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Red Phones vs. Tridents

It would be China's worst nightmare. Perhaps in the midst of some mutual sabre-rattling over Taiwan, a Chinese satellite detects a missile launch from the Pacific Ocean. A Trident missile is headed China's way. Computers race to determine the target while Chinese ICBMs go on high alert. The clock is ticking ... and millions of lives are in the balance.red phone.jpgThis apocalyptic scenario is becoming increasingly plausible as the U.S. military considers arming some of its Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles with conventional warheads. A conventionally-armed Trident has certain advantages over bombers, cruise missiles, or Special Forces for taking out high-value targets. It's unmanned, extremely accurate for a missile and fast: a Trident can hit any spot on the globe around 30 minutes from launch.But space sensors can't tell a TNT-tipped Trident from one carrying a 100-kiloton nuclear warhead. So every time the U.S. fired a conventional Trident at a terrorist camp, Russia, China and every other nuclear power would suffer a major freak-out. [Inside Defense has been all over this controversy for a while -- ed.]In this month's Proceedings (not yet online), Navy Capt. Terry Benedict admits the diplomatic complications of using conventional Tridents. But he believes we can resolve them: "This change in our nation's strategic force will require that no stone be left unturned to improve the measures we have in place to prevent misunderstandings. Areas under investigation and review include existing hotlines and other communications with Russia and China, diplomacy, military dialogue, plus training, tests and exercises."The only workable solution in Benedict's list is a hotline by which the U.S. would warn other nuclear powers before launching a conventional Trident. But the hotline would be just one link in a long chain of comms connecting national command authorities to strategic forces: this chain would have to function perfectly -- and quickly -- every time to avoid a major incident.And consider this: to veto a strike, a Chinese leader would only have to refuse to pick up the buzzing red phone.-- David Axe UPDATE 3:45 PM: Noah here. Benedict's plan, of course, assumes that China isn't on the target list for these new, de-nuked ICBMs. Trust me, it is.I spoke recently with one of the authors of the new "Global Strike" doctrine, which includes the conventional Tridents. And he talked about Global Strike largely in terms of deterring "potentially dangerous adversaries again" with "big land masses on the other side of globe." That don't sound like Al-Qaeda to me.

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