Will the US Develop a Death Ray?

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Phil Sandlin / AP

A new Pentagon proposal would convert Trident nuclear missiles like this one to more conventional weapons.

A band of pre-eminent scientists and war-fighters has concluded that the nation's military might isn't powerful enough for the 21st Century; and so the National Research Council (NRC), an independent, congressionally-chartered body charged with assessing scientific issues, is urging the Pentagon and Congress to get cracking on developing a weapon capable of hitting any target in the world within an hour of being launched.

The NRC's Committee on Conventional Prompt Global Strike Capability believes that there are threats (like nuclear terrorism) that the Pentagon's fleets of attack planes and missiles cannot handle and which have to be stopped with the immediacy of the push of a button by a future U.S. President. It's not quite a "death ray" but it's the closest existing technology can get to that fantasy weapon. Still, skeptics roll their eyes and say that the report's authors are like a bunch of junior high school boys who have seen all the James Bond movies and believe that if a weapon can be built, it must be built.

To be sure, there are serious arguments both for and against developing such a system. Part of the justification is that the U.S. military already has such a capability. Unfortunately, it's nuclear, which renders it worthless for anything but Armageddon. But for about $1 billion, over the next three years, the nation could convert some Trident missiles — now limited to carrying nuclear warheads in their submarine launchers — to non-nuclear weapons. The plan favored by the NRC panel would replace two of the 24 nuclear missiles on each of the Navy's 12 Trident subs with conventional-armed missiles.

For the past two years, Congress has blocked Bush Administration plans to develop such a weapon. Lawmakers are concerned that Russia, and soon China, might mistake the launch of a conventionally-armed Trident with the start of a nuclear war against them — and respond in kind before realizing they were mistaken. The NRC panel dismissed this concern, saying various steps — including informing Moscow and Beijing of conventional launches — could be taken to minimize such an error.

The plan backed by the panel calls for putting up to four non-explosive "dispersible kinetic energy projectiles" atop each missile. Each GPS-guided projectile would contain about 1,000 tungsten rods that would strike the target at a mile a second (a fuse could spew them more widely across the ground, with less impact, or let all 250 pounds hit the same point for maximum destruction). The force of a single rod, the report says, would be similar to that of a hefty 50-caliber bullet. The lack of any explosive would generate precise mayhem, "comparable to the type of limited damage caused by meteor strikes," it adds.

Sounds nifty, until you read the fine print. It notes that Pentagon studies "indicate that in most cases, a single CTM [Conventional Trident Modification] KEP [Kinetic Energy Projectile] will have a high kill probability against fixed soft targets if target geolocation accuracy and guidance, navigation, and control accuracy are as predicted." That's eight caveats right there. Such a weapon would be worthless against moving or heavily-defended targets (developing such a capability would take at least a decade and cost as much as $25 billion) and represents only a "niche capability" designed to attack stationary terrorists or nuclear weapons or supplies.

Which raises the most important question of all: a hammer is worthless if you can't find the nail. "There remains the challenge of finding a target in the first place," the report concurs, before explaining that future constellations of space-based spy satellites will make the task easier. Yet despite repeated tries, the U.S. has failed to locate Osama bin Laden, and missed killing Saddam Hussein at the beginning of the last Iraq war when attacking sites where he reportedly was present. The NRC panel implies that both men were in the cross hairs but moved before cruise missiles or bombs obliterated their purported locations, but that remains far from clear.

Still, the NRC report suggests taking out such elusive prey is easy. "Experience tells us that intelligence may exist about when a shipment is planned or may be en route, or where loading, unloading, or temporary stops may occur," it says. "Details may be lacking until late — perhaps when those doing the transporting stop for rest or maintenance, or when delays occur at a port, bridge, or border, including stops associated with routine inspections."

Beyond picking off terrorists and nuclear warheads stuck at border crossings, the report cites a couple of potentially cataclysmic events where a conventional strike from out of the blue could save the day. The system would be perfect for destroying an enemy missile carrying a nuclear warhead on its launch pad (apparently, the NRC has some doubts about the effectiveness of the nation's "Star Wars" missile shield and the utility of hundreds of warplanes). It would also be ideal for taking out an unexplained super-weapon (perhaps an electro-magnetic pulse nuclear bomb) that could lead to the "loss of numerous satellites crucial to U.S. command and control."

The report does point out one area of potential trouble in its own proposal. Deploying two kinds of missiles together in the same submarine "raises at least the possibility of an accidental launch of a nuclear weapon instead of the intended launch of a conventional weapon because... prompt global strikes may often allow little time for second checks." Command and control becomes a dicey issue. Among other safeguards, the Navy has proposed separate "firing keys" for each kind of missile, each kept in its own safe, and each under the control of a different senior officer on the submarine. Now, that sounds like the premise for a James Bond movie.