Strategic Weapons: February 11, 2004


U.S. Air Force Space Command is trying to make a case for developing conventionally armed ballistic missiles. In a recently released roadmap laying out the future of the Air Force's intercontinental ballistic missile force, a number of existing Minuteman IIIs would be upgraded to an "Elite" version with improved accuracy. Given "Peacekeeper-like" accuracy with enhanced RVs (Re-entry Vehicles, as warheads are called), a conventional ICBM (C-ICBM) could strike a target anywhere on the globe on short notice within 30 to 35 minutes and without the headaches of basing rights. And as one would expect, the U.S. Navy is currently re-examining the role of the SLBM Trident and expects to deploy accuracy upgrades to allow it to be used in a conventional role.

However, there are numerous barriers to such use, not the least the potential for a C-ICBM launch to be mistaken by Russia or China as a nuclear strike. Advocates argue that conventional missiles would be launched in smaller numbers and clearly headed in different directions. Russia and other nations might be notified in advance of an impending C-ICBM launch. To further avoid confusion, conventional launches would most likely conducted from existing Air Force test range facilities at Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral, according to various documents as well as to limit potential collateral damage from falling boosters. Both ranges could be open to international inspection to verify conventional payloads. Overflight rights have also been cited as a potential political headache, but the high trajectory and descent path of a payload may make such arguments somewhat moot. 

Expense is another issue likely to come up for consideration. According to the Air Force, Minuteman III has a list price of $7 million per round before upgrades and a conventional munitions program. Add to that the cost of a few R&D test shots to make sure everything works as expected. Currently, the Air Force is developing a Common Aero-Vehicle (CAV), an aerodynamically designed re-entry vehicle with maneuvering capability for increased range and accuracy that will dispense submunitions, for use both with the C-ICBM and a future space plane. Payloads under consideration for the CAV include three 250 lb small smart bombs, six 90 lb powered LOCAAS (Low Cost Autonomous Attack System) munitions, a hard and deeply buried target (HDBT) penetrator, a deployable unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) Hunter/Killer package, an agent defeat payload, and other special (non-nuclear) weapon payloads. 

Another interesting bookkeeping headache is that C-ICBMs would count against START totals despite being retrofitted with conventional munitions. Currently, the United States has 500 Minuteman IIIs on alert and is investing $6 billion to improve accuracy and reliability and to extend its service life beyond 2020. C-ICBMs would count against such numbers, but there seems to be little resistance within the Pentagon given the relatively limited numbers involved. 

The updated roadmap calls for deployment of the first Minuteman Elites by 2011 with a new ICBM to follow in 2018. The replacement ICBM, sometimes referred to as the Minuteman IV, would be designed from the ground up for both nuclear and conventional missions, and be designed to deploy a single reentry vehicle with a throw weight of 2,000 pounds over 7,500 nautical miles with accuracy equal or better than Peacekeeper. It, or parts of it, could also see use incorporated into an ABM system and to launch small payloads into orbit. 

Proposals for converting ballistic missiles to a conventional role have been floated since the mid-90s, when Lockheed proposed putting Polaris or Trident missiles armed with kinetic energy munitions = bundles of tungsten rods) into hardened bunkers in Europe targeted at Warsaw Pack airfields. Hypersonic cruise missiles would be a more politically correct solution for time-critical targeting, but engineering headaches still remain before an affordable and deployable solution is available. Doug Mohney




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