Jeffrey LewisConventionally Armed ICBMs

Is anybody else noticing the buzz around conventionally-armed ICBMs?

Lance Lord told a National Defense University Foundation Congressional breakfast seminar that he was exploring “future uses” for ICBMs and called for “changing the professional mind-set.”

The conventionally-armed ICBM debate started heating up back in early 2004. In January, then-DTRA Director Stephen Yonger told the Precision Strike Association’s Winter Roundtable:

Five years ago if you went to Strategic Command and said, ‘What about putting advanced conventional weapons on the end of ballistic missiles?’ you would not have gotten a very favorable reception. I know because I did that. That has shifted. We are taking a fundamentally new look—a clean-sheet-of-paper look—at what to do when we need to defense the country from a strategic perspective.

Then the Defense Science Board Task force on Future Strategic Strike Forces (February 2004) recommended that the Air Force “preserve 50 Peacekeeper ICBMs currently being deactivated, and redeploy them to Vandenberg and Cape Canaveral for use with conventional warheads.”

There is some evidence that General James Cartwright—Combatant Commander for US Strategic Command—is thinking along these lines. He certainly left the option in open is his most recent Congressional testimony.

Proponents argue that advances in precision strike are making conventionally-armed ICBMs at least technologically plausible. The Common Aero Vehicle mated to an ICBM would offer an inexpensive and prompt option to strike anywhere in the world from the safety of CONUS. The classic comparison is to model the ElDorado Canyon operation against Libya with CAV payloads. The slide pictured below is from a presentation by Matt Bille (ANSER) and Major Rusty Lorenz (AFSPC/DRM) at the NDIA Missile and Rockets Symposium and Exhibition:

Two think tanks—NIPP and CSBA—have published studies advocating conventional warheads for ballistic missiles:

So, what’s the big deal?

Objections to this point have focused on developing a suitable concept of operations (CONOPS) for the use of conventional ICBMs.

One problem is that ICBMs launched from Vandenberg and Canaveral toward certain, um, states of concern might drop their first and second stages over populated areas in the United States. That would suck. A second problem relates to the terminal phase of the missile’s flight, which may result in an RV violating the airspace of, or the third stage falling on, a third country.

Perhaps more serious is the concern that Russia or China might misconstrue the launch of an ICBM for a pre-emptive US attack. Congressional Appropriators, in the FY 2006 Conference Report, expressed this concern and restricted use of the funds for CAV to “non-weapons related research” pending a report from the Secretary of Defense.

Such practical, non-partisan problems have—so far—tempered Congressional enthusiasm for conventionally-armed ICBMs.


  1. Muskrat (History)

    This idea is so bad it’s funny.

    Do you really want a strike option whose launch will be seen by thousands of people, reported on the internet, etc. twenty-thirty minutes before impact? An unannounced missile launch is kinda…. noisy? Obvious? What’s the word?

    Plus there is the old START Treaty rule that you have to notify the other party 24 hours in advance of any “flight test” (i.e., any flight at all) of an ICBM and collect/exchange telemetry on said test. Kind of crimps your ability to strike rapidly. Of course, START’s rules expire in 2009, and we won’t be signing any extensions, will we?

    Not to mention the Coast Guard’s role: “Uhhh… this is a notice to all mariners within first stage impact area Tango… there is going to be an emergency missile launch in … well, there it goes… so, you know…. heads up.”

    I think the comparison to Libya is appropos, especially since the F-111s may well have been used just to give the Air Force something to do. They’re just jealous of the Navy’s SSBN-to-SSGN conversion program.

  2. Earl Kirkman (History)

    Seems like anyone fearing a nuclear strike would have to make the assumption that an ICBM launch is a nuclear one. How do the Chinese discriminate between a launch on NOKOR or one on southern missile bases? Another BAD idea from the force preservation folks…..


  3. PKerr (History)

    I think you should all leave your blue-state, freedom-hating “facts” out of this and go back to eating your imprisonment fries.

  4. Anders Widebrant (History)

    “One problem is that ICBMs launched from Vandenberg and Canaveral toward certain, um, states of concern might drop their first and second stages over populated areas in the United States. That would suck.”

    Ah, there’s that ‘minor overflight issue’.

    From a political perspective, it seems unwise to add even more unmanned aerial attack weapons to America’s arsenal. Pre-emptive air strikes has clearly not been the most successful tool in the box, recently, pill factories and all.

  5. Earl Kirkman (History)

    pkerr- Do you think for a minute that if the situation were reversed, we would not be screaming bloody murder. Oh, don’t worry about that double Topol launch you guys, we put conventional warheads on the missles. Yeah, the trajectory is really close to a lot of your stuff, but don’t worry, we can explain later.

    Yeaahh, I’m gonna have ask you guys to hit defcon4 really fast…..

  6. Stephen Moore (History)

    There’s an article at the Inside Defense Newstand by Elaine Grossman on Cartwright’s thinking about conventionally armed strategic weapons:

    Cartwright also is seriously considering the potential for developing “strategic conventional weapons” that, like existing nuclear-tipped ballistic missiles, could hit targets halfway around the globe within minutes of launch. This, too, could clear the way for big cuts in the nuclear force on alert.

    By refining the accuracy of long-range delivery systems and warheads, “the amount of energy [required] to kill the target or destroy the target could actually get to the point where conventional weapons could generate sufficient energy,” Cartwright said.

    Such highly precise conventional weapons might obviate the need to use nuclear weapons against 10 to 30 percent of the targets listed in the secret U.S. nuclear plan, called the Single Integrated Operational Plan, one industry official told ITP this week.


    In the interview, the general expressed a sense of urgency in developing more conventional alternatives for the president.

    “I have a gut feel and a conviction that there is something at the end of this rainbow,” Cartwright said, “and I’m not letting anybody sleep.”

    I’m guessing it’s not a leprechaun’s gold he’s after.