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.