Senior U.S. General Sees High Nuclear Threshold

By Elaine M. Grossman
Global Security Newswire

WASHINGTON - A top-ranking officer at the U.S. Defense Department said last week he believes that virtually no U.S. president would use a nuclear weapon in conflict, even if it were a bomb variant with very limited destructive power (see GSN, April 4, 2006).

In his first wide-ranging interview since becoming vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Marine Corps Gen. James Cartwright also told Global Security Newswire he thinks a new generation of conventionally armed, long-range weapons could substitute for nuclear arms in a sizable portion of the U.S. military’s global targeting plan.

As the first Marine to lead U.S. Strategic Command - a three-year assignment he concluded in early August - Cartwright initiated several sweeping changes, among them the assumption of expanded responsibilities and the delegation of some of his own command authority to an array of subordinate organizations (see GSN, Dec. 2, 2005).

Having spent his career as a naval aviator, well outside the traditional fraternity of nuclear weapons officials and scholars, he also questioned the validity today of strategies developed during the Cold War. For starters, he replaced the focus on land-, sea- and air-based nuclear weapons with the idea of a “new triad” composed of nuclear and conventional offensive strike systems; active and passive defenses; and a military infrastructure capable of responding to atomic attacks.

Now Cartwright is in an even stronger position to turn some of his iconoclast views into U.S. military policy. As vice chairman, he leads a top military panel that reviews Pentagon plans for new weapon systems and capabilities, which will offer him a broad “opportunity to look at alternatives,” the general said.

During the Oct. 18 interview at his Pentagon office, Cartwright weighed in on a perennial debate over the possibility that very low-yield nuclear weapons should be developed that, if used, might limit unintended damage or the spread of radiation.

“People who have to be accountable for using these weapons do so with a great deal of consideration,” he said. “And the yield … I don’t think that’s as critical of an attribute as some would make it out to be.”

Cartwright called the notion of a temptingly low-yield weapon - generally defined as 1 to 10 kilotons - a “good academic argument,” one “that deals more with the ‘what if.’”

Theoretically, if a “grave” threat to the United States emerged that could be deterred only by a low-yield nuclear weapon, the general might be persuaded to support its development, he said. However, to date, “I haven’t seen anything that approaches that,” Cartwright said.

He acknowledged that a number of policy advocates - some of whom were appointed by President George W. Bush to positions at the Defense and Energy departments - have seriously pondered the merits of using nuclear weapons.

“But none of them have had the responsibility or the accountability” to launch such weapons, Cartwright said. “I don’t want to put myself in the shoes of a president, but who is not going to take [as] incredibly serious the use of a nuclear weapon?”

For those who are accountable, he added, “it is not just a little bit [of] a weapon of mass destruction. It is a weapon of mass destruction. It is going to change not just that country’s future, but all of our futures when we start using these things, big or little.”

Early in his tenure as head of Strategic Command, the general said he was determined to build long-range conventional weapons that might offer a U.S. president a more viable alternative to nuclear weapons under certain circumstances.

“My priority is not reduced yield,” Cartwright told a reporter in April 2005. “It’s to take the accuracy to the point where conventional can substitute for nuclear. That’s my first priority.”

Cartwright’s primary concern ultimately became a front-burner Pentagon effort to modify a small number of submarine-launched, nuclear-armed missiles to carry conventional warheads. Congress has largely rejected the idea of a conventional Trident D-5 missile. However, many lawmakers have expressed support for the general idea of building non-nuclear “prompt global strike” weapons capable of hitting an urgent target anywhere around the world within 60 minutes of a launch order (see GSN, Oct. 10).

National security experts have said targets for which prompt global strike weapons might be most useful could include a terrorist located temporarily at a safe house or a rogue nation’s nuclear missile being readied for launch.

Cartwright noted last week that such weapons, once built and deployed, should be employed only sparingly, in part because they would be expensive. The project to install just 96 conventional warheads on 24 Trident missiles had an estimated price tag of $503 million.

“This is a very expensive round,” Cartwright said. “This is not replacing a squadron of F-16s. … Its value is the deterrent value. So you want to be very selective about how you might use this.”

Still, the general anticipates a day when precise, long-range conventional weapons could assume a growing part of the nation’s targeting plan.

“I believe there is a large target set out there for which we can go at with conventional,” Cartwright said. “In some cases, the conventional is good enough for all levels of warfare. In some cases, you may want to have a choice between conventional and nuclear.”

While current concepts for conventional long-range weapons largely employ “kinetic” warheads - those whose destructive force relies on mass, speed and precision - the general said follow-on arms might also include an explosive element for greater utility against hard-to-get targets.

“If you add explosives in the future, you can come up with intermediate steps of higher energy but still substantially below the nuclear threshold,” Cartwright said. “You may have some of these that you are trying to [launch] into hardened structures. You may have some that are designed to go against soft and dispersed activities, whether they be formations or they be groups of buildings or whatever. … But you may want more than one choice.”

Before the president can reach for long-range conventional weapons as an alternative to nuclear arms, though, the concept must be proven, Cartwright acknowledged.

“You have to … demonstrate the capability so that it’s credible,” he said.

U.S. policy-makers must assess how strong of a deterrent to unwanted adversary actions such a conventional capability might pose, Cartwright explained. “What does it deter and how much of the larger energy equation do you need vs. the smaller energy equation?” he asked.

The general said the rapid spread of ballistic missiles to nations around the world underscores the pressing need for a more usable - or, in his words, more “credible” - deterrent than nuclear weapons currently offer a U.S. president.

“The proliferation of short- and medium-range ballistic missiles - independent of what’s on top of them - [changes] the calculus because they act so quickly” in conflicts with neighboring nations, Cartwright said.

In past generations, world powers had ample time to react to regional skirmishes, saying in effect, “OK, you shot at your neighbor. I’m going to sail my armada and I’ll be there in a month,” in Cartwright’s words.

Now, he said, “it’s over in minutes.”

With new conventionally armed, long-range missiles in hand, the United States might “get inside the time line,” delivering “an offensive punch to say, ‘Stop it.’ And convince them, persuade them, that ‘stop it’ is the answer and now let’s talk, rather than just level the place.”

[Reprinted by permission of National Journal Group. This article may not be reproduced or redistributed, in part or in whole, without express permission of the publisher. Copyright 2007, National Journal Group. For more information and exclusive news, go to or]

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