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Report to Congress on Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles

The following is the Jan. 8, 2019 Congressional Research Service report, Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues.

From the Report

Conventional prompt global strike (CPGS) weapons would allow the United States to strike targets anywhere on Earth in as little as an hour. This capability may bolster U.S. efforts to deter and defeat adversaries by allowing the United States to attack high-value targets or “fleeting targets” at the start of or during a conflict. Congress has generally supported the PGS mission, but restricted funding for several years. Recently, efforts to develop a long-range prompt strike capability, along with other efforts to develop extremely fast hypersonic weapons, have garnered increased support.

CPGS weapons would not substitute for nuclear weapons, but would supplement U.S. conventional capabilities. Officials have argued that the long-range systems would provide a “niche” capability, with a small number of weapons directed against select, critical targets. Some analysts, however, have raised concerns about the possibility that U.S. adversaries might misinterpret the launch of a missile with conventional warheads and conclude that the missiles carry nuclear weapons. The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) is considering a number of systems that might provide the United States with long-range strike capabilities.

The Air Force and Navy have both pursued programs that would lead to the deployment of conventional warheads on their long-range ballistic missiles. During the 2000s, the Air Force and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) sought to develop a hypersonic glide delivery vehicle that could deploy on a modified Peacekeeper land-based ballistic missile, but test failures led to the suspension of this program; research continues into a vehicle that might be deployed on air-delivered or shorter-range sytems. In the mid-2000s, the Navy sought to deploy conventional warheads on a small number of Trident II submarine-launched ballistic missiles, but Congress rejected the requested funding for this program. Since then, the Pentagon has continued to develop a hypersonic glide vehicle, now known as the Alternate Reentry System, which could be deployed on long-range missiles. At present, it seems likely that this vehicle could be deployed on intermediate-range missiles on Navy submarines, for what is now known as the Prompt Strike Mission. Congress may review other weapons options for the deployment of hypersonic weapons, including bombers, cruise missiles, and possibly scramjets or other advanced technologies.

The Pentagon’s budget request for FY2019 increases funding for the CPGS program from around $201 million in FY2018 to $278 million in FY2019; it also shows significant increases in funding over the next five years, with a total of $1.9 billion allocated to the program. This shows the growing priority placed on the program in the Pentagon and the growing interest in Congress in moving the program forward toward deployment.

When Congress reviews the budget requests for prompt global strike and hypersonic weapons, it may question DOD’s rationale for the mission, reviewing whether the United States might have to attack targets promptly at the start of or during a conflict, when it could not rely on forward-based land or naval forces. It might also review whether this capability would reduce U.S. reliance on nuclear weapons or whether, as some critics have asserted, it might upset stability and possibly increase the risk of a nuclear response to a U.S. attack. At the same time, Members of Congress and officials in the Pentagon have both noted that Russia and China are pursuing hypersonic weapons, leading many to question whether the United States needs to accelerate its efforts in response, or whether an acceleration of U.S. efforts might contribute to an arms race and crisis instability.

This report will be updated as needed.

Download the document here.

  • Duane

    The Chinese and Russians are already developing hypersonic glide vehicles, and already have and use ballistic missiles, like the DF-21, that can deploy either conventional or nuclear warheads. So today we cannot tell if a given launch is nuclear until it detonates. That cat is long out of the bag.

    We need to develop these weapons, but also recognize as stated above that these are niche weapons, of which we will likely not need large numbers. More important that we continue developing and deploying subsonic stealth cruise missiles that successfully evade radar and countermeasures, and deploy large numbers of them to effectively turn the seas of the Indo Pac into a no float zone.

    • publius_maximus_III

      It was nice having that “bunker buster” that could penetrate through multiple stories of concrete, that time we thought Saddam was hiding out in Baghdad. Turned out he was miles from there hiding down a rat hole. But cool weapon nonetheless. Used to love watching those daily briefs, complete with video footage, showing a smart bomb heading into one side of a Iraqi fighter jet bunker, then a split second later debris shooting out the other end.

    • Z’ing Sui

      Russian glider is strategic, nuclear. If China launches the DF-21 the target would be nothing smaller than a CVN, so we’re looking at thousands of deaths at the minimum, that’s a tactical nuclear strike scale, US response would be similar or likely bigger in scale, and we know it the second we know DF trajectory does not end at a targeting range in the Gobi desert.

      If a sub in mediterranean launches a PGS weapon towards a terrorist meeting in Iraq, if it’s a boost-glider with its enormous speed and range, it could as easily be aimed at a number of nuclear powers instead. Or at powers with some ballistic missile capability and chemical/biological WMDs for that matter. The fact that it’s a ‘niche capability’ that could be used to kill Bin Ladens and not a last resort deterrent/first strike weapon changes the strategic equation a lot. Doesn’t improve US security.

  • DaSaint

    No one has launched long-range ballistic missiles in combat. Our technology can identify and predict the target area for short range tactical missiles, which have been used. But the launch angles of a long-range conventionally tipped ballistic missile would have the same profile as one tipped with a nuclear warhead. I don’t think we want to go down that road.

    Imagine we see a missile launch, headed to Guam. Sure it could be a conventionally tipped missile, and we may just wait for the first to impact, but the next salvo headed to Hawaii or the continental US? Will we wait and respond conventionally? I’m not so sure we want to open this Pandora’s box.

    • That Pandora’s box has been open for a very long time and is far less of an issue than it is made out to be. China, Russia, India, and Pakistan all have MRBM’s that can be equipped with nuclear or conventional warheads. Further, nearly every nuclear power’s bomber and fighter fleets can be armed with nuclear weapons, yet no one applies this thinking to them.

      No nation is going to commit to a full scale nuclear war just because they see an inbound weapon that might have a nuclear warhead. It simply doesn’t make any rational sense. In fact, having conventional missiles might actually make the world safer since it would lessen the likelihood of a detected ballistic missile launch being automatically assumed to be nuclear.

      • Centaurus

        This proposal has been out of the box since at least the ’90’s when I saw it in an Army journal discussing sticking bomblets on Minuteman missiles. And how will we know if a long-range BM is convent. vs Nuky-poo ? Sniff it for gamma rays ? Lets just get it over with or pave over the rest of the world with asphalt. Or build a wall around the US up to the moon !

    • Duane

      With proper missile defenses, such as THAAD, Patriot, and AEGIS Ashore, we can defend against any BM regardless of what warhead it carries. We do need much more in the arsenal of missile defenses … way too few batteries in place.

      We likely won’t shoot nukes at an adversary unless they’ve already nuked us. That is not a doctrine, because we’ve never renounced first use of nukes … but it is in most circumstances the likely response.

    • NavySubNuke

      Of course we would wait and respond conventionally — there is nothing to be gained by responding to a single ambiguous launch before you know for sure what it is. Even a salvo of 5 – 10 launches wouldn’t alter the equation.
      That is why we have a TRIAD. That is why we have things like TACAMO and other survivable methods of communicating with our nuclear forces even after some warheads have gone off.
      This notion that we have only seconds or minutes to respond to a potential nuclear attack with a nuclear attack of our own is nothing but Hollywood fiction. Certainly missile defenses need to react immediately but those are defensive systems and don’t involve nuclear warheads (from the US side anyway) so there is nothing to lose by unloading at any and all incoming warheads that could be nuclear.
      There is nothing scary about this road if you apply some basic thought and common sense to the problem.

      • DaSaint

        Wiser minds than mine have advised prior Presidents about the dangers of mounting and using conventional warheads on ICBMs. It’s due to the risk of miscalculation that they’ve not been thus equipped and used, not due to technical considerations. Similarly, it is probably safe to say that other nations have been cautious about the possible use of ICBMs in a conventional role – which is likely why they have not been used in that manner.

        Lots of ICBMs exist – US, Russian, UK, French, and Chinese. But not one has been fired and used in a conventional role. No accident there.