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  • Going Nowhere FastAssessing Concerns about Long-Range Conventional Ballistic Missiles
  • Austin Long (bio), Dinshaw Mistry (bio), and Bruce M. Sugden (bio)

To the Editors (Austin Long writes)

In his article, Bruce Sugden provides a cogent, technically sophisticated assessment of the use of conventional ballistic missiles (CBMs) for the Prompt Global Strike (PGS) mission.1 To a large degree, however, the article elides one of the central issues in targeting, the "actionable intelligence" problem. Without actionable intelligence, CBMs will be of little use, so understanding the problems and prospects for acquiring such intelligence is central to evaluating their utility. In this letter, I critique the depiction of intelligence in Sugden's article and provide additional information on the collection of actionable intelligence against the near-term target set, which Sugden describes as "emerging, time-sensitive, soft targets, such as exposed WMD [weapons of mass destruction] launchers, terrorist leaders, and sites of state transfers of WMD to terrorists or other states" (p. 117). I conclude by arguing that developing actionable intelligence on these targets is time consuming and requires the presence of U.S. assets, making both the prompt and global aspect of CBMs irrelevant.

Defining Actionable Intelligence

Actionable intelligence against a near-term target set must have four qualities: precision, reliability, timeliness, and comprehensiveness. Precise intelligence for a conventional weapon requires a specific geolocation to ensure the destruction of the target and to limit collateral damage. Precision is critical because even a large conventional explosive payload will have a relatively limited lethal radius. For example, the U.S. Army's tactical ballistic missile, known as the ATACM, has a 560-kilogram warhead that dispenses submunitions designed to destroy soft targets over an area roughly 180 meters by 180 meters.2 To have high confidence that a similar warhead would be effective [End Page 166] in destroying the target of a CBM, the target would have to be located within an area of similar, if perhaps slightly larger, dimensions.

A large warhead assumes, however, that collateral damage is not an issue. If the target were located in an area of high population density, such a warhead would kill dozens. If a smaller warhead were used to limit collateral damage, the target must be located more precisely. The intelligence must be reliable, in the sense of being both accurate and trustworthy, for similar reasons. If the intelligence is unreliable, one runs the risk of inflicting collateral damage and potentially provoking a major diplomatic incident. Unreliable intelligence is also wasteful (with each CBM costing tens of millions of dollars) and potentially alerts the target, which, if mobile, can then alter its behavior to make future targeting more difficult.

Intelligence that is timely must be received, processed, and transmitted quickly enough that the weapon can arrive before the target location changes. It does not have to be instantaneous and can even be predictive, rather than describing the target's current location. One could imagine reliable intelligence that a target will be arriving at a certain location at a certain time. The intelligence would have to be very reliable, however, for planners to launch a weapon without confirmation of that target's actual presence, particularly if there were risk of collateral damage.

The collateral damage issue also indicates the need for comprehensive intelligence, in the sense of placing a target in context. Without comprehensive intelligence, policymakers may be unable to determine whether destroying a target is worthwhile. Is terrorist leader X important enough to merit striking with a CBM? What would be the second-order consequences of striking terrorist Y, who is driving a truck loaded with anthrax? Even with comprehensive intelligence, calculating the costs and benefits of striking a target will take time, the length of which is essentially irreducible, as it requires debate and thought at the highest levels of government. The decisionmaking process could potentially be so long that even near-instantaneous, highly reliable, and extraordinarily precise intelligence coupled to a CBM might not be sufficiently fast.

Limitations of Intelligence Collection and Targeting

Sugden argues "that a myriad of intelligence collection sensors and sources will periodically provide the timely and detailed information required for successful execution of a PGS mission" (p. 123...


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pp. 166-184
Launched on MUSE
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