Des ICBM à têtes conventionnelles, — “an expensive pleasure” ou la guerre asymétrique sens dessus dessous

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Des ICBM à têtes conventionnelles, — “an expensive pleasure” ou la guerre asymétrique sens dessus dessous

Le 19 mai encore, nous rapportions les inquiétudes successives, à quelques jours d’intervalle, de Poutine et du général Bouyevski, chef d’état-major général des forces armées russes, concernant certains projets du Pentagone de transformer des ICBM de frappe stratégique nucléaire en “arme absolue” (c’est le surnom qu’on donnait aux ICBM dans les années 1960-70) contre le terrorisme. Si le bon sens avait cours encore, on pourrait avancer que l’idée est extraordinaire par sa loufoquerie. Le bon sens est quelque chose qui échappe complètement à la bureaucratie militaire. Quant à l’idée dont nous parlons, il s’agit de remplacer les têtes nucléaires par des têtes conventionnelles.

L’idée a des nuances qui entretiennent le débat. Comme on le voit par ailleurs dans notre rubrique F&C du 27 mai, deux anciens secrétaires à la défense soutiennent le programme, mais en substituant des missiles SLBM, — stratégiques tirés de sous-marins, — Trident D5 à l’ICBM. Variations de techniciens. La démarche et le raisonnement sont similaires, et les commentaires valent pour les deux occurrences.

L’ICBM (il s’agit ici du Minuteman III) est un monstre de 78.000 livres au lancement (autour de 40 tonnes) dont l’essentiel du poids est consacré au carburant. La caractéristique du missile est son extrême rapidité (autour de 35.000 km/h dans sa trajectoire extra-atmosphérique) pour transporter et larguer des têtes nucléaires autonomes (MIRV, ou Multi-Independantly Reentry Vehicles), d’un poids équivalent aux charges conventionnelles normales pour une puissance destructrice énorme. Si l’on installe une charge conventionnelle, bien sûr, on retombe sur des puissances destructrices très limitées puisque celles-ci sont alors directement dépendantes du poids de la charge. (C’est d’ailleurs l’effet recherché puisque l’énorme missile devient, dans les missions qui lui sont assignées si on le charge de têtes conventionnelles, une arme de très haute précision à très longue distance, dont la capacité de destruction dépend beaucoup plus de la précision que de la masse, dont l’objectif serait généralement réduit même s’il est d’une très grande importance.)

C’est ce que Bouyevski désigne, non sans ironie, comme un “expansive pleasure” pour les généraux du Pentagone qui ont imaginé cette affaire. Le Minuteman III devait coûter, dans les années 1970, autour de $100 millions l’exemplaire. L’avantage de cette combinaison, selon les experts du Pentagone, c’est la rapidité de la réponse (le Minuteman III met une petite demi-heure pour frapper au terme de son autonomie, à plus de 10.000 kilomètres de distance). L’inconvénient de cette formule, on l’a vu dans le “Bloc-Notes” déjà signalé ou dans notre F&C, c’est qu’un pays armé de missiles stratégiques à têtes nucléaires peut prendre un tir de cette sorte pour une attaque nucléaire stratégique et riposter à mesure contre les Etats-Unis.

Nous avons retrouvé deux textes qui présentent, parmi quelques autres projets, ce projet de transformation d’ICBM en arme anti-terroriste. C’est, poussée à l’extrême, la tentative de rendre adaptables à la guerre contre le terrorisme toutes les armes inadaptables à cet usage issues de la technologie et de la stratégie de la guerre au plus haut niveau.

Le paradoxe de ces textes est qu’ils présentent ces diverses idées comme le triomphe de la “guerre asymétrique”. Il y a une remarquable et singulière déformation de l’intelligence. La “guerre asymétrique” est un phénomène bien spécifique, lié à une situation géopolitique : face à des armées suréquipées de hautes technologies qui forment l’establishment de la guerre si l’on veut, des adversaires en général très faibles selon ces critères adaptent des moyens frustres et différents de façon à infliger à l’adversaire hyper-sophistiqué des pertes notables à peu de frais et avec peu d’efforts. Un ensemble d’actions concomitantes (propagande, influence, etc.) permettent l’exploitation de ces actions parcellaires. Le but est moins de gagner une guerre qui n’existe pas que de daigner à l’adversaire hyper-sophistiqué une victoire qui lui est politiquement nécessaire.

Les comptables du Pentagone ont compris la chose différemment. Ils ont pris l’expression au pied de la lettre, dans le sens le plus absolu : à l’asymétrie imposée par les terroristes, on répondrait par l’asymétrie imposée par les équipements de très haute technologie. C’est un autre aspect du même comportement décrit à propos de l’Irak dans notre rubrique Analyse du 1er mai. La démarche est semblable : comment imposer, à toutes forces, avec la force d’un missile de 78.000 livres filant à 35.000 km/h pour tirer deux ou trois charges d’une tonne d’explosifs sur un groupe terroriste, un monde différent, le monde virtualiste de la très haute et très chère technologie à ces terroristes qui ne veulent pas jouer le jeu. D’une certaine façon, c’est croire à l’idée que le poids et la puissance imposeront asymétriquement ce qu'ils ne peuvent plus imposer symétriquement (par absence d’adversaire symétrique) ; c’est nier le principe même de l’asymétrie et s’en tirer en collant tout de même l’étiquette “asymétrie”.

Les deux articles sont tirés d’un numéro de Aviation Week & Space Technology datant du 7 juillet 2003.

• Le premier est un article de Erik Simonsen, qui examine, avec l’œil froid et tout le sérieux du technicien, les perspectives d’utilisation des ICBM comme lanceurs de charges explosives anti-terroristes dans le désert d’Irak ou à la frontière afghane du Pakistan.

• Le second est du général de l’USAF Gen. Lance W. Lord, alors commandant de l’Air Force Space Command depuis avril 2002. Lord nous trace un tableau plus large de la “guerre asymétrique” faite dans l’espace, dans laquelle on place ces missiles dans l’utilisation décrite par ailleurs (« We also are examining concepts for the next generation of missile systems to replace the Minuteman while, at the same time, evaluating a non-nuclear prompt global strike capability. »)


Rapid Response


By Erik Simonsen, Aviation Week & Space Technology, 3 juillet 2004

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Gulf War II has made it abundantly clear that U.S. and coalition forces are highly dependent on military and commercial space assets. Without GPS navigation, high-resolution imagery, signals intelligence and near-real-time missile warning via communication satellites, allied troops would lose battlefield advantages they now take for granted. And absent those space-provided edges, airmen, soldiers, sailors and Marines would be reduced to fighting a 1960s-era war again, a war of attrition instead of precision.

A USAF study will assess the pros and cons of equipping a few Minuteman III ICBMs with conventional weapons. The missiles could hit targets halfway around the world in less than an hour.

Whether battling a traditional army or radical terrorists, the U.S. can no longer afford the loss of its space-based capabilities — or the luxury of waiting months to put a replacement satellite in orbit after a legacy system fails. Long recognizing how critical these assets are, Air Force Space Command (AFSPC) has made ''quick-response space'' one of its highest priorities. Ultimately, it hopes to have the means to launch satellites within hours or days of notification, quickly repair a critical system in space and strike an enemy on the other side of the globe in less than an hour, using conventional weapons. The command has embarked on several paths to reach that goal.

On Mar. 1, AFSPC kicked off a year-long Operationally Responsive Spacelift Analysis of Alternatives focused on putting payloads into space on short notice. Col. Pamela L. Stewart is directing the ORS/AOA study, which will be conducted by USAF personnel, in-house contractors and the Aerospace Corp. NASA will be involved, primarily at the technology-assessment level. The broad review will address ORS application to key milspace mission areas — force enhancement, space support, force application and counterspace.

''The key element is responsiveness. The goal [of ORS] is hours-to-days versus weeks-to-months in order to have an asset on-orbit,'' Stewart said. ''That requires responsive payloads, because just launching something, then taking three months to initialize it, does not make for responsive space.''

Conceivably, a Minuteman III could carry three reentry vehicles fitted with conventional high-explosive warheads. The missiles might hit terrorists before they could use weapons of mass destruction.

The approximately $8-million ORS analysis is grounded in a Mission Needs Statement validated a year ago by the Pentagon's Joint Requirements Oversight Council, and a military spaceplane concept-of-operations approved by AFSPC. By shooting for a 2014 initial operational capability, the AOA is bounded by real-world, relatively near-term constraints. These are evident in payload examples that will be used by the AOA team:

Common Aero Vehicle, a munition that can be delivered from or through space. A navigation payload that could augment or replenish the GPS constellation. A representative electro-optical payload, such as a low-cost visible-light imager. A counterspace device — something in orbit that could protect friendly force satellites, or disable an adversary's.

A payload that would augment a space-based radar equipped with a ground moving target indicator, perhaps in a latitude not covered by the primary system.

“[These] examples will affect the campaign model, so we can see the potential military utility of quickly getting these responsive payloads in orbit and available for the joint force commander to use,” Stewart said.

U.S. political and military leaders are reevaluating a full spectrum of space-based capabilities and strategic weapons, looking for new ways to counter both rogue nation states and the threats posed by terrorism and weapons of mass destruction (WMD). For one, they are looking at the potential of existing weapon systems being used to quickly strike a target halfway around the world — especially one that could threaten thousands of American or allied lives if not attacked within hours.

A Nuclear Posture Review released by the Bush administration last year redefined the concept of ''deterrence,'' and put new demands on the Pentagon for dealing with WMD and terrorism threats. It also expanded the role of existing nuclear forces.

As a result of this new environment, the military space community is looking at near-term options to fulfill two objectives: putting systems in orbit quickly, and rapidly striking WMD or other time-sensitive threats anywhere on the globe. Long-term systems, such as rapid-response reusable launch vehicles and space-based laser weapons, for example, are still far from becoming operational realities. Milspace leaders need something now, if they are to answer a battlefield commander's demand for revitalized space support, or a President's call to head off a terrorist-caused catastrophe.

The need to reconstitute a satellite constellation or get a specialized imager or other sensor into orbit on short notice has led Pentagon space officials to look favorably on a variety of quick-response launchers. Some may become part of a rapid-response military fleet dedicated to placing off-the-shelf spacecraft into orbit within hours or days of notification.

The Air Force Research Laboratory is taking a hybrid approach, resurrecting a decades-old concept of a supersonic fighter carrying a booster to high altitude, then firing it into space. But, unlike a 1985 test, where now-Maj. Gen. Doug Pearson — the current Air Force Flight Test Center commander — demonstrated an F-15-launched antisatellite system, the latest version will attempt to place a microsatellite in orbit.

Air Force Space Command is looking at reusable launch vehicles, but these could be years away from being operationally useful as either launch systems or quick-response weapon-delivery platforms. On the other hand, the command has near-term options that might be effective in countering terrorists or a nation threatening to use WMDs against the U.S. or an ally. One option requires careful assessment and possible revisions to national policies: putting conventional munitions on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs).

The concept will be one of many given serious consideration during another Analysis of Alternatives study now scheduled to begin in November ( AW&ST Jan. 13, p. 398). Among other topics, it will look at options for replacing the Minuteman III (MM III) ICBM with a follow-on nuclear missile, sometimes referred to as a Minuteman IV. The existing MM III fleet is scheduled to remain in service until 2020, and is now undergoing an extensive life-extension program.

''The table is set for us to do new and innovative things with this current [Minuteman III] weapon system,'' said Maj. Gen. Timothy J. McMahon, commander of 20th Air Force, the AFSPC unit responsible for maintaining and operating the nation's ICBM force. ''My recommendation to [AFSPC commander] Gen. [Lance W.] Lord and his staff is to look at concepts . . . that could give us a broader capability, to include the employment of conventional munitions — or the deployment of a strictly kinetic system with no munition on board at all — [so-called] 'rods from God.''' For example, a nonexplosive device, such as a titanium rod-based munition delivered at hypersonic speeds from space, would have enough kinetic energy to destroy a ground target.

The nation probably would not need many of these specialized conventional weapons, but even a small fleet could give leaders valuable options during international crises. Say, if U.S. or allied intelligence agencies ascertained that a terrorist group in central Asia had a WMD, and was planning to move it within the next few hours, launching an ICBM with a conventional warhead might be a viable way to destroy the threatening weapon and group. Conversely, if a U.S.-led coalition was bogged down in a fierce war halfway around the world, the President might want a quick-response weapon that could discourage the use of WMDs.

''If the U.S. is involved in a struggle where WMDs are being deployed, and we're taking 5,000-10,000 casualties per day — or far more if WMDs are being used — the question will be: How long do you want this to go on?'' McMahon asked. ''This [ICBM] system has an inherent capability to go far, and go urgently. What [warhead] we put on top of it is a matter of policy and technology. And the technology is a piece of cake.''

Missiles with upgraded navigation/targeting systems and fitted with Mk. 21 reentry vehicles (RVs) housing high-explosive conventional warheads could be stored and launched from test pads or silos at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., for example. Today's operational MM III silos in the north-central U.S. are not designed for reuse, and probably would be reserved for nuclear-armed ICBMs. Theoretically, some type of terminal guidance system could be installed, turning a strategic-type missile into a near-precision conventional weapon.

''One thing that makes an ICBM unique is its ability to get to its [maximum] range in less than an hour — about 45 min., depending on how you shape the flight [profile],'' McMahon said. ''That's the real appeal of this system. If you can afford to wait 12-24 hr., or whatever it takes to deploy a system with the same types of effects, then [an MM III] may not have utility.

''But it's important to understand the deterrent value of [a conventional ICBM], as well as its warfighting value. We tend to think in terms of battlefield effects. This current [nuclear] system's primary purpose is not battlefield effect. It's [intended] to have political effect,'' the general continued. ''I think a [conventional ICBM] broadens our deterrence capabilities. In simplified terms, it puts us at the conventional end of the deterrence spectrum, and [enables] being even more effective than we are today. And if we can do that at reasonable cost, then why wouldn't we do it?''

Using conventional ICBMs may be an attractive military option, but it also presents policy-makers with difficult political problems. What are the diplomatic issues associated with an ICBM overflying other nations to hit a WMD or terrorist target? How would Russia, for example, distinguish between a nuclear- and conventional-armed ICBM flying over its territory? Ballistic flight profiles would be the same, no matter what warhead was carried, and seeing an ICBM coming over the horizon from the U.S. would cause considerable anxiety.

''Overflight is an issue — just as manned vehicles are — but the political dimension is different,'' McMahon said. ''It's no harder than getting permission to overfly with [air refueling] tankers when you base them in another country, in my opinion. But I'm not a policy-maker.''

Employing ICBMs at the operational and tactical levels of warfare will force a rethinking of USAF and Pentagon doctrine, but such a shift from Cold War concepts has been underway since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. How doctrine will change remains uncertain, but most officials agree it will change.

''Our doctrine has basically always reserved the employment of these systems for the strategic level of violence,'' McMahon explained. ''Today, there are other countries that either [threaten] or have deployed weapons of mass destruction at the operational level of war — or to cause terror.''

Although the idea of converting some nuclear-armed Minuteman IIIs to a conventional role may seem far-fetched, McMahon noted that similarly altering the B-52's role caused the same angst. ''It was just a different place, different time and different vehicle.''

The AOA study that begins this autumn will examine technical, policy and doctrinal issues associated with conventional ICBMs. On the technical front, the AFSPC staff has been urged to look at work done years ago under USAF's Advanced Ballistic Reentry Systems Program. It considered maneuvering RVs, ablative shields and other elements, and many were tested. Archived data from the program could shorten any near-term effort to give the Minuteman III a new conventional role, McMahon suggested, adding the decades-old warhorse to what many hope is an emerging arsenal of quick-response milspace capabilities.


[Notre recommandation est que ce texte doit être lu avec la mention classique à l'esprit, — “Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.”.]


U.S. Pushing To Maintain Asymmetric Advantage In Military Space


By Gen. Lance W. Lord, USAF, Aviation Week & Space Technology, 3 juillet 2004

On Sept. 24, 1861, Thaddeus Lowe rose to more than 1,000 ft. in a balloon near Arlington, Va. The intelligence he gathered on Confederate troops 3 mi. away was used to aim and fire Union guns accurately without actually being able to see the troops directly — a first in the history of warfare. Just 42 years later, the Wright brothers' first heavier-than-air powered flight paved the way to a more complete exploitation of the new medium. The advantage gained from this new ''high ground'' changed the nature of war.

Similarly, the evolution of space power has had a transformational impact on military operations. During the Persian Gulf war of 1991, called by some the ''first space war,'' our space capabilities provided a significant advantage — but they were not completely integrated. Today, our space capabilities are joint-service and fully integrated with air, land and sea operations. They have been one of the keys to our success in recent operations. Because no other nation has similar capabilities, our ability to exploit the ''ultimate high ground'' is a truly asymmetric advantage.

Lowe and the Wright brothers took existing ideas and applied them in new ways. People are the key to any transformation, and from the missile fields in the Great Plains to remote locations around the globe, people are Air Force Space Command's most important asset. As military dependence on space grows, USAF will meet the challenge of developing the right people — space professionals — to acquire, operate and sustain military space capabilities. A strong, proactive space professional development program is essential to safeguarding the U.S.' leadership position in space. Our team is the best in the world, and we will continue to improve on that standard of excellence.

Today, our space and missile systems are integral to every joint-service operation, combat or humanitarian, and essential for success in the fast-paced environment of the 21st century. GPS' precise, all-weather navigation and timing capabilities are an integral part of today's warfare. In fact, operations in Afghanistan saw satellite-guided munitions employed in transformational ways when B-52s flying at 40,000 ft. dropped Joint Direct Attack Munitions in a close air support role for Special Operations Forces. We also continue to provide coalition forces with theater missile early warning, using Defense Support Program satellites. Employing ground-based radars and optical systems, our operators provide around-the-clock space situation awareness as well as warning of an enemy missile attack. The importance of satellite communications has increased as we deploy our expeditionary forces. Secure, jam-resistant Milstar and Defense Satellite Communications System satellites, augmented with commercial capability, provide the bandwidth necessary for worldwide operations. Finally, our intercontinental ballistic missile forces have deterred conflict for more than 40 years with professional people and safe, secure missiles — holding critical targets at risk and being ready to employ weapons upon direction by our national leadership.

As technology advances, the asymmetric advantage that space capabilities provide will become even more critical to our success. In Air Force Space Command, we are working to find those new ways of exploiting the ultimate high ground, to conduct operations more effectively. Improvements in satellite communications will increase bandwidth and user access. New systems will contribute to missile defense, battlespace characterization and technical intelligence missions. They also will provide the warfighter with on-demand, worldwide, all-weather surveillance, tracking and assessment capability for moving targets.

Getting these new capabilities into orbit will require us to focus on operationally responsive space-lift. We will continue moving forward with expendable launch vehicles as a first spiral toward future concepts such as reusable launch vehicles, systems that ultimately may achieve aircraft-like operations. We also are examining concepts for the next generation of missile systems to replace the Minuteman while, at the same time, evaluating a non-nuclear prompt global strike capability. Finally, the U.S. advantage in space has not gone unnoticed. Therefore, we must also protect our systems and their capabilities. We are charting a course to ensure our ability to gain and maintain space superiority.

Space superiority is the foundation that will allow us to continue on our path to provide the horizontally integrated capabilities — the asymmetric advantage — that soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines need as we fight and win America's wars. Clearly, we must continue to invest the resources, energy and intellectual capital necessary to meet these goals, and we have the men and women who can do just that — fully exploit the ultimate high ground of space.

USAF Gen. Lance W. Lord began his military career in Intercontinental Ballistic Missile Forces. He became commander of the Air Force Space Command in April 2002.


[Notre recommandation est que ce texte doit être lu avec la mention classique à l'esprit, — “Disclaimer: In accordance with 17 U.S.C. 107, this material is distributed without profit or payment to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving this information for non-profit research and educational purposes only.”.]


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