The Pentagon’s Priorities and «Prompt Global Strike»

A few days ago President Obama approved the Pentagon’s proposal to increase spending on the latest weapons and to beef up US military positions in Europe. The strategic significance of this step is fully evident in Missy Ryan’s Feb. 2 article in the Washington Post: «Pentagon unveils budget priority for next year: Countering Russia and China». 

And how does the US military envision «countering Russia and China»?

Back in the 1970s, the balance of power in the world looked like this: the USSR and the United States maintained approximate nuclear parity, up to the level of mutual assured destruction. The 1972 ABM treaty slowed the arms race, reduced the risk of a third world war, and introduced a crucial principle that enabled the 30-year standoff between the Soviets and the Americans to proceed fairly uneventfully – this was the agreement between the parties to restrict their missile defense systems, based on the understanding that vulnerability to a retaliatory strike is the most reliable means of deterrence.

And since then, virtually all of American history can be seen as a series of unceasing efforts to circumvent those agreements. «Star Wars» was a failure: The US could not find a way to technologically evade the mutually assured destruction it so feared. The idea of erecting orbital deployment platforms armed with lasers and kinetic interceptors was a flop... The Americans found more success during the era of Gorbachev and Shevardnadze by destroying Soviet intermediate- and shorter-range missiles without a proportional reduction in US military might.

The next steps were attempts to circumvent the ABM Treaty, which culminated in the unilateral US withdrawal from the treaty on the pretext of threats – not from Russia, but from «rogue states». The ABM Treaty was finally terminated on June 12, 2002. Shortly before that, in 2001, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution, supported by over 80 countries, in support of that treaty. Only the US and Israel opposed it.

Even then, a pattern could be discerned in America’s diplomatic and propaganda efforts in this realm: the demonization of «rogue states» and the wild exaggeration of the actual threat they represent. This was a change that deserves some examination: for many decades prior to this, US and Soviet negotiators precisely calculated each side’s military capacity and arrived at figures that were acceptable to both parties, but in the 21st century the United States began to unilaterally gauge the military potential of North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. And Washington also unilaterally chose its own ways to counter these «threats». In Iraq in 2003 this course of action by the US culminated in an intervention.

The year 2015 presented an interesting situation. As the time neared for the signing of an agreement on Iran’s nuclear program, which would mean losing their official rationale for continuing the work on their new missile defense launch sites, American diplomats embarked on two new steps. First: it was announced that the US would continue its missile defense work in order to prevent unemployment («to engage that sector of industry»). Second, there was an attempt to circumvent the principle of mutual assured destruction and to disregard the right to equal security, by advancing the concept of Prompt Global Strike – a non-nuclear attack on any location on the planet.

What is truly new about this plan?

1. Prior to this, US cruise missiles – guided bombs with non-nuclear warheads – could not inflict significant damage on the nuclear forces of the USSR/Russia. But in wars since 1991 (in Yugoslavia and Iraq) strikes from a great distance away have already been tested.

2. The key word in the phrase Prompt Global Strike is «prompt». An attack can be delivered within one hour.

Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin has commented that «the concept of Prompt Global Strike, which is being developed in the US, offers the chance to gain the upper hand over a nuclear state, thanks to these weapons’ first-rate technical specs, including their superior speed. Specifically, these would include aerial vehicles (including drones) and missiles capable of traveling 6-20 times faster than the speed of sound».

Prompt Global Strike technologies include intercontinental ballistic sea-based Trident II (D5) type missiles carrying high-precision non-nuclear warheads, as well as the hypersonic cruise missiles the Americans are testing, plus other hypersonic vehicles (the Falcon HTV-2 and AHW). The designers believe that it is possible to forgo equipping such aircraft with any warhead at all, since their speed and energy will be sufficient to destroy any target with a direct hit. A hypersonic, long-range cruise missile is capable of reaching its target 5-6 times faster than a subsonic Tomahawk missile.

Another means of inflicting a Prompt Global Strike is through the use of kinetic weapons. These consist of heat-resistant tungsten rods that are dropped on a target from a great height. During their tests, the Americans concluded that a rod six meters long and 30 cm thick that is let loose in the direction of a target at a speed of 3,500 m/s will release an explosion of energy equivalent to 12 tons of TNT at the point of impact!

This means that in the event of an armed conflict with a country possessing nuclear deterrent forces, time will truly be of the essence. Speed and surprise will determine everything. The strategy for announcing such actions could be based on the claim: «he who first launches a nuclear weapon should be the one viewed as the aggressor!»

One hour – sixty minutes – is all the time one has to make a decision about using Prompt Global Strike. This means that the concept of the threshold of a nuclear war is becoming blurred, which necessitates a change in the decision-making mechanisms...

Perhaps this is precisely what Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergey Ryabkov meant when he said«The development of the Prompt Global Strike system in the United States could result in a conflict with apocalyptic consequences».