The determination to proceed with the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) weapon system by the Obama Administration, as reported by the New York Times, raises interesting questions about the long-term future of nuclear weapons. PGS is effectively a tactical nuclear weapon without the messy nuclear after-effects. The system definitely has its advocates and detractors, its good points and bad. However, in a world the President is determined to make nuclear free, it is a step in the right direction.
The New York Times made much of the argument by the Russians that the system would increase the risk of a nuclear confrontation because they would not know if a launch were nuclear. That’s a grand theory, but it belies the concept of global thermo-nuclear war (remember that one?)
Unless a launch were strategic in nature, with sufficient missiles launched as to deny the enemy the ability to react because they had lost all their weapons and command and control, then the question is moot. Conventional weapons that have a similar effect as nuclear weapons can be used for the same purpose, but they have to be used in the same manner. The Russians, Chinese or whomever would have to see the same attack profile of hundreds of rockets in order to see the need to retaliate, and whether the pre-emptive strike was nuclear or not, the intended world-ending effect would be the same.
The PGS is simply an acquisition decision based on effect, as all acquisitions should be. In this case, the highest level of command has decided that in all but the very worst situations, nuclear fallout is unacceptable, and the deployment and weapons effect of PGS are very desirable; ergo a non-nuclear weapon system that behaves like a nuclear weapon. PGS increases the options available to the president without crossing the nuclear hurdle.
This positive news assumes that PGS really will mimic the effects of a nuclear strike. If not, then will the weapon system just be an overlap for Cruise and other conventional weapon systems? If so, it begins to look and feel like a lot of money spent for little capability improvement; however, the intention is good. One could of course postulate that if the President is truly serious about removing nuclear weapons from the equation, then shouldn’t the technology for PGS be shared with the other nuclear-equipped nations?
As ever with weapons procurement on this scale, the technology is not yet there, and who knows what other benefits may be found in the development stage. PGS, like all systems, has its challenges, and its use will have its issues as well. The determination to have the effect on the target area be measured in seconds rather than decades, however, is an important step forward, one that, if nothing else, reduces the risk of accidents associated with the current nuclear weapons arsenal.