Gates Says U.S. Has Conventionally Armed ICBMs

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

23 Comments on "Gates Says U.S. Has Conventionally Armed ICBMs"

  1. 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…

  2. 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.

  3. What's the explosive power of the conventional warhead?

  4. 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.

  5. 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.


  6. 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.

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

  8. 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.

  9. 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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.

  12. 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.

  13. 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!

  14. 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!

  15. 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.

  16. 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?


  17. Brian Mulholland | April 14, 2010 at 12:21 am | Reply

    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.

  18. 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.

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

  20. 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 ??

  21. 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.

  22. 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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