Weapons of Fast Destruction

Week in Review / by Lee Billings /

A nuclear summit winds down, an ambitious defense initiative ramps up, synthetic biology enters the limelight, the BP oil spill grows, and new pathogens emerge.

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Credit: US Air Force

Today in New York City, a month-long conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) comes to an end after marathon deliberations among the treaty’s 189 member states. The NPT began 40 years ago with three broad aims: Prevent nations without nuclear weapons from acquiring them, push nuclear-armed states to abandon their arsenals, and promote access to peaceful nuclear energy for all signatories. All member states meet every five years to draft a consensus agreement on how to advance the NPT’s goals.

Hopes—and tensions—were running high as the latest conference began in early May, largely due to unrest over Iran’s suspicious nuclear ambitions. In April, President Obama’s progressive goal of a nuclear-free world had been boosted by an agreement between the US and Russia to substantially reduce their nuclear arsenals. Around the same time, Obama’s Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) tightened restrictions on when and how the US could use its nuclear weapons. Most notably, the NPR stated that the US would not introduce nuclear weapons in conflicts with nations that have signed the NPT and that are in compliance with the treaty’s terms.

In other words, the US reserved the option to launch nuclear attacks against the four nuclear nations presently outside the NPT: India, Israel, North Korea, and Pakistan. It also reserved the option of nuclear strikes on Iran if that NPT member nation obtained nuclear weapons. These measures, it was hoped, would increase and stabilize the NPT’s strength and authority in the run-up this month’s conference.

Unfortunately, other tenets of the Obama administration’s NPR seem set to disrupt arms-control efforts and perhaps weaken the NPT. Obama’s NPR embraces two volatile leftovers from the previous Bush administration: A robust strategic missile defense program, as well as a controversial program called “Prompt Global Strike,” or PGS. PGS aims to develop and deploy non-nuclear missiles capable of reaching anywhere on the planet within, at most, one or two hours of being launched from the continental US. The high velocity and GPS-guided precision of a PGS projectile could make it particularly useful for pinpoint “decapitation strikes,” or perhaps even for attacks on fortified underground facilities. A PGS capability would provide a US President with a rapid non-nuclear option for responding to perceived threats—exactly what President Bill Clinton could have used, for instance, on August 20th, 1998. This was when a US Navy battle group launched Tomahawk cruise missiles toward Osama bin Laden’s training camp in Afghanistan, but narrowly missed the al-Qaeda leader by a matter of hours.

But both Russia and China have protested that these programs increase the risk of nuclear war: One-sided missile defense could overturn the prevailing doctrine of nuclear deterrence known as “mutually assured destruction” without providing a more stable solution, while PGS launches could be misinterpreted as the beginning of a nuclear exchange.

Unlike missile defense, which some experts say is a costly and unworkable dream thwarted with relative ease by inexpensive countermeasures, the technology to make PGS an actuality is becoming all too real. On Wednesday, the US Air Force successfully tested the WaveRider X-51A, a hypersonic “scramjet” vehicle that flew at five times the speed of sound for 140 seconds. The previous powered flight record for scramjets, which maintain their high speeds by mixing atmospheric oxygen with onboard fuel, was a measly 12 seconds. Scramjet technology like the WaveRider could provide the velocities necessary to make PGS possible. Tangentially, it could also significantly decrease the cost of launching payloads into Earth orbit.

Another test of PGS-enabling technology failed in late April, when the HTV-2 hypersonic glider operated by DARPA malfunctioned and crashed into the Pacific Ocean. But this seems only a temporary setback: The technologies involved are somewhat similar to those on already-deployed vehicles like NASA’s space shuttles and the Air Force’s X-37B reusable spaceplane. Systems like the HTV-2 could be crucial for PGS as they enable more maneuverability at hypersonic speeds, allowing substantial mid-flight course corrections for precision strikes. They also would have several uses in peaceful aerospace applications.

Taken together, these technological testbeds suggest that within the next decade the US could develop a remarkable PGS capability that, while reducing the nation’s dependence on its atomic arsenal, might nonetheless destabilize the delicate parities between the planet’s nuclear powers. Which seems, to me at least, perhaps a misuse of potentially transformative technology, and certainly an ironic trade-off in the name of a nuclear-free world. If the Obama administration wishes to pursue PGS, it should explain to the American people why the initiative is worth its substantial risks. And it must reassure the rest of the world that those risks will be properly managed.

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