLIFERATOR — The Obama administration is trying to decide on its nuclear “posture.” What stance will nuclear weapons assume in U.S. national security strategy? At ease or at attention? Supine, prone, or erect? The president’s critics, David Sanger and Thom Shanker write in a New York Times article about the Nuclear Posture Review, “argue that his embrace of a new movement to eliminate nuclear weapons around the world is naïve and dangerous.” What else is new?

Meanwhile, many of the president’s supporters, along with the disarmament community (however much the two overlap) “fear that over the past year he has moved too cautiously” thus leaving open “the possibility that the United States might use nuclear weapons in response to a biological or chemical attack, perhaps against a nation that does not possess a nuclear arsenal.”

An ostensibly critical feature of our nuclear-weapons program is the Triad — three different delivery systems: the first two, land-based silos and submarines from which to launch intercontinental ballistic missiles, and the third, bombers. Disarmament has a triad too — of, not persons, but policies non grata — which we’ll instead call the Tripod. The first leg — retention of the right to first use of a nuclear attack; the second, the option to respond to a non-nuclear attack such as biochemical; the third, the option to attack a non-nuclear nation. If disarmament supporters’ concerns about the Nuclear Posture Review come to pass, the Tripod remains intact.

As if that’s not enough for those who believe in disarmament, “Mr. Obama has already announced that he will spend billions of dollars more on updating America’s weapons laboratories to assure the reliability of what he intends to be a much smaller arsenal. … At the same time, the new document. … relies more heavily on missile defense.” As it did with Ronald Reagan and Mikhail Gorbachev in Reykjavik, missile defense is clogging the pipelines of the START II negotiations with Russia as we speak.

That said, at Slate, Fred Kaplan writes:

This posture review, like the two before it. . . will almost certainly not result in anything new, even if it alleges otherwise. Even if President Barack Obama does pursue some new nuclear policies. … whether that happens will not be determined by the conclusions of an executive review.

Still, there’s another troubling feature of the Nuclear Posture Review that’s going unnoticed by most. Before alluding to it, Shanker and Sanger cite another review: “Mr. Obama’s recently published Quadrennial Defense Review [which] includes support for a new class of non-nuclear weapons, called ‘Prompt Global Strike,’ that could be fired from the United States and hit a target anywhere in less than an hour.”

Those targets include:

. . . the leadership of Al Qaeda in the mountains of Pakistan, or. . . an impending missile launch from North Korea. But under Mr. Obama’s strategy, the missiles would be based at new sites around the United States that might even be open to inspection, so that Russia and China would know that a missile launched from those sites was not nuclear — to avoid having them place their own nuclear forces on high alert.

But Russia watcher Alexander Zaitchik (also the author of Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, to be published shortly) doesn’t find that too reassuring:

“Prompt Global Strike” scares the hell out of me. The idea that inspections are going to allow Moscow to remain calm in the event that a “large strike” emanates from the U.S. does not seem credible. What’s to say mobile launchers weren’t wheeled in the next day [after an inspection]? A bunch of ICBM blips on a radar screen are still a bunch of ICBM blips. In such a small decision window, I don’t want jittery paranoids in bunkers having to do calculus in which the biggest factor is U.S. claims of, “Trust us! They’re conventional!”

A product of DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), Prompt Global Strike can be launched from submarines too and — if the Pentagon has its way (and the money) — space one day. Sanger and Shanker refer to Prompt Global Strike as Obama’s strategy, but it’s actually been “in slow development since the 1990s, and now quickly coalescing in military circles,” according to Danger Room’s Noah Shachtman for Popular Mechanics in 2007.

Eventually, he wrote, “Prompt Global Strike could encompass new generations of aircraft and armaments five times faster than anything in the current American arsenal. One candidate: the X-51 hypersonic cruise missile. . . is designed to hit Mach 5 — roughly 3600 mph.” In other words, as Global Security Newswire points out, it’s “the first weapon other than a ballistic missile to fly at hypersonic speeds.”

Returning to how liable they are to become the victim of mistaken identity Shachtman addressed the question of “whether such an attack can be deployed without triggering World War III: [the Tridents] look, and fly, exactly like the deadliest weapons in the American nuclear arsenal.” Also, “The Navy’s plan calls for arming Ohio class subs with two conventional and 22 nuclear Trident II missiles.” Talk about your recipes for disaster: “To outside observers, the subs’ conventional and nuclear weapons would appear identical.”

Furthermore, Shachtman writes:

Traditionally, the U.S. strategy is to shoot missiles over the North Pole. But the current, most likely Prompt Global Strike targets, North Korea and Iran, lie south of China and Russia — which would put those countries right under a pole-launched flight path. “For many minutes during their flight patterns, these missiles might appear to be headed towards targets in these nations,” a congressional study notes.

All in all, Prompt Global Strike’s “nuclear ambiguity issues,” as the Senate Armed Services committee called them, don’t go a long way to inducing peace of mind. But while closing “the prompt global strike capability gap as quickly as possible remains a top STRATCOM priority,” said a STRATCOM spokesperson, it doesn’t expect to begin deploying until 2015.

Still, ultimately, write Shanker and Sanger, “the administration believes it could create a new form of deterrence — a way to contain countries that possess or hope to develop nuclear, biological or chemical weapons, without resorting to a nuclear option.”

Lost in the translation from the nuclear option to conventional weapons is exactly what kind of attack are we talking about? What does it feel like to be well and promptly globally struck? Shachtman again:

When the order [from the president to launch] comes, the sub shoots a 65-ton Trident II ballistic missile into the sky. … Up and over the oceans and out of the atmosphere it soars for thousands of miles. At the top of its parabola, hanging in space, the Trident’s four warheads separate and begin their screaming descent down toward the planet. … Just above the target, the warheads. … filled with scored tungsten rods with twice the strength of steel. … detonate, showering the area with thousands of rods. … Anything within 3000 sq. ft. of this whirling, metallic storm is obliterated.

Prompt Global Strike may result in fewer fatalities, less environmental damage, and no nuclear winter. But, for all intents and purposes, it appears to be a modern-day version of a Dresden firestorm. Using the phrase “conventional” weapons today doesn’t do justice to DARPA and the Pentagon’s warped imaginations, which are anything but conventional.

In fact, Prompt Global Strike beggars the question: What good is disarmament when what replaces nuclear weapons doles out a quality of death that’s at last as nightmarish as from a nuclear attack? Our overarching mission is clear. We need to ensure that nuclear disarmament, should it come to pass, is accompanied by the consignment of mass extermination as a national-security strategy to the charnel house of history.

First posted at the Faster Times.