The Non-Nuclear Nuke

For years the Pentagon has been wrestling with a problem: when you get intel telling you that a high-value terrorist has been located somewhere, how do you take him out? They aren’t likely to stick around at the target location for long, so you need something that can (a) get there quickly and (b) cause a lot of damage once it does. Bombers and cruise missiles take hours. Local forces, even if they’re in place, aren’t always lethal enough. What to do?

One answer is to use ICBMs. Not nuclear-tipped ICBMs, but missiles with a big conventional payload. The Obama administration is apparently planning to revive this idea, and Noah Shachtman explains why it’s crazy:

Over and over again, the Bush administration tried to push the idea of these conventional ICBMs. Over and over again, Congress refused to provide the funds for it. The reason was pretty simple: those anti-terror missiles look and fly exactly like the nuclear missiles we’d launch at Russia or China, in the event of Armageddon. “For many minutes during their flight patterns, these missiles might appear to be headed towards targets in these nations,” a congressional study notes. That could have world-changing consequences. “The launch of such a missile,” then-Russian president Vladimir Putin said in a state of the nation address after the announcement of the Bush-era plan, “could provoke a full-scale counterattack using strategic nuclear forces.”

I guess I can imagine possible ways to fix this. I just can’t imagine any good ways. Even if the Russians and Chinese and Indians and Pakistanis are provided with some reliable way of identifying non-nuclear ICBM launches, they could never be sure that the United States hadn’t figured out some way to fool them. So they’d always be on a short fuse. And do we really want to make that particular fuse even shorter than it already is?

Sometimes bad ideas are just bad ideas. This really seems like one of them.