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Why does Pentagon need nonnuclear warheads?


MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Viktor Litovkin.)

On May 22, 2006, The Washington Post carried an article "A Missile Strike Option We Need" by two former U.S. Secretaries of Defense - Harold Brown (1977-1981) and James Schlesinger (1973-1975).

Brown and Schlesinger suggested installing nonnuclear warheads on U.S. strategic missiles, first of all, Trident II D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), which have multiple independently targeted reentry vehicles (MIRVs). These warheads can hit terrorist bases more effectively than, say, cruise missiles or free-fall bombs. Such precise strikes could be dealt minutes after the military receive information about terrorist bases and their coordinates and would involve no bombers or carrier task forces and submarines operating in direct proximity to hostile areas.

The U.S. establishment is so fascinated with this idea that the Congress has started discussing the allocation of appropriations for nonnuclear warheads. But it appears this will not become the ultimate weapon in the fight against international terrorism because, as any sober-minded military expert knows, counter-terrorist operations require more subtle and diverse weapons systems than warheads and strategic missiles. Then why does the Pentagon need MIRVs for inter-continental ballistic missiles, and why are its high-ranking lobbyists so concerned about this?

The answer may not be as simple as one thinks.

Russian defense industry experts said MIRV warheads were, first of all, needed to conceal nuclear warheads because no early-warning radar could discern between conventional and nuclear weapons. In this situation, a delayed retaliatory strike would mean a sure victory for the attacker as the defending side would lose precious moments trying to locate high-priority targets. Moreover, it is pointless to install expensive conventional warheads on ICBMs.

Nonnuclear warheads are not covered by strategic arms-reduction documents either, and it would be impossible to find out how many U.S. strategic submarines have such warheads. Under the Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty, Russia and the United States will reduce their strategic nuclear warheads to a level of 1,700-2,200 by December 31, 2012. But Moscow would still think that Washington is playing its own game, and that its strategic missiles retain several dozen or even several hundred nuclear warheads listed as conventional munitions.

Experts say strategic offensive weapons with nonnuclear warheads are intended for some extremely important military objectives, such as hitting enterprises producing nuclear weapons, dumps with solid-state and liquid radioactive waste, as well as other nuclear facilities. A high-explosive conventional blast at these facilities would cause the same damage as a nuclear warhead. An electromagnetic impulse would knock out all electrical devices and equipment, as well as communications and control networks. Subsequent radioactive fallout would render such enterprises useless for more than a century.

Oil and gas producing enterprises, oil refineries, petroleum depots, hydropower plants, dams, dikes, defense factories, shipyards, plants and other facilities face the same risks. Moreover, nonnuclear hypersonic deep-impact munitions can penetrate a mountain dam and be detonated by the attacker at any moment. Such an explosion can cause a disaster of unprecedented proportions that would make Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, seem like child's play. National authorities would not be able to cope with the panic in the face of this threat.

Former Pentagon heads Harold Brown and James Schlesinger, who advocate such destabilizing weapons, enjoy firm Congressional support. The U.S. Armed Forces have outpaced the world's armies by several decades in their development and strive to obtain additional military advantages. Washington also wants to set off a new spiral in the arms race and to undermine the economy of its weaker foreign rivals. Russian political and military leaders should therefore display common sense in this situation. It is obvious that strategic missiles with nonnuclear warheads are gradually turning into battlefield weapons and losing their role as a political deterrent, which should never be used. These weapons can be launched even during local conflicts.

However, Moscow should resist the temptation to indulge in pointless rivalry. The Kremlin should continue to rely on its relatively small, albeit highly effective nuclear arsenal, which will always protect Russia against any military or political blackmail and pressure.

Any country is free to spend money on new weapons. But President Vladimir Putin has warned in his latest state of the nation address that the launch of a ballistic missile with nonnuclear warheads could provoke an inappropriate response from nuclear powers and a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.

There is nothing more to say here.

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