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“New START” and Prompt Strike


This is the first of two anticipated NPF postings dealing with the “ancillary issues” raised by the “New START” strategic arms agreement presently being debated in the U.S. Senate.  Stay tuned for more soon.

As anticipated, the fight in the U.S. Senate over the so-called “New START” strategic arms treaty with Russia has relatively little to do with the actual limits the agreement sets upon numbers of strategic arms.  As previously discussed on this website, the cuts the draft treaty imposes in aggregate numbers of missile and warheads are not dramatic, and may be to some extent even illusory.  In this sense, at least, the treaty is neither particularly problematic nor particularly interesting.  The agreement may be a great disappointment for disarmament enthusiasts who have been led to expect so much from the Obama Administration, therefore, but the “New START” numbers, in and of themselves, do not seem greatly to alarm even the most hawkish of conservatives – and therefore will presumably not impede ratification.

Instead, the controversy currently being played out in the legislature is over the new treaty’s impact upon non-nuclear weaponry – specifically, the degree to which it may impede the development of U.S. ballistic missile defenses and limit conventionally-armed “prompt global strike” (PGS) capabilities.  (There is also controversy over the authorities given to the Bilateral Consultative Commission (BCC) that would be created by the new treaty.)  I don’t want to reinvent the wheel here, but this website hasn’t dealt with these issues yet, and they are indeed worth discussing.  Accordingly, this posting – the first of two anticipated NPF essays on the ancillary issues of “New START” – will deal with PGS.

The controversy over “prompt global strike” is relatively straightforward.  Because the treaty limits the total number of intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) launchers each side may have, irrespective of what sort of warhead sits atop them, it sets up a zero-sum trade-off between nuclear and conventionally-armed missiles.  If we want to hold intercontinental-range missiles in readiness to deliver a regular high-explosive or kinetic energy warhead to a fleeting terrorist target in some distant land, for instance – and in this regard one frequently hears comparisons to the now well-known failure of slower-moving U.S. Tomahawk cruise missiles to hit Osama bin Laden and his senior lieutenants when they stopped briefly at a camp in Taliban-controlled Afghanistan in 1998 – we would have to reduce our nuclear-armed missile arsenal by a corresponding number.  This limitation would effectively turn the development of PGS, a policy goal supported by both the Bush and Obama administrations, into a tool of unilateral nuclear disarmament: every intercontinental-range ballistic missile devoted to PGS has to be taken out of nuclear service.

This impediment to using ICBMs and SLBMs for conventional strike might not be much of a problem if we had other means by which to accomplish PGS missions, but we do not – and we will not for some time.  The only available near-term PGS delivery option of which I am aware involves putting conventional weapons atop intercontinental-range ballistic missiles, but this is precisely the class of missiles that are limited by “New START” and the use of which would therefore necessarily entail nuclear trade-offs.

The White House is said to have requested some $250 million to explore exotic new PGS technologies, but any new system – if it is in fact ultimately developed at all – would take years to reach deployment.  The U.S. Air Force, for example, is presently testing a hydrocarbon-fueled scramjet that holds out the prospect of being able to hit distant targets quickly by traveling at hypersonic speeds.  This technology is many years from maturity and operational availability, however.  (In its most recent test in May 2010, it managed to fly under its own power at about Mach 5 for 200 seconds.  This was a significant improvement over the mere 12 seconds this technology managed to run in a previous test, but it is clear we still have far to go in basic engine development – let alone in turning such an approach into a usable weapons system.)

It is not too hard to put conventional high explosive or kinetic energy (i.e., solid penetrator) warheads in otherwise ordinary ballistic missile re-entry vehicles (RVs), and we could presumably do so fairly quickly to create a stopgap PGS capability.  (The Bush Administration wanted to do this several years ago with some submarine-launched Trident missiles, but Democrats in Congress killed the effort.)  For the medium term, the United States is apparently looking into developing a hypersonic boost/glide vehicle that could be launched atop a ballistic missile before separating and maneuvering itself to a target thousands of miles away.  Even optimistic projections, however – and one must always be suspicious of rosy predictions from Pentagon procurement officials – do not envision anything of this sort being available within the next few years, nor available as a real weapons system (e.g., with missiles, warheads, and command and control systems) before the end of the decade. Both of these short- and medium-term approaches, moreover, would still use ballistic missile boosters – and if we want to do that, “New START” will keep us subject to its zero-sum trade-offs.  The proposed treaty, in other words, will force us to trade PGS off against nuclear missions for years, until something exotically non-ballistic comes on line.

It’s not hard, of course, to see why “New START” is structured to limit our PGS options. Russia hates our development of PGS, correctly perceiving that long-range precision strike is a critical component of America’s conventional military strength and current position as the preeminent military power on the planet, and seeing PGS as the “coming thing” in our continued development of such capabilities. For these reasons alone, it is for Russia almost axiomatically to be detested.  Making things worse, moreover, the Putin-era siloviki state, in its semi-paranoiac insecurity, also professes to fear that U.S. PGS capabilities might someday be used in some kind of non-nuclear “first strike” against Russia. (Russia is said to have been pursuing development of its own hypersonic glide vehicle [HGV] for years, by the way.  If Russian officials’ boasts to the press are to be credited, however, this program has more to do with getting nuclear warheads past missile defenses than with delivering conventional payloads.  For Moscow, HGVs are not about reducing reliance on nuclear weapons but rather about prolonging such reliance.)  At any rate, notwithstanding American promises that “New START” would only deal with strategic nuclear arms, Russian negotiators seem to have done a pretty good job in ensuring that the agreement constrains PGS, at least in the short term.

From an American perspective, this limitation on PGS is somewhat paradoxical, given that the Obama Administration’s ostensibly enthusiastic embrace of PGS has been undertaken on the theory that developing such capabilities will help us reduce our reliance upon nuclear weaponry.  If PGS were only about maintaining some capability to hit a high-value terrorist target or rogue state WMD facility on a near-real-time basis – the original rationale for the Pentagon’s pursuit of such technologies – the new treaty’s limitations might not be too damaging: very limited numbers of PGS missiles might do the trick.

But the Obama Administration also claims PGS is key to reducing our reliance upon nuclear weaponry, and this suggests both a much broader potential mission set and the need for a considerably larger number of PGS missiles.  (If PGS capabilities in some respect substitute for nuclear weaponry, as we are assured they will, the solidity of our strategic deterrent will depend in part upon not using up PGS assets in prosecuting time-urgent terrorist or other targets: if we use them for the latter mission, they won’t be available for the former.  If the Obama Administration wants to use PGS to facilitate nuclear disarmament in any way beyond simply waving it around as a conveniently empty debating point, in other words, we’ll need quite a bit more PGS.)  This would not be problematic – and here we should remember that the Bush Administration also talked of PGS as a means to help reduce reliance upon nuclear weapons – except that it is precisely the availability of PGS missiles that President Obama’s “New START” agreement will effectively limit.  If you’re free to build as many PGS missiles as you want, the emerging dual-mission assignment is straightforward.  If you aren’t, it isn’t.

Even assuming that PGS capabilities can “replace” nuclear weaponry for anything more than some subset of counterforce missions, moreover – a theory on which there is not universal agreement – the Obama Administration seems to assume both that PGS technologies are currently mature enough to replace nuclear weaponry for at least some missions and that such substitution can occur on a missile-for-missile basis.  (If PGS were not mature enough to do this yet, the Obama Administration’s nuclear disarmament agenda might be premature: we would not yet be ready to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons, or at least it would be too early to cite PGS as a reason why it is acceptable to reduce our armaments now.  Similarly, if one-for-one substitution cannot work, then “New START” is misguided – and perhaps even an obstacle to U.S. nuclear disarmament – precisely because of its trade-off requirement.  Since Obama officials do cite PGS and do want this treaty to be ratified, one can only infer that the White House believes neither of these things.)  Are such assumptions justified?  Are they based upon any actual analysis?  If so, can we please see it?

The Obama Administration clearly wants everyone to believe that the conceptual elements of its partly PGS-dependent “reducing reliance” argument all hang together coherently, but its officials have not bothered actually to offer an explanation of how this works. Senators being asked to ratify the constraints “New START” would place on near- and medium-term PGS thus have good reason to press for clear accounts of precisely how (and when) PGS is expected to reduce our reliance on nuclear weapons, what PGS capabilities will be needed in this regard, what additional PGS weaponry will be needed to make possible missions not related to reducing reliance upon nuclear devices, what the impact will be of limiting our ability to use ballistic boosters for PGS delivery, and how the “New START” limitations on near-term PGS are consistent with the President’s own ostensibly PGS-facilitated disarmament agenda.

-- Christopher Ford

About Dr. Ford

Dr. Christopher Ford served from January 2018 until January 2021 as the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for International Security and Nonproliferation. For the last 15 months of this period, he additionally performed the duties of the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security. Before this service at the State Department, he served as Special Assistant to the President and Senior Director for WMD and Counterproliferation on the U.S. National Security Council staff, and before that as Chief Legislative Counsel for the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Chief Investigative Counsel for the Senate Banking Committee, Republican Chief Counsel for the Senate Appropriations Committee, Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, U.S. Special Representative for Nuclear Nonproliferation, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, Minority Counsel and then General Counsel to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, and Staff Director of the Senate's Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations. A graduate of Harvard (summa cum laude), Oxford (as a Rhodes Scholar), and the Yale Law School, Dr. Ford was also ordained by Roshi Joan Halifax of the Upaya Zen Center as a lay chaplain in a lineage of Soto Zen Buddhism. He was a jujutsu student of the late Grandmaster Dong Jin Kim of the Jigo Tensin Ryu lineage, and is a member of Dai Nippon Butoku Kai with Sandan (3rd degree black belt) rank. Dr. Ford served from 1994 until 2011 as an intelligence officer in the U.S. Navy Reserve, and is a member of the International Institute for Strategic Studies, Chatham House, and the Council on Foreign Relations. In September 2017, he was promoted by Queen Elizabeth II of England to the rank of Commander in the Most Venerable Order of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem. Dr. Ford is the author of the books "China Looks at the West: Identity, Global Ambitions, and the Future of Sino-American Relations" (2015), "The Mind of Empire: China's History and Modern Foreign Relations" (2010), and "The Admirals' Advantage: U.S. Navy Operational Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War" (2005). He also co-edited "Rethinking the Law of Armed Conflict in an Age of Terrorism" (2012). For a list of his publications, see The views he expresses on this website are entirely his own, and do not necessarily reflect those of anyone else, in or out of government.
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  1. Dr Ford, you acknowledge in a recent NPF article, the “NEW START” was trumpeted by the US and Russia at the recent NPT Rev Con as an example of their good faith undertaking of the Article VI disarmament commitment. This treaty was billed as the first part of a process of progressive nuclear reductions. Like it or not, the “New START” should therefore, be considered in this light.

    American conventional superiority inhibits the bilateral (and also presumably multilateral) process of nuclear disarmament because it increases Russian (and other NWS) reliance on their nuclear deterrent (for counterforce capacity) as their conventional capability lags behind that of the US. On the basis of good faith adherence to international obligations alone it would appear wholly reasonable that this new treaty would seek to minimise or limit developments which could complicate the long term disarmament process, be it BMD or PGS but also NSNW.

    You admit that the original premise of PGS was to enable “near-real time capability to hit a high-value terrorist target or rogue state WMD facility” and that “the New START will not affect this to a great degree”. It is only where the current US Administration claims that PGS will act a replacement for nuclear deterrence that it seems you have concerns, as the limits reduce both US nuclear and PGS capacity over the short and mid- term. It is the PGS development lag that creates the zero-sum outcome

    However even the most conservative estimates suggest that we can go to much lower (nuclear) numbers with very little impact and any further reductions seem to be a long way off. I wonder then, whether this zero-sum loss that you seem so concerned about is of any strategic significance. It is highly unlikely that the limitations posed by the new START treaty will decrease the credibility of the US deterrent (nuclear or otherwise) to a level that increases risk of attack now or in the near future. We are not yet at the stage where the PGS is required to “replace” reliance on nuclear deterrence, and at the rate we are going we are a long way off. Perhaps we have plenty of time of PGS technology to catch up?

    On the subject of the potential for the PGS to replace nuclear capabilities (and allow for nuclear disarmament) what are your thoughts on the following-
    a. How could the PGS replace nuclear capabilities? Deterrence capability? Operational readiness? Increased usability? I would argue that these are all viable points.
    b. Why should nuclear arms reduction be countered by build-up in other areas? Does this not run counter to the good faith basis on which reductions should be undertaken?
    c. Why do you suggest that the US cannot use PGS offensively and defensively (deterrent) at the same time? perhaps you should relax concept of deterrence beyond strict definitions of counter-value and counter- force targeting. The concept of deterrence in the 21st century/ multi-polar world is more fluid. Surely a useable, flexible and credible PGS has a very real and perhaps more effective deterrent value than nuclear weapons.

    And lastly, the minefield created by the dual use of delivery vehicles… The PGS use of nuclear delivery systems to carry conventional payloads would heighten tensions between nuclear reliant states, as the possibility of dual use makes states offensive intentions more difficult to divine. You state: “this limitation would effectively turn the development of PGS, a policy goal supported by both the Bush and Obama administrations, into a tool of unilateral nuclear disarmament: every intercontinental-range ballistic missile devoted to PGS has to be taken out of nuclear service.” I fail to see the issue here. Exactly how do you (or the US dept of defence for that matter) think that other states will be able to verify the type of payload on a delivery vehicle before impact? The thought of the more useable PGS being confused with a nuclear strike, coupled with the current high levels of operational readiness, combines for a very unstable situation… and is quite frankly nightmarish. Does dual-use PGS not make nuclear breakout more likely??

  2. Dear Natasha:

    You ask a lot of good questions about how precisely PGS would work in allowing us to reduce reliance upon nuclear weapons. I might be able to offer some suggestions in these regards, but I no longer have any input into government decisions and those who do aren’t talking. One of my basic points in the essay was that we really don’t know how the Obama Administration intends PGS to work, and they haven’t seemed to think it important to tell us.

    If there are good reasons why I’m wrong to worry that PGS capabilities are too constrained by “New START” — in the near term, at least — I’d be delighted to hear them. The only thing I’ve heard from administration contacts, however, is that we don’t in fact need do be building much PGS capability right now, so I shouldn’t worry about it. That sounds a little strange coming from people who are at the same time trumpeting the pursuit of PGS in justifying their ongoing campaign for nuclear arms reductions, but I’m open to argument. I’d just like to know the reasons, rather than just to hear conclusory statements … hence my call for more information from the government. I’m quite prepared to be talked down on this point by a good presentation of PGS strategy and program planning, and I’d imagine I’m not alone.

    With regard to how one might make PGS verifiable if it uses ballistic missile boosters, I’d imagine there are some options. To begin with, good missile tracking data would do a great deal. If something shoots up in the air on a ballistic arc the terminus of which is a village outside Kandahar, or in some Yemeni hill town, it presumably isn’t tipped with a nuclear weapon — and even if it were, it’s not something for the Kremlin particularly to worry about, all things considered. By contrast, an arc ending up in Moscow would be another story, whatever its warhead. If the Russians have good tracking, they can perhaps assuage their concerns by these means alone.

    But ballistic-boosted PGS verification doesn’t necessarily have to rely exclusively upon impact prediction, either. We’re cutting back on the number of ICBMs we deploy, so what if we devoted a Minuteman III field to PGS missions and allowed Russian inspectors liberal access for verification purposes, in order to demonstrate these particular missiles’ non-nuclear load-out? (Compared to inspecting nuclear re-entry vehicles, there presumably isn’t anything particularly sensitive about showing them a high explosive warhead, or a bundle of heavy metal penetrator rods.) Their spy satellites could tell if we opened up the silos and fiddled with the payloads in between visits, so Moscow could be pretty confident that if their early warning sensors saw anything lift off from that particular missile field, they would know that wherever it might be bound, it won’t be delivering a nuclear weapon.

    As for the “interference” dynamics between U.S. conventional military power and expectations that other NWS will cut their arsenals, this is indeed a bit of a sticky wicket. As I have publicly noted before, this presents something of a “Catch-22″ situation. (There is also, of course, the problem that, all other things being equal, by reducing our arsenal we might make it more tempting for some beleaguered ally to “go nuclear” itself if things get unpleasant in its neighborhood. There may be multiple “interference” dynamics.)

    I’m willing to believe that especially with respect to very deep reductions, nuclear disarmament is somewhat incoherent if discussed in isolation from the broader security environment — and that perhaps the drafters of the NPT Preamble were on to something when they described it as being necessary to reduce tensions and strengthen trust between states “in order to facilitate” nuclear disarmament, and that it might not be possible to envision abolition except “pursuant to” a treaty on general and complete disarmament.

    That observation can cut in multiple directions, however. The disarmament community, of course, likes to suggest that this interconnectedness means the United States must divest itself of essentially all of its current military power in order to entice others to go to “zero.” Another way to interpret the linkage, however, is to suggest that the real problem isn’t really nuclear weapons at all — at least not in and of themselves — but rather the security dilemmas facing all states in the international arena. Through this latter prism, disarmament is a byproduct of peace rather than the other way around, and the disarmament community may have put the cart before the horse in focusing first and foremost upon abolishing these particular tools, with the result that a better approach would be to prioritize working the security relationships first. (The huge U.S. and Russian post-Cold War nuclear arms cuts, for instance, followed and were made possible by the end of the Cold War: they did not produce it. Perhaps we should learn from that.)

    Anyway, there’s lots to think about here. Many thanks for commenting!

    – Chris

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