The move to deploy conventional warheads on Trident D5 missiles is gaining momentum. According to The New York Times, Pentagon is asking Congress to allocate $127 million to begin the work and promises to have the capability deployed in two years. The plan is to have conventional warheads on two missiles on each Trident submarine. Other 22 missiles are supposed to stay nuclear.
This is a classic example of weapons in search of a mission - desperate to find some kind of "useful" application for all those systems that were built during the cold war, the military are coming up with all kind of scenarios that seem to allow keeping them in business. And they don't care if these scenarios are entirely implausible or that the new missions might create quite dangerous situations.
The problem of course is that there is no way to tell if the missile is conventional or nuclear, which creates a huge window for all kind of misunderstandings should its launch be detected by the Russian early-warning system. Yes, one can argue the probability of Russia's misinterpreting a missile launch is quite small, but do we really want to take the risk?
The ways STARTCOM suggests to deal with this problem is quite disturbing - General Cartwright seems to believe that allowing foreign nations to monitor tests of the system would actually solve the problem:
"We are going to put a target area in the ocean so people can actually see what it looks like when it hits the earth and don't confuse this with a mushroom cloud"I'm wondering how exactly this is supposed to help in case of an actual operational launch? The logic of this proposal completely escapes me.
Of course, General Cartwright is generous enough to suggest that another thing to do "would be to notify Russia and other nations when the United States launched a conventional Trident II missile." Oh, really? I thought that this is not a matter of STRATCOM generosity - the Unites States is still a party to the Ballistic Missile Launch Notification Agreement of 1988, which requires it to report all ICBM and SLBM launches no less than 24 hours in advance. This wouldn't fit into the Global Strike scenarios in which STRATCOM plans it would take no more than an hour to plan and execute a strike. But what's a cold-war agreement between friends? The Bush administration used this line once to scrap one "cold-war agreement", the ABM Treaty, so why would it be deterred from using it to scrap another one?
In general, I have nothing against replacing nuclear warheads with conventional ones. The fewer nuclear warheads the better. But mixing conventional and nuclear together is a really bad idea and I really hope that cooler heads will prevail. At the very least, there is a chance that someone will notice that Russia is not particularly happy about the plan. Cold war or not, this may still play some role.