Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld made his strongest public case Sunday for a plan, opposed by some in Congress and by Russia, to convert some Navy long-range missiles from a nuclear to a conventional role for potential use against terrorist targets anywhere in the world, The Associated Press reports.
Opponents of the plan argue that it could create a situation in which a conventionally armed U.S. Trident missile, launched from a submarine, would be mistaken for a nuclear launch, thus risking the possibility of a retaliatory nuclear strike.
Rumsfeld said he thought little of that argument. He said the Pentagon would be “fully transparent” with Moscow about any such conversion of strategic missiles, so that there was no room for miscalculation. “There are only a few countries that would have the ability to do anything about it — regardless of which type of weapon it was,” he said, alluding to the small number of countries, such as Russia, China and possibly North Korea, which possess nuclear missiles capable of reaching U.S. territory.
Besides, he added, “everyone in the world would know” that the U.S. missile was not nuclear “after it hit within 30 minutes” of launch.
“Or 10 minutes,” interjected Sergei Ivanov, the Russian defense minister who discussed the subject at a joint news conference with Rumsfeld. The two held talks at a Fairbanks lodge, had lunch together and then attended a ceremony dedicating a memorial to U.S.-Soviet military cooperation during World War II.
By noting that a long-range missile might hit its target in as little as 10 minutes from launch, Ivanov appeared to be emphasizing the short time frame in which a decision on retaliating would have to be made.
At an otherwise harmonious news conference, Rumsfeld explained the Bush administration’s rationale for the plan to put conventional warheads on some Trident missiles aboard submarines, and he said Moscow should embrace the idea for its own good.
“It would be a good thing if, five, 10 or 15 years from now both of our countries had that additional weapon available in case it might be needed in an unusual circumstance,” Rumsfeld said in response to a question from a Russian reporter who asked him to comment on reports about the conversion plan.
“We would be happy to see the Russian government decide to do the same thing,” he said. Later he said, “I hope my friend Sergei takes that home and discusses it and calls me up on the phone and says he thinks that’s a terrific idea.”
Ivanov, however, made clear that his government opposes the plan.
“I would like to stress this point: these are preliminary plans, and for sure these U.S. plans raise Russian concerns,” Ivanov said.
The Russian defense chief said he understands that Rumsfeld sees this prospective weapon as a way of maximizing U.S. options for “preventive strikes,” meaning attacks against terrorist targets that are launched not in response to a terrorist act but in order to destroy a terrorist weapon before it can be used.
“There are different solutions” to that problem, Ivanov said. He mentioned the use of cruise missiles, which traditionally carry conventional warheads and would not be mistaken for a possible nuclear strike.
Ivanov said his government was willing to discuss the matter with U.S. officials.
The two defense chiefs also discussed Russia’s objections to economic sanctions imposed earlier this month by the State Department on two Russian arms companies for their dealings with Iran. The companies — Rosoboronexport and Sukhoi — were among seven companies Washington said violated a U.S. law known as the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000. The law is aimed at preventing the spread of weapons of mass destruction to Tehran.
Rumsfeld said Moscow and Washington disagree over the facts in the case and that he agreed to have the matter reconsidered