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Other Militaries May Fear U.S. Sub-Launched Missile Could Blind Radars

By | October 9, 2006

      Some nations might be concerned that any conventional-warhead missile fired from a U.S. Navy submarine might actually be a nuclear device that could blind radars in those nations, analysts said.

      A nuclear weapon detonated at a high altitude could disable long-distance radars, according to the analysts who spoke at a luncheon for defense media journalists organized by the Center for Media and Security, with participation by analysts from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Center for International Security and Cooperation (CISAC) at Stanford University.

      One dangerous move would be to have a single submarine carrying a mix of nuclear-tipped missiles and missiles carrying conventional weapons, according to Theodore Postol, MIT professor of science, technology and national security policy.

      A U.S. submarine launching a long-range conventional-weapon missile would trigger Russian early warning systems that scan the skies for launches of American nuclear intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), he said.

      This would pose more than one difficult question for the Russians that they would have to answer, accurately, in very little time, Postol indicated: first, is the missile going to come down in an attack on Russian territory?

      Or, might the U.S. missile be carrying a nuclear weapon that could be detonated at high altitude at a point where the explosion and resultant aftereffects would blind Russian long-distance radars?

      “Radars are vulnerable to high-altitude nuclear explosions,” Postol noted.

      This heart-stopping tension and series of rapid calculations by Russians seeking to fathom U.S. intent would occur “every time a [conventional-weapon U.S.] missile is launched in sight of Russian radars,” he said.

      If the American submarine happened to be positioned so that a conventional-weapon long range missile would pass over Russian and/or Chinese territory on a trajectory toward a target in some other nation, that still would leave Russians with a question as to whether the United States might be attempting to blind their radars, he said.

      Postol noted that the U.S. military argues in favor of placing conventional-weapon long-range missiles on submarines by asserting that this would permit a strike against a fleeting target anywhere on the globe within an hour.

      But, he said, this still would involve having humans or some U.S. platform near the target to identify it, determine its precise location and help to guide the missile to the target.

      Rather than launching conventional missiles from subs that could be mistaken for the start of a nuclear war, the United States could achieve rapid response and precision strike by instead using aircraft or unmanned aerial vehicles armed with missiles with a range of 100 miles or more, according to Postol.

      The danger that Russians might mistake a U.S. conventional-weapons launch from a Trident submarine for a nuclear-war attack is real, according to Pavel Podvig, born in Russia and now a CISAC research fellow.

      “We should not underestimate the possibilities and probabilities of a misunderstanding,” Podvig said.

      The analysts did not cite, however, fears of Russia misconstruing launches of shorter-range conventional missiles on U.S. submarines called SSGNs. Podvig noted that cruise missiles aren’t likely to be detected by Russian warning systems searching for the signature of an intercontinental ballistic missile launch. A cruise missile “comes out of the water pretty low,” with a small signature, Postol said.

      Rather, the analysts see danger in U.S. subs outfitted with long-range conventional-tipped missiles, worrying about the possibility of a miscalculation by the Russians. Such a blunder “is not out of the realm of possibilities,” Podvig cautioned.

      When conventional-tipped and nuclear-tipped weapons are deployed on the same submarines, that is “very dangerous,” because “it expands the possibilities for misunderstanding,” Podvig explained.

      The United States might attempt to notify Russia if a U.S. sub launched a conventional missile, stating that it should be no cause for alarm.

      But Podvig noted that a current notification system requires a 24-hour advance warning before launch. That, obviously, doesn’t comport with the stated purpose of the conventional-tipped missile being able to strike any fleeting target anywhere within one hour.

      Also, the United States isn’t willing to share some raw data with Russia, so that Russians would have to take the word of U.S. military leaders that a missile launch would do Russia no harm. “Instead, we say, if you think you’re under attack, ask us,” Postol said.

      “Even if they want to believe you, they don’t know whether to believe you.”

      A land-based Minuteman missile with a conventional warhead would raise the same threat of misinterpretation, according to the analysts.

      To avoid the problem, the United States could launch a missile from a ship in the Indian Ocean or from land, such as Diego Garcia, a British possession with a U.S. naval base.

      Taking a Trident sub into the Indian Ocean, on the other hand, might be rather pointless, because it would involve some 70 days of transit time from the nearest U.S. sub base, leaving little time on station, Postol noted.

      One possibility, he said, would be to place a smaller conventional missile on a surface ship, or arm an aircraft or a Predator unmanned aerial vehicle with a precision weapon.

      The conventional missile issue aside, however, both the analysts praised submarines as an extremely capable weapons platform.

      As Postol observed, if an enemy doesn’t know where a U.S. submarine is, the enemy can’t attack it. Podvig termed submarines “invulnerable.”

      A submarine force is critical “if you believe deterrence is important,” Postol said. “The way to do it is with modern submarines.”

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