The development of non-nuclear weapons that can strike distant targets in a short period of time has been a U.S. goal for more than a decade. Advocates argue that such Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) weapons could be used to counter antisatellite weapons or sophisticated defensive capabilities; deny a new proliferator the ability to employ its nuclear arsenal; and kill high-value terrorists. Critics worry that CPGS weapons could create serious strategic risks, most notably of escalation—including to the nuclear level—in a conflict.
The U.S. Department of Defense has explored a number of CPGS technologies but has yet to decide on a preferred option, let alone acquire or deploy it. While the U.S. Congress has disapproved of particular plans, it has generally agreed with the importance of acquiring the capability. With some CPGS technologies reaching maturity and an acquisition decision approaching, the time is right for a national debate about the benefits and risks of CPGS.
A scenario-based approach to CPGS acquisition would maximize value for money. Before embarking on the acquisition process, the Department of Defense should decide upon the specific missions for which CPGS weapons might be acquired in order to identify clear military requirements.
A comparison of the ability of CPGS weapons and non-prompt alternatives to meet mission requirements is needed to determine whether to procure CPGS weapons at all. This comparison has been absent from the debate. It should account for the relative costs and the implications of potential countermeasures.
CPGS acquisition decisions should take into account the need for U.S. enabling capabilities. The continued failure to consider this issue could lead the United States to procure CPGS weapons incapable of fulfilling mission requirements.
The debate about the strategic ramifications of CPGS should include the full range of risks and benefits. Warhead ambiguity does not pose the biggest escalation risk in a conflict with Russia or China. All risks should be weighed against the potential benefit of enhanced deterrence.
The negative characteristics of boost-glide weapons for managing escalation in a conflict should be recognized. These risks are serious and have been overlooked.
Whatever CPGS technology the United States chooses, it should pursue cooperative confidence-building measures with Russia and China. Cooperative measures, which could be treaty based or politically binding, would more effectively mitigate the strategic risks posed by all CPGS technologies than unilateral measures.
The Carnegie Nuclear Policy Program is an internationally acclaimed source of expertise and policy thinking on nuclear industry, nonproliferation, security, and disarmament. Its multinational staff stays at the forefront of nuclear policy issues in the United States, Russia, China, Northeast Asia, South Asia, and the Middle East.
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