Why Tactical Nuclear Weapons Are Still A Thing

A B61 tactical nuclear weapon, probably an inert training version.

U.S. Air Force

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A B61 tactical nuclear weapon, probably an inert training version.

In the debate over low-yield nukes, opposing camps are largely talking past each other. Here are some thoughts about why they remain necessary.

Michael Krepon recently published an article in Defense One in which he called the potential development and employment of tactical nuclear weapons “unwise” and strategically unsound. His argument includes several statements that illustrate the yawning chasm between arms control experts and military planners today when it comes to the subject of the utility of nuclear weapons. As is often the case, he uses illustrations and questionable statements that date to the Cold War to discuss the contemporary challenge of nuclear modernization. Here are some thoughts as to why tactical nuclear weapons are being advanced as a valid, contemporary — and necessary — defense capability.

Krepon states that “the U.S. Army reached the conclusion that it’s folly to use tactical nuclear weapons in a land battle.” That’s not quite true – President George H.W. Bush decided that the U.S. Army should give up its tactical nuclear weapons in 1991, in part due to concerns from NATO allies as to their deployment in Europe and in part due to Congressional political views at the time. But the idea that the U.S. Army thought that “tactical nuclear weapons get in the way of U.S. soldiers” is belayed by decades of field manuals, operational plans, and leadership testimony supporting the offensive use of nuclear weapons and continued interest today by the U.S. Army in supporting nuclear weapons planning. If the U.S. Army were allowed to develop tactical nuclear weapons, I’m very sure its leadership would do so.

Much of this debate is unnecessarily confused by the very term “tactical.” Many serious people, to include advocates of the DoD nuclear enterprise, claim that there is no such thing as tactical nuclear weapons. Gen. John Hyten, commander of U.S. Strategic Command, has said, “I think every nuclear weapon that is employed is strategic.” And of course, the impact of any nuclear weapon is felt at the strategic level of national leadership, but certainly the offensive use of nuclear weapons, delivered by “short-range” military systems (within a theater of operations) to achieve limited operational (military) goals is the very purpose of tactical nuclear weapons. The State Department at the least understands that “non-strategic nuclear weapons” – the formal name for tactical nuclear weapons – are a category distinct from strategic nuclear forces, and acts accordingly.

Krepon goes on to claim that nuclear weapons advocates claim “that small mushroom clouds are better than big mushroom clouds,” that “the point of deterrence is to have no mushroom clouds.” No respected academic lecturer or military planner would agree to this oversimplification. The point of deterrence is to have a credible means of military force to threaten an adversary into not pursuing a particular course of action. Taken to an extreme, successful deterrence does means no mushroom clouds, large or small. But successful deterrence is impossible without a credible capability, and eliminating tactical nuclear weapons could result in the U.S. government self-deterring itself from using larger nuclear weapons in a future crisis against another nuclear-weapons state.

And for the arms control community, that’s acceptable. That’s a desired outcome, not a limitation. However, that’s a luxury in which other nuclear-weapon states, including Russia, China, India, and Pakistan, refuse to indulge. Given that the possibility of other adversaries using tactical nuclear weapons, can the United States rely on conventional weapons alone to deter their use against U.S. national security interests? Given that the overall size of the military force has shrunk over the years and that the U.S. military is increasingly involved in numerous conflicts all over the globe, can it afford to not invest in low-yield nuclear weapons and delivery systems designed to operate in a specific theater?

This is a long-running debate that will not be solved today or in the near future. It’s occurring today because a new administration has taken charge of national security matters, because funding for a new generation of nuclear delivery systems is underway, and because of concerns of proliferation in Northeast Asia. These are understandable concerns. But the debate over the utility of new low-yield nuclear weapons increasingly involves two main bodies talking past each other.

The arms control advocates repeatedly say that a low-yield nuclear weapon capability already exists within the B61 family of nuclear bombs, that modernizing this capability is both too expensive and contrary to the spirit of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, and that U.S. conventional capabilities are “good enough” to deter future crises against nuclear-weapon states other than Russia and China. The nuclear weapons advocates point out that the B61 uses a very old design and low-yield options are desired in the cruise missile variant, that the Defense Department has successfully developed a defense budget that includes nuclear modernization and that will be accepted by the White House and Congress, and that conventional capabilities – no matter how superior – are an inadequate response to another nation’s nuclear saber-rattling. Neither side will change their talking points anytime soon.

This is not to say that there cannot be a common road between the two diametrically-opposing viewpoints. The arms control advocates may never see a treaty or actions to rid the world of tactical nuclear weapons, as long as nation-states see advantages to their existence. The nuclear weapons advocates may never see the resumption of nuclear testing to validate new weapon designs. But modernizing the B61-series of bombs and designing a Long-Range Standoff cruise missile may permit further reductions in the U.S. nuclear stockpile. And it may well save money to allow the National Nuclear Security Administration to design a new physics package for a low-yield nuclear weapon, rather than limiting research and development to wringing out life extension programs for existing nuclear warheads every few years.

The fact remains that a deliberate process is in place. The National Security Council develops national policy objectives that include deterrence goals. The military develops and validates requirements for new military requirements for nuclear weapons, in line with State Department guidance on strategic force limits. Plans and concepts are developed to be effective, legal, and proportional. The annual budget cycle is well-established and balanced (as best as one can) among multiple stakeholders. Congress oversees the development and employment of strategic forces and vigorously questions the nuclear advocates. The academic community debates and informs the national security enterprise and Congress on the soundness of their policies and plans. The process works, but not to the ends of the arms control community alone.

Colin Gray once noted, in his book “Weapons Don’t Make War” (Univ Press of Kansas, 1993), that the absence of experience with nuclear conflict had resulted in the “fashionable judgment” that the only positive utility for nuclear weapons in the pursuit of statescraft was in their nonuse. He called out those who believed that any nuclear use option carried an unacceptable risk of uncontrollable escalation as “strategically illiterate.” As long as there are nation-states fearing for their security, there will be the challenge that nuclear weapons will be developed in the pursuit of national security objectives. Focusing the argument on the type of nuclear weapon ignores the real debates on how strategic deterrence policy is developed – in today’s terms, not that of the Cold War – and how the U.S. government pursues regional stability across the globe.

The Korean Peninsula offers an opportunity for the current debate on nuclear weapons employment. Krepon misses the point on U.S. actions in the region – U.S. bomber flights are not necessarily designed to deter Kim Jong Un, but rather to assure the South Korean and Japanese public. No one is seriously talking about returning tactical nuclear weapons to the Peninsula. But at the same time, the U.S. government requires options to effectively respond to the potential threat of North Korea’s growing nuclear arsenal. The ICBMs and SLBMs were not designed to be that option. A low-yield nuclear weapon is a must-have, not a luxury.

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