The Obama administration is considering deploying a new group of intercontinental ballistic weapons that could deliver large conventional warheads and reduce America's dependence on its nuclear arsenal.
Called Prompt Global Strike, the new class of weapons would allow the United States to attack with conventional weapons targets across the globe.
According to a report Friday in The New York Times newspaper, the new weapons could carry out tasks like killing terrorist Osama bin Laden in a cave, destroying a North Korean missile as it is being transported to the launch pad, or demolishing an Iranian nuclear site - all without using nuclear bombs.
Former U.S. President George W. Bush and his staff first proposed the technology, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates said in a recent interview with ABC News the idea is moving forward under the Obama administration.
"We're also developing this Conventional Prompt Global Strike - which really had not gone anywhere in the Bush administration, but has been embraced by the new administration - that allows us to use long-range missiles with conventional warheads," he said. "So we have, we have more tools, if you will, in the deterrence kit bag than we used to."
The report says the Prompt Global Strike warhead would be launched on a long-range missile traveling several times the speed of sound that could destroy targets halfway around the world in less than an hour.
After reaching a certain altitude, the missile would release a glider that could be guided by satellites to hit a target with pinpoint precision.
Earlier this month the United States announced its Nuclear Posture Review, which limits the circumstances under which the country would use nuclear weapons, with a long-term goal of achieving a nuclear-free world.
Although the new policy is designed to reduce the role of nuclear weapons in America's security strategy, officials say it will not adversely affect the nation's ability to protect itself and its allies.
"We intend to maintain a robust nuclear deterrent. Let no one be mistaken, the United States will defend ourselves and defend our partners and allies," said Hillary Clinton, U.S. Secretary of State. "We intend to sustain that nuclear deterrent by modernizing the existing stockpile. In fact, we have $5 billion in this year's budget going into that very purpose."
According to the Times report, concerns about the Prompt Global Strike technology led Russia to successfully demand that the United States decommission one nuclear missile for each new conventional weapon activated by the Pentagon.
That provision is included in the new nuclear arms reduction treaty signed by the United States and Russia earlier this month in Prague.
Daryl Kimball, executive director of the Arms Control Association, a private research group, says Russia's fear of a small number of conventionally armed missiles is exaggerated.
"Russia's concerns about the conversion of long-range nuclear armed ballistic missiles to conventional payloads, to carrying conventional payloads, is overblown, but nevertheless this is a challenge that the U.S. and Russia are going to have to manage in the years ahead," said Kimball.
Russia and other nations would reportedly be allowed to inspect the Prompt Global Strike silos to see first-hand that the weapons are nonnuclear.
The new weapons would be deployed far from the strategic nuclear force so other countries seeing a missile launch on their radar screens would not mistake it for an atomic attack.
The Pentagon reportedly hopes to deploy an early version of the system by 2015.