How To: Risk World War III, and Blow Billions Doing It
The Pentagon’s plan to fire ballistic missiles at terrorists isn’t just a nuclear Armageddon risk. It’s a ludicrously expensive way to accidentally start World War III: each weapon could cost anywhere from a few hundred million to $1 billion.
The Defense Department wants to spend about $240 million next year on the controversial “prompt global strike” project. Eventually, it could lead to weapons that could strike virtually anywhere in the planet within an hour or two. (Here’s an interview I did with Rachel Maddow on Friday about the plan.) But that quarter-billion would be the tiniest of down payments.
“There are no accurate cost estimates for the program, largely because the technology is unproven,” writes Joe Cirincione at ForeignPolicy.com. His back-of-the-envelope calculation: $10 billion for 10 conventionally-armed Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, meant to strike at terrorists on the move. “Each missile with its tiny payload could easily go over $1 billion each.”
Official price tags are a little lower. The Air Force figures a single demonstration of such a missile might eat up $500 million. Follow-on weapons missiles might only cost $300 million apiece, Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz guessed at a recent House subcommittee hearing. But Schwartz isn’t at all sure such how much use there’d be for a budget-buster like that.
“There is a place, I think, for that kind of capability. I don’t think that that’s the sort of thing you would use broadly, because you know, fundamentally what you don’t want to have is a 300 — let’s just say, a $300 million weapon applied against a $30,000 target,” Schwartz recently told a House subcommittee.
Critics like Cirincione (and me) are worried such conventional ICBMs would look to Russia and China like nuclear launches — risking an atomic response every time one of the weapons was sent into the sky. Defenders of the prompt global strike effort note that the missiles would be based far from America’s nuclear arsenal, and would follow different flight paths. So the risk of one of these missiles touching off an atomic showdown are very small. “Nuclear in one place. Conventional in another. This isn’t a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup,” notes the National Space Studies Center’s blog.
Maybe the U.S. can put enough safeguards in place to persuade Moscow and Beijing that America’s conventional ICBMs aren’t nukes. (And maybe, as commenter “Almanac” notes, the Russian and Chinese radars are functioning well enough to tell the difference.) Maybe. But what happens other countries follow our lead, and start assembling their own conventional ballistic missile stockpiles? Will Pakistan and India be able to assure eachother that their intentions are pure? How and Israel and Iran? Perhaps a unipolar planet can survive an American global strike arsenal. A multipolar planet — that’s less likely.
Prompt global strike first came to prominence during Donald Rumsfeld’s tenure at the Pentagon. Back then, the Defense Department had a knack for spending outlandishly on far-fetched programs: laser-equipped 747s, lightning guns, quarter-weight tanks that could stop bombs with data. Under Bob Gates, the culture has shifted a bit. Common sense, wartime relevancy, and fiscal restraint now figure more prominently in weaponeering. And that’s what makes the embrace of prompt global strike such a mystery. It’s a Rumsfeld throwback – risky, willfully ignorant of how the world works, and ridiculously expensive.
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