Not known for frugality, George W. Bush uncharacteristically has proposed a thrifty new way of recycling some old military hardware: the submarine-launched ballistic missile. These devices were designed to carry nuclear warheads, as presumably they all still actually do. However, there’s no probable use for nuclear missiles these days, whereas any self-respecting gunslinger will want a weapon or two for use against terrorists, wherever on earth they may be lurking. Hence, President Bush recently wanted to go shopping for some more usable nuclear weapons for that purpose, but was thwarted by a more skeptical Congress. Now he has a new plan: to spend $2.5 billion to fit conventional warheads on a few of the submarine-based missiles. There’s no certainty that Congress will go for this plan either, and one may fervently hope they don’t.
On first glance, the proposal doesn’t sound too bad. Why not put those old missiles to work in a worthy cause? Most people who don’t like nuclear weapons a bit concede that the US ought to keep a suitable arsenal of conventional weapons for retaliating against or deterring terrorist organizations that may be planning God knows what awful deeds. This refitting program would seem to lend itself admirably to such a prudent plan.
But hold on. In today’s New York Times, Steve Andreason offers a moderate, understated op ed piece that reveals the perils that will arise if the subs’ ballistic missiles are converted to this seemingly less dangerous type of weapon. He argues against the plan on two grounds. First, it will undermine the American effort to prevent the proliferation of nuclear weapons. Second, it will increase the likelihood of a nuclear war launched by mistake. Both of these arguments are compelling.
The proliferation question goes like this: Some other countries besides the US also have sub-launched nuclear missiles right now: Russia and China, most notably. They will probably follow the US precedent and convert all or some of theirs to conventional weapons in turn. So then who could object if some other nations such as North Korea, Iran, India, and Pakistan build their own submarine launched ballistic weapons, armed with conventional warheads? Naturally, any such missiles easily could be restyled as nuclear missiles. Hence this American initiative, which seems to be a reduction in lethality, could open opportunities for a vastly more dangerous situation than at present.
That argument ought to be enough to stop the momentum toward adopting the new Bush administration proposal. But that’s not all; the second argument is even scarier. It contemplates the outcome if any such missile is ever used.
Since the early cold war period, the nuclear-armed nations have possessed detection systems of early warning to keep from being caught unaware in an attack by incoming nuclear ICBMs. Unfortunately, those wretched warning systems keep making mistakes on a regular basis. Nothing is more hazardous than the possibility of responding in kind to what was thought, mistakenly, to be an attack but was not. In previous blog entries I have pleaded for the whole launch-on-warning system to be suspended and replaced, as Alan Phillips and Steve Starr propose, by a system of retaliatory launch on actual detonation (R-LOAD) of a nuclear bomb. Such a change would reduce the probability of inadvertently starting a nuclear war.
So far, no nuclear-armed state has adopted this sensible, modest change. The greatest danger to the future of humankind may still be, therefore, the prospect of accidental nuclear war and President Bush’s proposal would increase that risk substantially. Suppose one of those new “conventional” SLBMs is launched, for whatever reason. The early warning surveillance will be unable to tell whether it is a conventional or a nuclear weapon. As things stand, the rule is that the military must anticipate the worst and retaliate before the missile’s impact. The current logic behind launch-on-warning will still be valid, so we must expect that the military will continue to operate by it, despite the heightened risk of causing a nuclear retaliation by mistake.
So President Bush – or at least Congress – should prevent this hare-brained scheme from happening. In fact, that’s not good enough. They should go further and actually fulfill the pledge made by the United States government when it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty: Disarm those weapons. It’s not just terrorists who are dangerous in this world. It’s not even primarily terrorists. It’s the government of the United States of America.