The Conventional Trident Missile is back and I'm afraid there is a good chance that this time STRATCOM will get the project funded - Gen. Cartwright seems to be very enthusiastic about the plan and the National Academies panel that was asked to study the idea is unlikely to disapprove it strongly enough to stop it.
On one level, STRATCOM enthusiasm is a good sign - people there seem to realize that being in the nuclear business is like not being in business at all. It's no longer cool to carry nuclear weapons around, since you cannot use them anyway. STRATCOM wants a piece of "real action", which these days means hitting "unexpected or fast-moving"targets.
This is all good, but the way STRATCOM wants this to be done - mixing conventional and nuclear missiles on operational strategic submarines - is a very bad idea, in my view. The probability of an accident that may be triggered by a Trident launch may be fairly small, but there is no evidence that it is small enough to be dismissed. Quite the contrary - what we know about operations of early-warning and command and control strongly suggests that the risk is not negligible.
Proponents of the plan try to address the concerns, but they do not sound entirely convincing. For example, here is an excerpt from the testimony of Brian R. Green, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Strategic Capabilities Department of Defense, at the hearings in the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 28, 2007 (emphasis added):
The most frequently cited concern is that a CTM [Conventional Trident] launch could be misinterpreted as a nuclear attack, prompting Russian retaliation. The CTM report states that the risk is extremely low and can be managed effectively. Few states have the sophisticated technology required to detect and track a ballistic missile launch. However, the Russian Federation has these detection and tracking systems and is generally able to evaluate quickly a ballistic missile’s flight path and determine within tens of miles the missile’s aimpoint. In that respect, if Russian sensors detected and tracked a CTM launch, the Russian command would quickly identify it as non-threatening. Moreover, the Russian command would readily distinguish between a CTM launch and a massive nuclear first strike.
Historically, the Russian Federation has not over-reacted to an un-notified or unannounced U.S. or Chinese missile launch. Furthermore, the United States and the Russian Federation now have a more cooperative and less adversarial relationship than during the Cold War, and this new relationship provides a much-changed context in which any launch of a ballistic missile would be understood.
Nevertheless, the United States takes the possibility of misinterpretation seriously. While the risk is extremely low, DoD has developed a comprehensive assurance strategy consisting of confidence-building and operational measures, promoting a high degree of transparency into CTM operations. Engagement of Russia at senior levels is ongoing.
First, I don't like the idea of "managing" the risk of an accidental launch. I would much rather see that risk eliminated, not "managed", especially taking into account that the ideas about risk management are not particularly encouraging.
I'm glad to see that Mr. Green holds the Russian system in high regards and believes in its ability to quickly identify an attack as "non-threatening". But something tells me that this is that he wants to believe, not necessarily what the actual capability is. I don't think early-warning satellites can provide impact prediction with the "tens of miles" accuracy. I'll need to look into it, though.
On the historical record, it is, of course, true that Russia has never over-reacted to U.S. or Chinese launches. However, there were not that many of them that were "un-notified or unannounced". The United States and Russia have an agreement that requires them to notify each other of upcoming launches at least 24 hours in advance. There is no similar agreement with China, but we should note that most, if not all, U.S. and Chinese launches originate from well-established test ranges and the missiles fly along fairly well-known trajectories. The launches are rarely secret or unexpected and the Russian military normally know about the launch in advance. Even without a formal notification, range safety announcements, notices to mariners and airmen give enough advance warning in most cases. So, the historical record does not necessarily tell us how the Russian system might respond to a conventional Trident launch. Not to mention that we do not know if that record includes close calls, errors, or misinterpretations.
In any event, a launch of an operational (conventional) missile from a Trident submarine would be much different from everything that the Russian system has seen so far - it would originate from a location that has never been used before and the missile trajectory would certainly be different from anything that was observed so far. Which makes the historical record largely irrelevant - I don't believe one can point at the established procedure of dealing with routine cases and claim that that procedure would reliably deal with the cases that don't fit that routine. Exactly the opposite is true. In fact, one of the reasons the missile launch from Norway in January 1995 was noticed was that it was a very unusual launch for this site.
Finally, there is a lot of talk about confidence-building measures that are supposed to provide Russia with "assurance strategy", but nobody has seen those measures yet. In fact, the only "confidence-building measure" that has been discussed so far was how to get rid of that launch notification agreement, since the 24-hour notification of launch it requires is certainly incompatible with the idea of Prompt Global Strike. As I understand, the ideas that are circulating in the military are that that agreement does not cover "operational launches". In other words, Russia is going to be told that the agreement that was designed to prevent accidents will not cover the events that carry the biggest risk of an accident. It's a very strange idea of confidence-building.