Thursday, May 09, 2013

Conventional Prompt Global Strike: Smiting Your Enemies From Afar

Take a nuclear-tipped ICBM, replace the nuke with a precision-guided conventional weapon, and you've essentially got the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) concept: The ability to smart-bomb a target anywhere on Earth in under an hour. (Or your next one's free.) What's not to like?

Minuteman Missile National Historic Site - 30
Like this, but not nuclear. (Trust us.) Image by Flickr user saul_t, used under Creative Commons license.

Turns out, more than a few things, as Amy F. Woolf, Nuclear Weapons Policy Specialist at the Congressional Research Service, lays out in the CRS Report, CRS-R41464: Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues (PDF, 46 pages).

"Prompt" Is Just Two Vowels From "Preempt"

It's kind of disturbing that the most important issues around PGS aren't even the ones about making Russia or China itchy because the US wants to build the capability and doctrine to lob formerly nuclear-capable ICBMs over the North Pole, on trajectories uncannily similar to, say, a nuclear first strike.1 ("Don't worry, we're not shooting *at* you -- you're in the way and we're just shooting over your head.")

There are some proposed fixes for this sort of thing, like altering launch profiles and using dedicated facilities for non-nuclear, land-based PGS launchers ("If I throw a punch with my right hand, I'm stabbing past your head; if I throw a punch with my left hand, I'm only punching past your head."), and advanced warning for third-party nations about PGS strikes in progress (made problematic by the promptness inherent to prompt global strike).

For my money, though, the more important problem with developing a Prompt Global Strike capability is the inevitability of its use.

Are You Sure You Want to Smite Evildoer? (Yes/No)

Think drone strikes, writ large: Prompt Global Strike gives policymakers the ability to destroy threats to America with the best (or worst) of both worlds: For imperialists, painless external military intervention and force projection, enabled by a guaranteed U.S.-casualty-free, zero-forward based footprint for the isolationists.

Let's say that (you think) you've assuaged the concerns of any nuclear-armed world powers you might be shooting over the heads of. In theory, you can now send a smart bomb from a missile silo in the continental US (or patrolling missile submarine) to any target in the world in under an hour.

It basically gives the US president a "smite" button:


Tempting, no? As time passed without using it, why shouldn't the threshold for use go down? If you had the capability to zap evildoers from afar, why wouldn't you use it?

Urge to Kill... Rising

Call it technological determinism, but the lowering of the threshold for the use of PGS capability seems inevitable.

Take the history of the Taser as an example. Originally, they were pitched strictly as less-lethal alternatives to deadly force: i.e., if you didn't have Taser capability, your only recourse was to shoot.

Now, of course, we see more and more examples of Tasers (and other less-lethal measures) used in non-deadly force situations, to gain compliance, shorten the length of an encounter, and in some cases, mete out punishment.

Again, if you have the capability, with relatively tame or abstract repercussions, why not use it?

(If you say, "Cost," you probably haven't been paying attention to the past... 70 years or so.)

Let's recap: With any Prompt Global Strike capability worth its name, you get:

* The ability to crush, kill, destroy from a distance
* No need for forward basing
* No need for boots on the ground (well, except for that pesky "intel" thing)
* No possibility of American lives lost
* Plus, it might give disgruntled Air Force missileers something to do.

Would you press that button?

Download the CRS Report, CRS-R41464: Conventional Prompt Global Strike and Long-Range Ballistic Missiles: Background and Issues (PDF, 46 pages).

1Earlier proponents of prompt global strike capability argued that PGS would make the world safer, by reducing the need for and number of nuclear weapons. Which, when, you think about it, is actually not at all that comforting: You're saying you have a weapon that has the capability to take on some targets that were previously given only to nuclear weapons, combined with the fact that this is something that is actually meant to be used. 

You don't really hear this argument any more.


~S said...

In On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society, Col. Dan Grossman, a U.S. Army psychologist, wrote that, no matter how much their lives are in peril, most soldiers won’t kill another human being.

The army had to research how to get them to do it, and found that a few principles apply – one of the most basic being distance from the target.

You feel less responsible for the effects of a bomb you drop from 30,000 feet than you do for a bullet you fire at a man you can see, so odds are higher that you’ll drop that bomb than that you’ll fire that bullet.

PGS carries that to its logical extreme. If we can shoot from 7,000 miles away, chances are pretty high that we’ll do it.
Chances are pretty high that, over time, we’ll do it with a lower and lower threshold for why. And, with that threshold slipping, chances are that we’ll do it, at some point, based on a mistake.

And what happens when our enemies can’t attack us via any conventional means? They attack via unconventional means. I’d hate to argue that there is some necessary ritual bloodletting in two countries sending young men to kill one another at close range, but I wonder about that, sometimes.

It makes the cost of killing high, so it’s only worth the risk to us if our reasons are good. Lower the cost, and the reasons can decay. Which won’t make people on the other side of the world hate us any less…it’ll only give them fuel…and the only way they can reach us becomes terrorism.

Of course, the logical extreme of that argument is “back to stone tools for warfare for everyone!” I’ve got friends in uniform, so….no.

Still, I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the smite button. Beyond the very logical reasons it's a geopolitical mistake, there's something too godlike about it...and, looking back at American history, we haven't had a tendency to elect people whose judgment I'd trust with godlike powers.

Joelogon said...

Very good points. I touched on similar topics about killing from a distance in my Goodreads review of Haldeman's Forever Peace.

Re: necessary bloodletting -- I think the introduction of repeating firearms has raised the human costs of such rituals from mostly symbolic, to unsustainable. Especially when the rationale is "win at all costs" vs. "satisfying honor."