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Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD)

U.S. Discusses Ballistic Missile Conversion with Russia

30 August 2006

Submarine-launched missiles to be refitted with conventional warheads

Washington – The United States is considering plans to convert several of its existing long-range ballistic missiles to carry conventional explosives instead of nuclear warheads, allowing for rapid, pre-emptive strikes against terrorist targets anywhere in the world.

Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld spoke with reporters following a meeting with Russian Defense Minister Sergei Ivanov to discuss the proposal, as well as several other issues currently topping the U.S.-Russian security agenda.  

“We don't know how the world's going to evolve,” Rumsfeld told reporters August 27 in Fairbanks, Alaska, “but we do know that there are terrorist networks in the world, and they are already using missiles,” referencing recent attacks on Israel by the Lebanon-based terrorist group Hezbollah.  (See related article.)

The U.S. plan calls for the conversion of several of the Navy’s submarine-launched Trident missiles to meet emerging threats from terrorism or proliferation of weapons of mass destruction.  As part of the United States' and Russia’s extensive nuclear security partnership, Rumsfeld suggested that Russia consider pursuing missile conversions as well.  (See related article.)

“If either of our countries or our friends and allies were threatened at some number of years into the future with a weapon of mass destruction or a capability that was that lethal, I think any president, whether of Russia or the United States, would like to have available a conventional weapon that could attack that party quickly and accurately and precisely and not feel that the only thing they had might be a nuclear weapon which they would not want to use,” Rumsfeld explained. 

The secretary acknowledged critics’ concerns that such launches could be mistaken for a pre-emptive nuclear attack, potentially leading to a retaliatory strike. 

Ivanov acknowledged that this criticism was a matter of particular concern for the Russian government and would require further discussions before Russia would support the proposal or convert any of its missiles. 

“These are preliminary plans,” the defense minister stressed, “I cannot announce right now that Russia will join such [an] initiative right now.”      

Rumsfeld said any nuclear-armed country currently has the technical ability to detect the launch of a long-range missile and track its flight path.  By doing so, most countries would be aware of the nature of the launch well before it reached its target, and could definitively confirm that its payload was a conventional, and not a nuclear, weapon.      

But Ivanov said that cruise missiles, or the development of new classes of intermediate range missiles, might be more desirable alternatives.

To lessen those concerns, Rumsfeld and Ivanov called for transparency in ongoing talks as the plan develops.  Rumsfeld pledged that the United States would endeavor to build “appropriate communications links and confidence-building measures” into any resulting proposal.   

Rumsfeld and Ivanov also discussed progress toward a new defense technology agreement, followed up on issues raised between President Bush and Russian President Vladimir Putin at the G8 Summit and continued dialogue on security conditions in Iraq, Iran and North Korea.  (See related article.)

Following their meeting, Rumsfeld and Ivanov attended a dedication ceremony for a memorial commemorating efforts during World War II by U.S. and Soviet troops to ferry 5,000 U.S.-built fighter planes across the Bering Strait to the U.S.S.R. under the Lend-Lease Program.  The wartime transfers served as the basis for the popular 2006 Russian film, Peregon (“Transit”).


While in Alaska, Rumsfeld also visited Fort Greeley, home to nine of the 11 long-range interceptors in the U.S. military’s developing missile defense system.

Rumsfeld said that missile defense “is an activity that has with each passing moment become more capable.” He also said that missile defense is “not directed at any major country”, but provides protection “against the possibility of ballistic missile attacks from a rogue country.”

The U.S. missile defense program is a combination of systems that find, target and destroy ballistic missiles.  Not yet fully functional, these systems have been under development for several years, presenting engineers with a complex challenge of integrating computer, radar and missile systems in an effort commonly compared to “hitting a bullet with another bullet.”

This year has seen several advances in missile defense, including three successful ground-based missile interceptor tests in New Mexico and Hawaii, as well as the successful takedown of a ballistic missile by a ship-based interceptor system installed on the Navy Aegis warship, the USS Lake Erie

“As additional sensors and additional interceptors are put in, this system will evolve with greater capability in terms of the numbers of missiles we can handle as well as the directions of missiles,” Rumsfeld said.  “We're working with our allies around the world in both Asia and Europe to [add] those kinds of additional capabilities.”

A transcript of the Rumsfeld and Ivanov remarks is available on the Department of Defense Web site.  A transcript of Rumsfeld’s remarks at Fort Greeley is also available there.

For more information, see International Security and Russia.

(The Washington File is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web site: http://usinfo.state.gov)

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