WASHINGTON – The Pentagon, seeking a faster way to thwart threats from hostile states or terrorist groups, is asking Congress for $500 million to create a new force of conventionally armed, long-range missiles capable of striking anywhere in the world within an hour after an order is given, a senior defense official said Tuesday.
The initiative would convert 24 Trident missiles armed with nuclear warheads into rockets carrying conventional warheads and begin fielding them by 2008. The missiles would be launched from submarines and could hit targets 5,000 to 6,000 miles away within 10 yards, the official said.
A primary advantage, defense officials say, is that it would offer U.S. leaders a conventional alternative to nuclear weapons in a distant crisis where speed is essential. They acknowledge a major risk is that other nations could conceivably misinterpret a conventional missile attack as a nuclear strike.
“Will it be interpreted as having a nuclear warhead and elicit … a nuclear response?” asked the senior defense official, acknowledging the potential “ambiguity” of the weapon if detected by early-warning systems. Such systems may not be able to determine if an incoming warhead is conventional or nuclear.
The worrisome scenario, he said, “is that they do see it, then they misinterpret it,” he told a meeting of defense reporters. The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they had not yet briefed Congress.
The senior defense official said the Pentagon seeks to open a debate on the benefits and risks of the proposed conventional ballistic missiles and publicize them as a potential deterrent. “We’ve done the testing” and developed one of two planned conventional warheads, he said.