Washington’s pursuit of Conventional Prompt Global Strike (CPGS) capabilities has caused tension in U.S.-Russian relations. The CPGS program aims to develop high-precision conventional munitions capable of hitting a target anywhere in the world within one hour. Despite repeated assertions by the U.S. government that CPGS is to be a “niche” capability, not intended to affect strategic balances with Russia or China, neither Moscow nor Beijing fully trusts these assurances. In the third installment of the “Strategic Stability Seminar Series,” Carnegie’s James Acton discussed the effect of CPGS on nuclear deterrence and strategic stability with a panel of Chinese and Russian experts at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy. Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated.

CPGS History

Acton detailed the origins of the Conventional Prompt Global Strike program, noting that discussions of conventionally armed intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs) date back to the mid-1970s.

  • Bush Administration: Concrete plans to deploy CPGS, using Trident D5 submarine-launched ballistic missiles, were developed during the George W. Bush administration. However, Congress refused funding out of concern that China or Russia might mistake a conventionally armed missile for a nuclear one and respond with a nuclear weapon.
  • Obama Administration: The administration of Barack Obama has generally focused on “boost-glide” technology (rocket-launched gliders), which have a distinctive trajectory. These would, according to the administration, alleviate the “ambiguity problem.” More recently, however, the United States has begun to consider developing a new conventionally armed sea-launched intermediate-range ballistic missile. Acton argued that deployments are still a number of years away and are likely to remain highly limited in number.

CPGS Purpose and Technology

Several of the Chinese participants noted that Beijing has concerns about the definition of CGPS, in particular how Washington defines “prompt” or “precision.” Acton explained that the current CPGS goal of a weapon with global reach within a single hour is largely aspirational. Most current candidate technologies are regional rather than global in range.

  • Technology Driving Policy: Acton argued that CPGS is a case of technology driving policy and that doctrine for the system has not yet been developed. Indeed, there is debate within the United States about the possible roles for CPGS. 
  • Replacing Nuclear Weapons: Some proponents of CPGS have argued that it should be used for essentially the same missions as nuclear weapons, Acton said. One Chinese participant inquired whether CPGS was intended to facilitate nuclear reductions by replacing nuclear weapons, or whether it would instead supplement them. Acton responded that there is currently little interest in using CPGS to replace nuclear weapons.
  • Counterterrorism and Counterproliferation: Acton observed that some experts have advocated counterterrorism and counterproliferation missions for CPGS. Interest in these roles emerged during the Bush administration and continues into the Obama administration.
  • Defense Suppression and Anti-ASAT: Acton argued that anti-access/area-denial (A2AD) capabilities and anti-satellite weapons are seen by some as potential targets for CPGS systems. Iranian A2AD capabilities in the Straits of Hormuz pose the most immediate concern to the United States. However, China’s own A2AD capabilities, especially the Dong Feng-21D (DF-21D), are also of concern, Acton said.

Implications for China and Russia

Chinese and Russian participants were skeptical that CPGS was not being developed primarily with their countries in mind. Acton noted that CPGS does not solve the problem of locating mobile targets, which works in both China’s and Russia’s favor. He added that it is critical for the United States to understand the concern of other countries, particularly China and Russia, before deploying CPGS.

  • Relevance for China: To the extent CPGS is potentially relevant for China, it is Chinese conventional systems—not its nuclear weapons—that might be targeted, argued Acton. One of the Chinese participants responded that while CPGS is frequently cited as a means to defeat conventional A2AD systems, it could still be used to attack nuclear infrastructure.
  • Transparency: One of the Chinese experts asked Acton whether or not a verification mechanism would be possible, allowing other countries to conduct inspections to verify that CPGS systems were not nuclear-armed. Acton responded that a transparency regime to reassure China and Russia would make sense and was feasible.
  • Treaty Implications: One of the Chinese experts argued that the pursuit of naval CPGS systems suggests that the United States is looking to bypass such treaties as the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty by deploying intermediate-range missiles at sea.  Acton noted that CPGS has already sparked U.S. and Russian disagreement over whether boost-glide systems would be accountable under New START. However, since CPGS is unlikely to be deployed during the lifetime of New START, he noted that this argument is moot.
  • Implications for Strategic Stability: One of the Chinese experts suggested that CPGS is harmful to crisis management, encouraging the United States to take extreme measures with impunity. Another Chinese panelist added that CPGS would have a negative impact on strategic stability between the United States, China, and Russia. Russia would likely oppose the system out of fear that CPGS would threaten the survivability of its nuclear deterrent, while CPGS would widen the gap between China and the United States. Acton acknowledged these concerns, while noting that other countries, including China, are also pursuing high-precision long-range conventional weaponry, such as the DF-21D. He also argued that Russia’s development of a new “heavy” ICBM armed with multiple warheads would merely serve to exacerbate Russian concerns, given that such weapons would enable a single CPGS weapon to eliminate multiple warheads.

Discussants: Zou Yunhua, Li Hong, Zhai Dequan, Han Hua, Hong Yuan, Yang Xilian, Hu Yumin, Zhong Zhong, Liu Chong, Li Deshun, Wu Riqiang, Lin Yunzhi