Pentagon, Lawmakers Deal Blows to Navy Fast-Strike Missile Effort

Elaine M. Grossman, Global Security Newswire
National Journal

WASHINGTON -- Senate appropriators on Tuesday moved to cancel a U.S. Navy program to develop a medium-range missile for launch by fast-attack submarines, but only after top Defense Department brass significantly restricted the Virginia Payload Module in a secret meeting late last year, Global Security Newswire has learned.

Lawmakers on the Senate Appropriations Defense Subcommittee said their markup of fiscal 2014 funding legislation for the Defense Department “terminates the Virginia Payload Module due to high cost, risk, and lack of validated requirement.”

The move comes just 18 months after the Pentagon’s high-profile proposal to use the new missile aboard Virginia-class submarines as a non-nuclear means of quickly hitting targets almost anywhere around the world.

Defense leaders envision so-called “prompt-strike” weapons as potential substitutes for atomic-armed, submarine-based missiles or ICBMs when faced with urgent threats, such as a North Korean nuclear weapon being prepared for launch or a key terrorist leader spotted at a hideout.

A five-page statement released on Tuesday describes markup highlights, but a detailed text of the subcommittee’s version of the bill was not yet available. This is the second consecutive year in which the same panel has criticized and cut funds for the Navy project.

The idea behind the wonky-sounding “module” has been to alter the design of today’s Virginia-class attack submarines when new vessels are built in the future, so that they could carry additional Tomahawk land-attack cruise missiles.

Eventually, the structure of the submerged vessels could also be modified for launch of as many as 12 medium-range, conventionally armed ballistic missiles. The latter could involve what is roughly estimated at billions of dollars in investment in submarine redesign, and in missile development and production.

Then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta publicly unveiled the concept in January 2012, describing the Virginia Payload Module as “a design that will allow new Virginia-class submarines to be modified to carry more cruise missiles and develop an undersea conventional prompt-strike option.”

The Senate lawmakers’ action -- which still must go through a full committee markup, floor vote and conference with the House before it could be signed into law by the president -- follows a little-known setback for the Navy project at the hands of a secretive military review panel, Global Security Newswire has confirmed.

The Pentagon’s Joint Requirements Oversight Council -- a top-level panel that determines what equipment the U.S. military needs for its assigned missions – last November determined in closed-door session that future technologies for prompt strike must do a better job of balancing affordability with desired warfighting capabilities, according to sources.

For the first time, a mix of short-, medium- and long-range weapons would be considered for undertaking the non-nuclear mission previously called “prompt global strike” -- only now, the “global” might be dropped in recognition of varying degrees of reach.

To help defray the cost of prompt strike, the top Pentagon panel reportedly said that if a ballistic missile for Virginia-class submarines is to go forward, the new weapon and submarine alterations would have to be paid for out of the Navy’s own coffers.

The effort could no longer be funded from a multiservice spending account for conventional prompt strike, Adm. James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff is said to have determined in February.

Given intense pressures on the Navy to finance a top-priority shipbuilding program in the coming years -- to include a new nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarine to replace today’s Ohio-class vessels -- the service’s independent development of an expensive new weapon for attack boats appears unlikely, issue experts say.

Lawmaker concern about Navy investment in conventional prompt-strike weapons over the years since the idea was first hatched has extended beyond tight budgets. Congress killed the first concept for a non-nuclear version of the Trident D-5 missile that was to be based on Ohio-class submarines, citing concerns about strategic “ambiguity” or miscues.

Specifically, worries revolve around the notion that Russia, for example, might misinterpret the launch of a conventionally armed Trident missile for the onset of an atomic war using the missile’s nuclear-armed lookalike, prompting a dangerous nuclear salvo in retaliation.

It is unclear whether the Senate lawmakers, in referring to “risk” this week, had in mind the Virginia Payload Module’s technological, financial or operational risk.

On a related matter, might the emerging inclusion of short- and medium-range weapons for the conventional prompt-strike mission water down military capabilities by making attacks not only less “global” in reach, but also less “prompt”?

After all, the original military requirement for this type of operation was for a long-range weapon that could be launched against a target anywhere around the globe within just 60 minutes of a commander’s order. This was based on an assumption that shorter-range conventional weapons might not happen to be deployed where they are needed most when an urgent target arises.

In fact, “shorter can be prompter,” Lt. Gen. James Kowalski, commander of the Air Force Global Strike Command, said on Wednesday at a Capitol Hill breakfast gathering. “You know, it takes a long time to go a long ways.”