Did Someone Say Tactical Nukes? March 2, 2010Posted by Sean Varner in Asia, China, Japan, Nuclear Proliferation, President Obama, Russia, U.S. Foreign Relations.
Tags: deterrence, Europe, Nuclear Posture Review, Nuclear Weapons, START Treaty
The confluence of the Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) and Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) negotiations has brought U.S. tactical nuclear weapons to the fore again. Two recent stories drew my attention: this one from the New York Times describing the White House influence on the NPR, which includes unnamed officials revealing back-channel negotiations with European allies debating whether or not to withdraw the approximately 200 B-61 air-deliverable “gravity bombs” stored in six countries; and this story which indicates that the U.S. may decide to retire the Nuclear Tomahawk Land-Attack Cruise Missile (TLAM-N), which the Japanese have considered a vital U.S. weapon for ensuring their security against both China and North Korea.
These developments are troubling to say the least, and strategically foolish to take at this time (even if one believes they need to be taken eventually). First, the proposal to withdraw our tactical nuclear weapons from our NATO allies is not a wise move because the U.S. would essentially get nothing for it. According to this Guardian story, officials in “Benelux,” Norway, and Germany are planning to call for the removal of U.S. tactical nukes from Europe (no advocacy for withdrawing them from the Italians or Turks…yet). Though most recognize that these nukes, only deliverable via fighter-bombers (think F-16s, the new F-35, etc.), are of limited military utility, their political importance has been their status as a cornerstone of the Trans-Atlantic Alliance for over fifty years. To remove them would mean that the U.S. would be perceived as having even less reason to retaliate against an ally struck by a biological attack or ballistic missiles. The diminished footprint in Western Europe is sure to reflect the lessened importance the Obama administration attaches to such important allies as the UK (see here).
That being said, if the Europeans don’t want them (and more importantly, their political and military officials), the U.S. cannot force them down their throat. A more comprehensive strategy to “de-nuclearize” Europe would be more effective in satisfying Europeans while upholding the Trans-Atlantic alliance. Separate from the START accord, the U.S. could propose to Russia a treaty to reduce, limit, or open for inspection arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons, in exchange for the U.S. withdrawing some or all of its nukes from Europe. This has long been a Russian talking point, and the fig leaf it has hid behind for its maintenance of 3-4,000 tac-nukes. If the U.S. (in consultation with European allies) offers to return these to domestic bases, the onus for weapons reductions and increased transparency will be on Moscow. However, it is doubtful whether the Turks would agree to evicting U.S. nukes or if the other Central and Eastern European allies in NATO would consent to removing most or all U.S. tactical nukes from the continent.
Therefore current proposals to unilaterally withdraw all U.S. tactical nuclear weapons from Europe are naive. The U.S. would get nothing for a significant concession. Better to maintain them as additional leverage when the time comes to try to negotiate a reduction in Moscow’s 10-1 advantage in these weapons.
Turning to the Pacific theater, the issue of TLAM-N retirement is more subtle and bilateral. These nuclear cruise missiles, designed for deployment on attack submarines, have been mostly kept in storage since the end of the Cold War (although secret deployments are highly likely). Nonetheless, their mere presence and the latent capability the U.S. possesses with them have reassured Japan as it faces mounting threats to its security from Beijing and Pyongyang. In fact, Tokyo communicated to the Strategic Posture (Perry-Schlesinger) Commission that the “credibility of the U.S. extended deterrent depends on its specific capabilities to hold a wide variety of targets at risk, and to deploy forces in a way that is either visible or stealthy, as circumstances may demand.”
The Commission went on to find that “In Asia, extended deterrence relies heavily on the deployment of nuclear cruise missiles on some Los Angeles class attack submarines. This [TLAM-N] capability will be retired in 2013 unless steps are taken to maintain it. U.S. allies in Asia are not integrated in the same way into nuclear planning and have not been asked to make commitments to delivery systems. In our work as a Commission it has become clear that some U.S. allies in Asia would be very concerned by TLAM-N retirement.” Therefore any decisions to retire this unique capability should not be made absent consultation with Japan and an assessment of alternative ways to reassure Japan that the U.S. extended deterrent will guarantee its security. It is unlikely that the NPR will do this. If the U.S. does not want to raise Tokyo’s insecurity to the point it develops its own deterrent (see an earlier post), it must take its commitments to extended deterrence seriously.
Tactical nuclear weapons have returned to the forefront of the nuclear posture debate. This time it concerns their very existence in U.S. arsenals – the TLAM-Ns will be retired and the B-61s will lose their purpose (not much reason to maintain tactical gravity bombs for fighter aircraft in the continental U.S.). Nuclear disarmament and Global Zero advocates have loudly claimed that they are not in favor of the U.S. unilaterally disarming. If they want that claim to be believable, they should communicate to President Obama that unilateral reductions in tactical nuclear weapons is unwise, if for no other reason than to maintain levers for future disarmament. Others, including defense hawks, can just oppose such policies on the demerits of their naivete.