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Gates Says U.S. Has Conventionally Armed ICBMs

by Greg on April 12, 2010

Yesterday, on NBC’s Meet the Press, Defense Secretary Robert Gates may have revealed the existence of a new weapon in America’s arsenal, a conventionally-armed ICBM. It was thought development and deployment of conventionally tipped ICBMs was still years away; a prototype is scheduled for a test flight next month.

Responding to a question from NBC’s David Gregory on the ability to deter nuclear armed rogue states, Gates said: “We have, in addition to the nuclear deterrent today, a couple of things we didn’t have in the Soviet days… And we have prompt global strike affording us some conventional alternatives on long-range missiles that we didn’t have before.”

The Bush administration tried repeatedly to insert money into the defense budget to modify Trident II submarine launched ballistic missiles to carry conventional warheads, an effort repeatedly rejected by Congress; although it funded continued R&D on a Trident re-entry vehicle. The concern has been how other nations might react to a Trident launch. A conventionally armed ICBM could strike anywhere in the world within minutes, penetrating any and all known air-defenses.

After New START was signed in Prague last week, the Department of State released a fact sheet on conventional prompt global strike, pointing out that the new treaty does not put any constraints on development or deployment of conventionally tipped ICBMs. Conventional ICBMs would count under New START’s 700 delivery vehicle limit; the treaty does not distinguish between missiles armed with conventional and nuclear warheads.

The Navy has been working on a conventionally-tipped D-5 Trident II missiles for at least a decade, says naval strategist Craig Hooper. Since 2002, Lockheed Martin has “quietly tinkered” with Trident II reentry vehicles, providing new maneuverability and guidance packages.

Perhaps Gates misspoke and meant to say “we will soon have.” The D-5 production line is still open, so it’s easy to envision a test warhead or two sitting on a shop floor being quickly fitted atop a Trident; or, perhaps, that’s already happened.

– Greg

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{ 57 comments… read them below or add one }

chaos0xomega April 12, 2010 at 1:00 pm

I have to ask… whats the point of this? As the article pointed out, any launch of an ICBM could complicate matters considerably. Unless the president gets on the phone w/ the other nuclear powers, a conventional ICBM launch could very well lead to nuclear war… but if you get on the phone w/ the other nuclear powers, they have 30 minutes to warn whoever the target is to gtfo…

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Blight April 12, 2010 at 1:26 pm

I imagine the Russians and NATO would be the first, if not, only people to detect ICBM launches. I imagine NATO allies wouldn't start anything without talking to America first, and the Russians could probably calculate trajectories and hopefully know that a single launch is not global thermonuclear war.

I imagine the red-line to Moscow will get used very often. I would've supported converting them into an IRBM, but I think one of the START treaties forbids them.

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Psypher April 12, 2010 at 10:28 am

^

If I’m not mistaken, its actually the INF Treaty, not START I/II, that gets in the way of fielding a conventional IRBM… (but thermobaric MIRVs would surely be a sight to behold)

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Tmash April 12, 2010 at 2:35 pm

Agreed the thermobarics are impressive. but deploying that over a major city? i know people dont like nukes but im sure they kill faster than than an air burst thermobaric bomb that would burn people slowly(well slower than nuke) alive instead of just incernerating them. To me that just like putting white phos in the warheads and i know we supposed to use that that crap on humans. Also if were in a recession why are we going to spend money on re fitting our icbms with convential warheads instead of a improvements to the M4( or mk14 ebrs for everyone!)

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Jeff N April 12, 2010 at 3:01 pm

Thermobaric weapons… the point isn't to burn them. Its to hit them with a dramatic change in air pressure that takes the form of an outward pressure wave followed by a violent vacuum at the epicenter. So before you have to worry about burning people to death, anyone unfortunate enough to survive the blast would deal with suffication and the effects of a rapid air pressure shift on blood vessels and ears.

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Drake1 April 12, 2010 at 2:06 pm

What's the explosive power of the conventional warhead?

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Jeff N April 12, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Its suppose to be kinetic. Like a bullet. No explosives. One variant was suppose to disperse smaller rods, but other wise its all mass and re-entry velocities, beyond hyper-sonic. 3000 square feet was the goal for area of effect.

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Psypher April 12, 2010 at 6:49 pm

…like the Chinese carrier-killer ;-)

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Why April 12, 2010 at 3:47 pm

If we start throwing conventional missiles around, it takes all the rational for everyone NOT deploying ABM systems off the table – thus ultimately destabilizing the nuke picture. I don't understand how we could both go forward with conventional BMs and shut down our ABM R&D work – stuff beyond just ABM Standards. Going forward with conventional BMs will spur others to do the same, which will start the counter cycle of ABM systems as well.

If we do one, we damn well better do them both.

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Steve B. April 12, 2010 at 1:36 pm

Let’s assume 2 potential target countries – Iran and N Korea. Possibly Pakistan, but that’s a stretch.

The only country likely to detect a launch from either sub based or land based systems is Russia, via it’s cold war legacy IR detection systems in space, or possibly land based long range radars, whose reliability and coverage is spotty the past 10 years. Does China have space based IR for missile launch warning ?, doubtful. China doesn’t have much in the way of land based PavePaws style radars either from what I’ve read.

Iran would most likely be a target reachable from most of the Minuteman III’s in the US, while possibly reachable from Trident in the WestPac or eastern Atlantic.

A flight path from N Dakota to Tehran looks like it’s headed straight for Moscow. Assuming the Russian IR missile detection satellites are still functional, that launch is going to require a phone call ahead of time to “alleviate any concerns in Moscow”, which I would doubt the US would want to count on. That leaves a sub Trident from WestPac – in a normal operational deployment, or from east Atlantic. The Westpac launch “might” get picked up by China, and again, a trajectory from WestPac to Tehran takes it too damned close to Bejing and that would take “another phone call”. That leaves an Atlantic launch and that probably would get picked up by assorted NATO systems – French, UK, etc… so issues there.

N Korea is easy. A Trident on WestPac deployment and only Russia would see it coming and might get decent info early enough to calculate the target. A US based Minuteman III takes a trajectory to N Korea right down the eastern Siberia land mass and that might raise some eyebrows in Moscow.

The biggest concern is any system whose information reporting is “sketchy”, with a good deal of nail biting on the part of those monitoring. Makes for a long 30 minutes at the Pentagon, wondering if any body is 1) Going to believe what we tell them in a phone call and 2) What their marginal detections systems are telling them.

I would not want to be counting on this non-nuke global strike as a useful tool.

SB

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Jeff N April 12, 2010 at 6:59 pm

I think Iran is the more likely target of any effort. We know for a fact that they have fortified mountain bunkers designed to withstand our bunker buster bombs and missiles.Given their growing emphasis on air defence, something about a 3000lbs of kinetic warhead traveling 12000mph becomes very appealing, even if we have to warn Russia first.

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gsak April 12, 2010 at 10:33 pm

Tridents do not go on WESTPACs.

12,000mph is too fast for re-entry.

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Steve B. April 12, 2010 at 10:44 pm

Tridents don't currently do WestPac, but if carrying conventionals they might change that, just to get them within useful range of potential SW Asian targets.

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gsak April 13, 2010 at 1:19 am

Not necessary =) Unless a specific non-overflight plan is required.

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Matt April 12, 2010 at 5:44 pm

It wasn't long ago that a b-52 took off fully loaded with live nukes and didn't even know it. Its just a matter of time before one of those test missiles is mistaken with a real nuke and that kinetic weapon ends up detonating with a bit more force.

As conventional ICBM's begin being fielded, the nuclear weapons being replaced will have to go somewhere, increasing the risk of additional screwups.

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gsak April 12, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Not likely. Too much physical verification.

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Blight April 13, 2010 at 12:52 am

As long as boats don't carry mixed warhead complements it won't be a problem, I think..

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gsak April 13, 2010 at 1:15 am

"software update with different launch mode besides Tactical" + "different firing unit keys for conventional tubes" is all it would take.

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MCarriage April 12, 2010 at 6:09 pm

I agree with everything you said Steve B, well thought out comment!

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Mystick April 12, 2010 at 6:39 pm

One of the obvious weak points for ICBM-deployed conventional munitions is the inherent CEP of the system. These are not "smart bombs". They have a "dumb" ballistic trajectory that ensures a probable hit within radius of hundreds of meters of the nominal target. There are no terminal guidance devices like you see on the "sexy" smart-bombs like JDAM or Paveway with CEP's in the inches. Its pretty much an unguided weapon after the warhead is released from the suborbital bus package.

Another disadvantage is the throw weight. These systems are only capable of carrying so much into a suborbital ballistic trajectory. Most systems are around 2000-4000 pounds, and the LGM-118(MX) being around 9000 pounds, but its being phased out, if it hasn't been already.

So, using the GBU-43/B MOAB (22000 pounds) as a benchmark, with a 140 meter kill radius, we could expect, out of a 2500 pound warhead of similar manufacture, perhaps a 75 meter kill radius optimally – on a LGM-30G(Minuteman III), which has a CEP of about 100 meters. So, 25 percent of the time, the target is going to be outside of the kill radius, even if the warhead is delivered optimally. Keep in mind CEP is a 50 percent chance of getting within the given distance from the target for any given deployment. Do the math. That's a 12.5 percent chance of a kill. And that's a soft-target kill like an infantry formation, POL depot, city block, etc. Forget any kind hard-target kills like bunkers or prepared formations.

We haven't even factored in fusing errors… the warhead is traveling at about 12000 miles per hour. A second at that speed is the difference between 17000 feet and pancake in the dirt.

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Jeff N April 12, 2010 at 6:55 pm

The conventional warhead would include GPS guidance, which makes it smart and with the war head being purely kinetic without any explosive, so no need of fuzing. The payload of the warhead would be a solid mass and use the the force of the 3000+ lbs traveling 12000mph to do its damage. At least these were the stated design goals from several years back.

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gsak April 12, 2010 at 10:36 pm

I think you're thinking "Feet per second". :)

Yeah, they have done some work with boosting the Mk-4's to the size of Mk-5's with a GPS guidance package. Also have done the tungsten rod stuff that someone mentioned earlier, but that was a while ago. I think the Rhode Island did that? They're playing with different heat shields, also.

The Re-entry Bodies are way, way below 3,000 lbs.

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gsak April 12, 2010 at 10:39 pm

I think it's (almost) funny that everyone knows the actual CEP of warheads, yet it's supposed to be "soooo secret". Yeah, you might want to toss the entire load onto a target to have a good effect. The Trident I (C4) was about 3-4 times less accurate.

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gsak April 12, 2010 at 3:43 pm

The Equipment Section of a Trident II doesn't have room for large warheads, and I don't expect a conventional version would be larger than the current Mk-5.

The boats take a big stress at Missile Away… we bent the deck on the 737 when we shot tube 14.

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gas April 12, 2010 at 5:21 pm

Wait I thought the missile was ejected with compressed air in a waterproof capsule. When it breach the surface THEN it lights up the rocket motor.

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xsf April 12, 2010 at 5:49 pm

Think about that. Trident II D-5 weighs 59,090 kilos…. that's a lot of pressure needed to eject.

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gsak April 12, 2010 at 10:26 pm

The UGM-133A Trident II (D5) weights ~130,000lbs.

The missile skin has holes in it. The tube and missile are pressurized with N2; a no-joke rocket motor is bolted to the tube, upside down, and that lights off into 90 gallons of water; this steam ejects the missile through the water; the nitrogen bubbles out of the holes in the skin, keeping water out; the guidance system commands Stage-1 ignition when it senses decelleration; the missile flys away from the launch submarine on its current bearing in case of motor detonation, then after a while turns toward its downrange target.

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Brian B April 12, 2010 at 8:38 pm

Accuracy and payload aside, the conventional ICBM may provide a greater deterrent effect than just nukes.

Rogue regime X must now consider whether the U.S would retaliate conventionally with less of a chance of fallout both political and nuclear. The reduced environmental impact makes the strike anywhere on the globe conventional missile a more real possibility for use than a large scale nuke ever was. As long as there is an administration willing to launch when retaliation is called for.

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ajSpades April 13, 2010 at 12:04 am

A political consideration to the "ease of global strike without reprecussions" could be made against conventional ICBMs as against UAV strikes.

No threat is being made against the pilots of UAVs. If we don't even have to put the launch team down range, what is to stop us from throwing ordnance down range whenever we feel like it? War is getting very easy to wage.

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gsak April 13, 2010 at 1:21 am

Those political considerations are only bargaining chips. Russia doesn't actually think we're going to nuke them; although, they were surprisingly untrusting during START inspections. Very, very annoying at 1am when you want to go home and there is a sniper pointing at you. :)

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Alex` April 13, 2010 at 5:44 pm

And fun.

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gsak April 12, 2010 at 10:42 pm

Anyone know the nominal flight time of the Trident II? :) I just want to hear your guesses.

Overflight is also a big concern. Meaning: "don't drop your 1st, 2nd and 3rd stage boosters on other countries". It has a profound impact on launch area calculations.

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ohwilleke April 16, 2010 at 5:58 am

Against a coastal target you're talking a few minutes, and probably not much more than half an hour to a target at maximum range, I suspect. An ICBM is very fast.

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CHIEF April 13, 2010 at 12:01 pm

Using ICBM's for a conventional purpose seems like a terrible waste of taxpayer money, as well as the problems it could cause by launching such a weapon! I hope that "they" think this over before going ahead!

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Alex` April 13, 2010 at 5:45 pm

Waste of taxpayers money is ALL that DOD does most of its days. I would not worry about an old ICBM being actually used instead of eternally inspected/maintained/retrofitted/scrapped.

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Jay April 13, 2010 at 12:50 pm

Right. ICBMs, are as Mystick noted, a "dumb" ballistic trajectory with very little chance to guide it to target after apogee. Current tech cannot get them nearly as accurate as a drone or airplane launched bomb or missile. Without the fancy warhead you made a very expensive bullet that likely won't hit exactly where you want.

Now if we had a president with some understanding of deterrence, we would develop very small, very clean, penetrating nuclear warheads. The aim being to deter the LEADERS of nations or groups who attack us with WMD by giving us the ability to kill them almost instantly and even inside hardened underground bunkers in a populated area. Of course we would need good human, drone, and satellite intel to find their steel rat holes, but we can do that.

This would be a great deterrant – observe that the head terrorists always send other people as suicide bombers, and leaders of rogue states don't care when thousands of their of own people die – but they really want to keep themselves alive!

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gsak April 13, 2010 at 4:21 pm

There's no such thing as a "clean" nuclear weapon, and you wouldn't get the penetration needed to contain fallout, even in an ideal scenario.

If you throw eight warheads at the same target, you'd probably have a decent effect. It would be like bombing a target with eight hypersonic, iron bombs, if you want to talk accuracy. Or a multiple of eight, with a ripple launch. Just an example.

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Blight April 13, 2010 at 12:57 pm

Bunker-busting has been worked on for a long, long, time; DefTech has covered it even during the Noah's tenure. But no new developments have really come forward from that.

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Alex` April 13, 2010 at 5:49 pm

There's really nothing dirtier than a ground blast nuke. Making it clean is an impossibility. A completely separate issue is why should we care if ti's come to using nukes, whether they are clean. We probably already lost hundreds of thousands of lives if not millions.

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Matt B April 13, 2010 at 6:40 pm

Interesting thread. Curious on your thoughts regarding China's so called Aircraft Carrier Killer ballistic missle. If they can design a ballistic missle capable of hitting a carrier fleet, surely we also have the tech for accurate Conventional ballistics?

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Steve B. April 14, 2010 at 4:45 pm

Oh for Christ's sake ! – This president has the same SecDef and Joint Chiefs as the last and from all indications is significantly smarter and better able to handle the issues – he knows it isn't pronounced Nuke-U-Ler, so seemingly is making the correct decisions, but of course being a dyed-in-the-wool conservative you cannot comprehend that anybody but someone like yourself has an understanding of defense related issues.

All politics aside, even a Republican controlled congress wasn't going for new nukes and using nukes on a ground burst – even if the technology works – and how exactly do we test one ?, causes enough fallout to be unacceptable.

The absolutely only scenario for using a nuke, would be if Iran or NK used one first and you then might well have time issues to remove that capability from further use ASAP. Nobodies going to want to use a bunker buster nuke in a first strike and that's pretty much universally understood to have so many far reaching negative consequences for the US that even the Republicans in congress understood the reasons for not going there.

That said, any ICBM/SLBM can be made to have reasonbly good accuracy, it worked for the Pershing II and that concept can be readily adapted. Is it accurate enough ?, probably and can certainly be improved on and tested till they get it right.

Does that make an ICBM/SLBM pin-point capable missile a useful weapon ?, doubtful. The "don't fly it over NATO/China/Russia/India" issue is somewhat insurmountable, IMO.

SB

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gsak April 14, 2010 at 10:32 pm

Your'e generally right, but there are locations to launch from that are non-overflight.

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Steve B. April 14, 2010 at 11:36 pm

The overflight issue has 2 factors:

1) Where are the US weapons (usually) based ?.
2) What's the target ?.

With factor 2 being Iran:

And considering factor 1, it's either we equip and use a Minutman III, which means N Dakota, Wyoming or Montana basing, with attendant issues of overflight into Russian airspace, or we use a Ohio class with Trident.

The Trident is really the only option to avoid "mis-understandings" as to where the missile is headed, but has it's own issues of needing to be on patrol in an area – where they currently are not, to avoid the overflight/multi-stage booster falling to earth issues. That's a sea change in strategic thinking and means commiting one entire Ohio class sub to a patrol area where it currently doesn't, with it's own issues of yanking that sub off it's regular nuclear mission, for what – a couple of missiles with conventional kinetic warheads ?. Not likely,

If Factor 2 is NK:

Many simplified issues as a Ohio/Trident in the Pac area can launch with few issues of overflight.

This essentially means we are designing a hard kill, kinetic capable, self guiding to pinpoint accuracy warhead bus, to hit a couple of potential targets in NK.

Hmmm…. I'm not thinking hats going to happen.

Lets venture a bit further afield and assume the target is a known terrorist camp in Yemen. The terrrorists at this camp are about to launch a WMD attack and we are under the gun to take the camp/facility out, ASAP. The ability to use a global strike weapon to hit a target such as this is very tempting to a planner, as is alleviates a lot of logistical issues with a B2 strike, or a cruise missile strike from somewhere in the region, with time lag, etc…

But the Minuteman III is a stretch as the range is a bit long, so it looks like a Trident from Mid-Atlantic somewhere and the overflight issues are not as much an issue as the flight is over northern Africa and Egypt, with maybe nobody but the Russians knowing about it till CNN tells us.

Still, limited target set for a lot of investment.

Just some thoughts
SB

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gsak April 15, 2010 at 12:00 am

Good thoughts!

Tridents are actually the primary, survivable leg in our nuclear arsenal. Bombers need effective SEAD, and the Minutemans are not capable of surviving a counterforce strike.

If you're outside the minimum range and inside the maximum range, you can launch a Trident II from [almost] anywhere. There are a few nuances to consider, but with a good JO's on the EAM and a good Targeting Team, you could have warheads on the ground in about an hour and a half with EAM retargeting.

More likely, a boat would get a PATORD change to a specific patrol area when things started to heat up.

DualityOfMan April 13, 2010 at 6:41 pm

This sounds like pulling a gun filled with blanks on a cop and hoping that he'll be able to tell that it's not a threat.
In fewer words: it's plain stupid.

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Greg Grant April 13, 2010 at 5:24 pm

Mystick,

Very interesting and informative comments. So I'm guessing you're not a believer that ballistic missile warheads could be designed to hit something small and moving, say a carrier?

Greg

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Mystick April 14, 2010 at 7:07 pm

There are systems out there for gross mid-range guidance in a reentry vehicle, but its not a 'precision' weapon system as we have come to understand the term. These systems are pretty much gas-reaction thrusters that only operate exoatmospherically to fine tune the trajectory on its programmer path. There are no aerodynamic control surfaces nor sensors that would facilitate terminal guidance to a moving target, even one as large as a carrier.

The ICBM concept was designed to deliver a warhead payload with a primary effects radius measured in the thousands of meters. The inherent imprecision of the delivery system was compensated by this large effects radius.

Could a reentry vehicle be adapted to release submunitions that have precision terminal guidance? Sure. But those submunitions would have a lesser effects radius than a munition of the full throw-weight for the launch system. There are easier ways to deliver thousand-pound bombs. F-117's could do a better job.

Plus, with an ICBM, once it leaves the silo, it's gone. There's no recall, target updates, etc. Thirty minutes of flight time is an eternity in a tactical environment, even in a strategic environment. Reloading and regenerating a silo is a hell of a lot more expensive and time-consuming than cranking a bomb into the undercarriage of an aircraft and setting a pin.

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gsak April 14, 2010 at 10:47 pm

Gas reaction thrusters are on the Equipment Section.

They've played with mechanical fins as an after-body attachment for the Mk-4 RB.

Aircraft are considered non-survivable over critical targets.

You're right that SLBMs are non-recallable; however, they do have detcord pre-installed to cut the forward motor domes, but the Destruct Initiation Units are not installed in tactical missiles. So, it's possible to implement a "recall" feature, if needed.

30 minutes is possible, but optimistic.

Don't count on returning to a nuclear weapons base in the middle of a nuclear war. :) Re-arming is for fiction novels.

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Steve B. April 15, 2010 at 1:56 am

The essential concept of a ICBM/SLBM being used for this purpose is to use the speed of the re-entry vehicle as kinetic effect as well as whatever warhead you choose for the desired add'l blast (if any – it could well be a depleted uranium slug, for all I know) – I.E. deep earth penetration as a typical.

While the current designs of the re-entry busses for both Minuteman and Trident were indeed based around the need to get a warhead roughly X meters from a target, counting on the nuclear blast to do the actual kill, any conventional kinetic warhead needs much greater precision.

Such precision, or close enough, was demonstrated 30 years ago with Pershing II with it's vane controlled warhead and radar correlation targeting and much speculation is now rampant as to whether the Chinese have used this design with newer computing capacity, as a carrier killer.

Given the level of concern within the US Navy over the potential for such a weapon being developed in China, it's certainly not anywhere near as difficult as one would think.

And 30 minutes of flight time is certainly not long when you consider the alternatives, which might be hours with a cruise missile, IF you have a surface vessel or sub in correct position. But many multiple hours if it's a B2 from Whiteman.

Suddenly the 30 minute time frame, plus time to generate targeting info, make the phone calls to allies and others concerned, make the POLITICAL decision to use such a weapon, and it's still a reasonably quick response.

Here's a scenario:

- Terrorist group launches an attack with heavy loss of life. CNN and everybody else is all over it and te media exposure is all in favor of the terrorists now being in the spotlight.

That doesn't change if the US response is measured in 12 hrs. (optimistic) or even days, while we stage a ship/sub into range, or a B2 plus assorted logistical support.

OR, 2 hrs. later a major hit is enacted on a facility that we have decent proof was involved.

The quick reply changes the media attention to the US response, and the potential for add'l strikes to potentially follow.

That's the goal.

SB

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Brian Mulholland April 14, 2010 at 12:21 am

A different speculation. Might we not use the lower stages of an ICBM to push a ramjet or ultimately a scramjet up to operating speed? Not so short a flight time, but fewer possibilities of mistakes, and a bigger payload.

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siconik April 14, 2010 at 1:58 am

Such missile would not carry an explosive warhead anyway but rather a bundle of very high ballistic cooficient DU or tungsten rods that would both cover a large area and seriously dampen someone's day with their kinetic energy alone.

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scrammer April 14, 2010 at 4:58 pm

"Prompt global strike" != conventional ICBM. (ref. Boeing X-51)

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Tim April 15, 2010 at 8:42 pm

PROMPT GLOBAL STRIKE ? No way would they use an ICBM as its too dangerous re explaining and convincing the soviets its not nuclear . This really means the US has some sort of super fast drone/plane that can reach targets quick . The Nasa module maybe that the Pentagon took over and is currently testing ??

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tigerT April 16, 2010 at 4:10 am

There is a straight forward approach – simple but not cheap – to let everyone know that a launch is using a conventional warhead instead of a nuclear one. Think about how we watch for their launches. What part of the launch event is detectable from space?

Just change that signature and widely share it through the usual inspection and verification channels. Not a cheap option to change the signature but it is workable. Have their engineers do their own measurements when we test the launch vehicles to verify that the signature is what we say it is.

It all comes down to if the Russians or Chinese or anyone else trusts the US enough to believe it when their sensors tell them that an 'altered' ICBM has launched.

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ohwilleke April 16, 2010 at 6:00 am

I wonder if an SLBM could take out a satellite? The trajectory wouldn't look very threatening and it would be a unique capability which wouldn't require a large explosive payload.

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mbtshoesstorm June 18, 2010 at 3:41 am
Alex` April 13, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Bunker buster bomb requires airspace permission. Remember Turkey in 2003? i would not worry about places like Iran (N.Korea's R&D potential is negligible) creating an ABM system worth a damn.

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