US's strike threat catches China off guard
By Peter J Brown
The United States plans to unveil later this decade a new conventional "Prompt
Global Strike" (C-PGS) system. It will enable the US to instantly carry out a
massive conventional attack anywhere in the world in an hour or less.
Research and development work by the US Department of Defense (DoD) on C-PGS
began almost two decades ago, and this shifted into high gear in 2003. Instead
of delivering a nuclear warhead, a new US-based missile and/or some other
unmanned delivery vehicle may carry a conventional warhead that is able to
destroy a distant target in less than an hour.
The DoD issued the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review (QDR) on February 1 - which
is mandated by the US Congress. It
specifically mentions C-PGS prototypes as well as other "long-range strike"
"The US cannot take its current dominance for granted and needs to invest in
the programs, platforms, and personnel that will ensure that dominance's
persistence," wrote US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates in a commentary
accompanying the 2010 QDR entitled, "A Balanced Strategy: Reprogramming the
Pentagon For a New Age".
"In the case of China, Beijing's investments in cyberwarfare, anti-satellite
warfare, anti-aircraft and anti-ship weaponry, submarines, and ballistic
missiles could threaten the United States' primary means to project its power
and help its allies in the Pacific: bases, air and sea assets, and the networks
that support them. This will put a premium on the United States' ability to
strike from over the horizon and employ missile defenses and will require
shifts from short-range to longer-range systems, such as the next-generation
Gates struck a balance, however, later in his commentary.
"We should be modest about what military force can accomplish and what
technology can accomplish. The advances in precision, sensor, information, and
satellite technologies have led to extraordinary gains in what the US military
can do," Gates wrote. "The Taliban were dispatched within three months; Saddam
[Hussein]'s regime was toppled in three weeks. A button can be pushed in
Nevada, and seconds later a pickup truck will explode in Mosul. A bomb dropped
from the sky can destroy a targeted house while leaving the one next to it
How best to address the C-PGS program is proving to be a tricky subject for
China because there is considerable uncertainty surrounding it.
"It's an emerging realization. I don't think the Chinese have fully come to
grips with it," said Dr Jeffrey Lewis, director of the Nuclear Strategy and
Nonproliferation Initiative at the Washington DC-based New America Foundation.
"At some level, the Chinese see the US as investing in precision conventional
munitions and have made their own parallel investments. But the more
interesting question - 'Could conventional forces hold at risk China's nuclear
forces?' - is something that seems to be just settling in."
One senior US policy analyst wonders whether this has China both confused and
concerned about the program.
"Confused because I don't think anyone could explain to them what [C-PGS]
entailed and perhaps still cannot with any fidelity, and concerned because it
is seen as another aspect of American hegemony and space domination plans, and
because it potentially changes US nuclear strategy in unanticipated and perhaps
undesirable ways," said this analyst.
Lewis points to a recent meeting, a so-called US-China Track II exchange,
involving many US and Chinese participants, which demonstrated how the Chinese
may have been caught off guard by the way in which C-PGS has suddenly appeared
on their radar screen.
"US participants tried to explain the problem with making a 'no first use'
promise. What would happen, they asked, if the United States attacked China's
nuclear forces with conventional weapons? Would China still adhere to its 'no
first use' promise?" said Lewis. "The Chinese side did not understand that the
Americans were engaging in a clumsy 'thought experiment' that was purely
illustrative, but instead believed that they had been subjected to a very
serious threat of coercion. Such misunderstandings are inevitable and, in fact,
this is why Track II discussions are essential. It simply illustrates the point
that Chinese and American strategists have yet to think through what impact
[C-PGS] will have on strategic stability."
As a result, Lewis doubts that China has formed a consensus yet about how to it
should view US conventional strike capabilities emerging under the banner of
"It seems likely that Chinese defense planners will coalesce around the idea
that the US is undertaking an open-ended strategic modernization which focuses
largely on missile defenses and conventional strike capabilities, and that
China needs to continue to improve the survivability of nuclear forces, largely
through mobility, and continue to investigate ways to disrupt US command,
control and intelligence capabilities," said Lewis.
It is best not to rule anything out when addressing the topic of C-PGS because
there are so many variables involved, and so many possible outcomes as well. A
report by the Washington, DC-based Center for Defense Information in 2008 - "An
Examination of the Pentagonís Prompt Global Strike Program: Rationale,
Implementation, and Risks" - concluded, among other things, that:
systems developed in pursuit of a PGS capability could raise the probability of
an inadvertent nuclear exchange and complicate future arms control
negotiations. Accordingly, the ramifications of a PGS capability must be
considered within the context of US arms control, nonproliferation and nuclear
safety objectives. Only then will policy-makers and Congress be able make
informed assessments of the potential advantages, risks and tradeoffs of PGS.
As members of Congress consider future DoD budget requests for PGS programs,
they should take care to remember that achieving a PGS capability is not an end
in and of itself; it only has value in as much as it helps US achieve its
broader goals of thwarting attacks on the US homeland, promoting a stable
international environment and preventing further proliferation and use of WMDs
[weapons of mass destruction].
For years, several DoD-funded
C-PGS projects have proceeded, including the Falcon Hypersonic Test Vehicle
(HTV), the Blackswift hypersonic aircraft, the X-51 scramjet-powered vehicle,
and the Conventional Strike Missile, or CSM, which is a modified Minuteman III
ballistic missile, to name a few. The US Air Force (USAF) Research Laboratory,
the USAF Space and Missile Center, and the US Defense Advanced Research
Projects Agency oversee this activity.
CSM is the definite frontrunner as the C-PGS development effort unfolds. US
defense giant Lockheed Martin, which plays a central role in the
satellite-based US Global Positioning System (GPS) that supports global
positioning, navigation, and timing, is also a lead contractor for C-PGS.
In late December, the DoD announced that Lockheed Martin was awarded just over
US$16 million "for all design elements through the preliminary design review.
Lockheed Martin shall design, fabricate, integrate and test payload delivery
vehicle for flight demonstration for the [C-PGS] capability."
Using above-ground launch facilities for CSM is seen by US military planners as
a way to make it easy for China and Russia to distinguish quickly that the US
missile in question is being fired as part of a C-PGS strike and not a nuclear
strike. It is quite likely that CSM will be based at Vandenberg Air Force Base
in California and fall directly under the command of the US Strategic Command
rather than the new USAF Global Strike Command.
USAF General Kevin Chilton, head of the US Strategic Command, recently said
that a C-PGS deployment by 2016 is a "reasonable objective" and yet "he wanted
to see a first [CSM] missile on alert, with two spares, before the end of 2012"
That may be optimistic, according to Jason Sigger, a Washington DC-based
defense policy analyst who maintains a blogsite called Armchair Generalist. "I
question Chilton's insistence that we have this capability in the near term - I
just don't see the urgency," he said.
"This capability, in particular, calling for persistent surveillance,
electronic warfare, and precision attack capabilities, is going to be tricky. I
don't particularly like our military's reliance on technology, but I understand
it. We really need to downscope and emphasize good, sustainable weapon systems
and better training, rather than to build smart UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles]
and 24-hour strike capabilities."
US submarines carrying Tomahawk cruise missiles, bombers carrying the same type
of cruise missiles, along with UAVs such as Reapers and soon perhaps stealthy
US aircraft carrier-based UAVs, might be tapped to conduct C-PGS strikes.
However, the US Navy's Trident submarine-launch ballistic missiles have already
been ruled out by the US Congress for possible C-PGS missions.
C-PGS fits quite neatly into President Barack Obama's "Global Zero" plan to
create a nuclear-free world. Still, the 2010 QDR will only prompt opponents of
C-PGS to speak out more loudly. Consider what Alexei Arbatov, a scholar in
residence at the Carnegie Moscow Center, stated at a recent conference
sponsored by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
very few countries in the world that are afraid of American nuclear weapons.
But there are many countries that are afraid of American conventional weapons.
In particular, nuclear weapons states like China and Russia are primarily
concerned about growing American conventional, precision-guided, long-range
capability, [or C-PGS] systems.
 The Russians comprehend the
inherent ambiguity in the US initiative, and they quickly became the most vocal
and adamant opponents of C-PGS in general. It was the strong message from
Russia that helped to cancel out the Trident in terms of any C-PGS role after
the Russians argued successfully that it would be virtually impossible for them
to discern quickly whether a long-range missile fired from a US submarine was
carrying a nuclear or a conventional warhead.
Russia may brand CSM as an unwelcome spin off of Trident in this regard.
Now that China has terminated all military-to-military exchanges as a result of
the US decision to proceed with arms sales to Taiwan, many important issues
including C-PGS will probably not be addressed at all in the coming months. And
strangely, China in past discussions with the US on nuclear weapons and nuclear
disarmament has often alluded to the need for the US to be more mindful of the
overall superiority of its conventional firepower.
Whether or not China and the US are talking, Japan is proceeding with the
launch of its Quasi-Zenith Satellite System (QZSS). The emergence of the QZSS
satellite constellation coupled with the recent approval by the Diet
(parliament) of Japan's New Basic Law for Space Utilization - which opens the
door for Japan's military space programs - are two important and related
developments which China is watching closely.
QZSS works closely in tandem with the US GPS System, for example. It is
designed to vastly improve the overall accuracy and availability of
satellite-based positioning, navigation and timing information in Japan and
East Asia as well as, to a lesser extent, Southeast Asia and Australia.
Both QZSS and the Basic Law involve their own inherent element of ambiguity.
While both impact commercial activities in Japan, both could influence the
shape and scope of future joint US-Japanese military programs as well the US
Plans call for the four QZSS monitoring stations in Japan - these are in
Hokkaido, Koganei, Ogasawara and Okinawa - to be joined by five other QZSS
monitoring stations in India, Hawaii, Guam, Thailand and Australia. QZSS
signals are easily accessed over the entire Korean peninsula as well and do not
require ground stations there.
While Japan prefers to promote the vast array of commercial and civilian
applications of QZSS technology, the military applications cannot be
overlooked. QZSS is tied directly to the US GPS satellites, and China is
certainly aware of this link. Could QZSS pose a threat to China? This seems
New Japanese satellites in this instance may seem to be of little consequence,
but here again, the ambiguity is pervasive. China remains confused and
concerned in the process, and perhaps believes that the US C-PGS program may
already exist under another name. The lack of clarity that surrounds this
program may make it quite difficult for Beijing and Moscow to figure out
exactly what the US is up to here. On the other hand, the US is quite capable
of deliberately orchestrating this ambiguity so that North Korea and Iran in
particular can only guess what exactly the US has in mind.