The case of the missing nukes and a disappearing US mission … in Asia
The US nuclear presence vis a vis Asia, as defined in the Obama administration’s Nuclear Posture Review of 2010, is that strategic missiles –ICBMs and SLBMs (submarine launched ballistic missiles)– provide a nuclear umbrella sufficient to deter PRC nuclear adventurism against the US and its allies in Asia. Tactical nukes are not in the regional US commanders’ bag of tricks.
Local deterrence of the PRC is a mission for conventional forces, primarily the Navy and Air Force, in concert with our local allies.
That conventional mission is coming under great and, I predict, irresistible pressure as the PRC ups its military capabilities.
The tactical nukes, on the other hand, are probably coming back.
The United States had denuked its local posture in Asia in the 1990s for a variety of righteous and practical reasons but the bottom line was that the US believed it could kick China’s behind with conventional forces, particularly the high-tech, high-precision weaponry it developed in its “Revolution in Military Affairs.” Accurate bombs & missiles and stealthy aircraft could deliver the same devastating punch against PLA military assets as crude nuclear attacks without the literal and figurative fallout.
As a brief perusal of dozens of articles in the general interest and FP-centric press will tell you, this sunny optimism no longer brightens the day for US military planners. Doom and gloom—anxious chatter about the PRC’s burgeoning capabilities in “A2/AD” (Anti-Access/Area Denial)—apparently permeate canteens at the Pentagon and its affiliated thinktanks.
The PRC has apparently done an OK job in its quest to neutralize US conventional forces in East Asia through massive expenditures, technical upgrades through R & D & E (Research and Development and Espionage), and by the crude expedient of flooding the zone with lots of missiles, thereby threatening the traditional in-close deployments in Japan and on aircraft carriers and pushing the US military out of its comfort zone.
The Pentagon’s response to PRC presumption has been, unsurprisingly, escalation! represented in the legendary AirSea Battle strategy. Recently, ASB was formally retired and replaced with Joint Concept for Access and Maneuver in the Global Commons (JAM-GC).
The precise character of what the US plans to do under JAM-GC is classified, but it is known the US scenario for a war over Taiwan or the South China Sea does not confine itself to defensive operations in the “global commons”. It involves the United States dishing it out on the Chinese mainland. RAND’s US-China Military Scorecard provides a picture of what operations would entail:
The United States, for its part, would seek to gain air superiority through both air-to-air battles and by penetrating Chinese airspace to strike air defense targets and command-and-control facilities. Air and missile strikes might also be undertaken on radar installations and ballistic missile sites. The United States would also seek to destroy Chinese surface assets, including forces dedicated to landing operations and surface action groups operating in an air defense or anti- submarine capacity.
In other words, if somebody lights the fuse over Taiwan or the South China Sea, the first thing we do is bomb the dickens out of the PRC in order to degrade its offensive capabilities.
The RAND report has a pretty major gap: it does not address the issue of escalation to a nuclear exchange.
The report confines its nuclear musings to the reassuring thought that the scenarios do not threaten “strategic nuclear stability” i.e. the PRC strategic nuclear capability is sufficiently robust that the CCP will not get pushed into a “use it or lose it” scenario as US conventional forces “surgically” take out everything the PLA needs to fight a war in the Taiwan Straits or the South China Sea, and most of the PRC’s military capability, and the CCP’s mandate to rule, evaporate under a barrage of US cruise missiles.
Come ON, people!
From what I’ve heard from a knowledgeable if not omniscient source is that every Taiwan scenario he’s war-gamed has escalated to a nuclear conflict.
And it’s not as if the US has a problem with that.
At the 58:00 minute point in this Youtubed discussion of AirSea Battle by two top drawer strategic boffins, Aaron Friedberg and Elbridge Colby, Friedberg points out the US always reserves the right to first use of nuclear weapons “if conventional means are insufficient”.
And that begs the question: Why fight a seven day conventional war with massive losses on both sides if on the last day Mr. Nuke is going to come out anyway?
Why not introduce nuclear weapons into the Day One equation?
Why not declare any PLAN amphibious invasion armada mustering on the coast of Fujian gets smoked by a US nuclear attack?
There are a few reasons why the United States eschews this seemingly simple, inexpensive, and effective deterrent posture.
First of all, as described above, the US has no tactical nuclear weapons in-theater. Delivering a nuclear message via ICBM or SLBM is rather fraught because it’s difficult to distinguish from a strategic first strike and might cause a nuclear exchange between the United States and the PRC.
Second, the United States under President Obama has decided to try to manage its military business in Asia nuke-free. If the US admits it takes nukes to deter the PRC within the region, the PRC will probably adopt tactical nukes itself, and our allies will sooner or later decide that it’s safer and surer to have their own nuclear weapons, so the US loses the leadership and control of Asia-Pacific security regime that comes with its nuclear monopoly.
Third, cutting-edge tactical nuclear capabilities will not be available to Asia-Pacific for several years. The US has a fancy guidable gravity bomb, the B61, with tactically attractive yields dialable from 0.3 to 340 kilotons—but it relies on the subsonic B2 bomber for delivery.
B2 stealth is apparently a wasting asset and it would be worse than embarrassing if it turned out the PRC had figured out a way to shoot the B2 down as it lumbered across the west Pacific with its payload. Its stealthier successor, the B-21 Long Range Stealth Bomber, the LRSB, won’t enter service for at least a decade.
The safe-sexy way to deliver a tactical nuclear weapon is by a stand-off capability i.e. a cruise missile fired from beyond the range of PRC anti-aircraft and missile defenses. With the nuclear Tomahawk off the table and current contender, the non-stealthy ALCM (Air Launched Cruise Missile) headed for the boneyard, the LRSO–Long Range Standoff cruise missile, stealthy, speedy, with a range of over 1000 miles, deliverable by the B2 or B21—is the future of the nuclear cruise missile.
Nuclear disarmament specialist Hans Kristensen, writing on the website of the Federation of American Scientists in January 2016, is appalled and bewildered at the Pentagon’s enthusiasm for this destabilizing tactical nuke. But the attraction is not so mysterious when viewed in the context of burgeoning but unknowable PRC capabilities:
It seems clear … that the LRSO is not merely a retaliatory capability but very much seen as an offensive nuclear strike weapon that is intended for use in the early phases of a conflict even before long-range ballistic missiles are used. In a briefing from 2014, Major General Garrett Harencak, until September this year the assistant chief of staff for Air Force strategic deterrence and nuclear integration, described a “nuclear use” phase before actual nuclear war during which bombers would use nuclear weapons against regional and near-peer adversaries.
To me, LRSO looks like a gambit to bring tactical nukes back into the Asian theater aboard long range bombers and without the political headache of local deployments, a capability that Pentagon planners probably consider a matter of urgency regardless of the Obama administration’s stated commitment to moving away from nuclear weaponry.
The Department of Defense wants 1000 LRSOs, of which at least half will be nuclear-tipped. I think that will serve the US objective of military supremacy in East Asia rather neatly.
But the LRSO won’t be ready for at least five years.
Which brings me to what I suspect is the fourth reason for the public aversion to discussing the nuclear option in confrontations with China: service self interest of the US Navy and Air Force, eager to have their fair slice of defense spending after the US Army hogged the pie with land operations in the Middle East for almost 15 years.
As Mark Perry wrote in Politico:
Army senior officers remain convinced that ASB is aimed at them more than at China. Recently, a retired Army colonel and consultant to the Joint Chiefs of Staff spoke with a roomful of young Army officers. “I asked them, ‘How many of you think that AirSea Battle is just an attempt by the Navy and Air Force to grab a greater share of the defense budget?’ Every hand in the room went up, every single one,” he told me. “It’s an article of faith.”
The Army’s not entirely alone in thinking that. “This isn’t an attempt to deal with escalating threats,” a currently serving Marine Corps colonel argues, “it’s about identifying potential threats so that we can have escalating budget numbers.”
A look at the evolution of the Asian battlespace reinforces the idea that JAM-GC is a strategy that is as much concerned with justifying a mission as it is defining it—and doing it within a one decade window of opportunity before the new generation of tactical nukes arrive and demote the Navy and Air Force conventional operations to a secondary role in Asian security.
If and when tactical nuclear weapons are formally imbedded in US military planning in the 2020s, that window will start to close. All those Navy and Air Force assets within reach of PRC missiles will no longer be at the absolute center of US deterrence against the PRC. In the worst case, they become tripwires, stuff for the PRC to blow up as it games the nuclear scenarios with the United States. Very expensive stuff. Excessively expensive stuff.
And it’s a dilemma for Japan, South Korea, and the Philippines, which have ventured to paint bulls-eyes on their countries by hosting these vulnerable assets in return for a share of the US deterrent umbrella. The associated costs of pivot participation–a major US conventional buildup in the region, nonstop armtwisting on local partners to increase their expenditures, politically fraught basing needs for those conventional forces, ceaseless evangelizing for missile defense systems that might not really work—may look more expensive and less attractive as the PRC develops its capabilities.
If PRC abilities and expenditures continue to evolve, I expect stand off tactical nuclear weapons will necessarily form the core of US deterrence, but the US will at the same time bear the burden of sustaining a massive but strategically obsolete conventional presence—and trying to alleviate the anxieties and desire to nuclearize of Asian states who realize that it was always a nuclear game after all.
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.
The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times.