Defense Secretary Robert Gates has made an startling revelation today: The US has long-range missiles armed with high-power-but-non-nuclear explosives ready for a global strike. The (big) problem: China and Russia won't be able to distinguish between nuclear and non-nuclear ICBMs.
This is what Gates said, talking on NBC's Meet the Press:
We have, in addition to the nuclear deterrent today, a couple of things we didn't have in the Soviet days… And we have prompt global strike affording us some conventional alternatives on long-range missiles that we didn't have before.
Defense Tech's Greg Grant says that maybe Gates meant to say "we will soon have", but he also points out that the Navy has been working on conventional explosive D-5 Trident II missiles for "at least a decade" now. This development was funded through the Trident program—the program's production line is still open—without the direct approval of Congress. The concern about this kind of weapon is that China, Russia, and other nuclear powers won't be able to detect the nature of the ICBM with their early-warning systems. For them, on a computer screen, all inter-continental ballistic missiles look just like the same.
Even if the US President called each of the nuclear nations, I doubt that such a launch would be observed without serious concerns. An ICBM launched from California to North Korea or Iran would look very dangerous for both China and Russia, no matter what an US President is saying over the phone.
On top of that potential nuclear power ruckus, the fact is that a ballistic missile loaded with conventional explosives is not a very effective weapon. ICBMs are dumb weapons designed to reach a target area, spread their nuclear heads, and wipe everything around, completely, over a large blast radious. By loading ICBMs with explosives—no matter how powerful they may get—your destruction power is very low, while keeping a very low accuracy.
So basically, a launch of this type of missile may not reach its target, and make people with actual nuclear ICBMs very pissed off. Sounds like a lose-lose situation to me. [Defense Tech]