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Old 08-27-2021, 05:15 AM
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Question Does the United States Have Any Real Capability to Forward Deploy Nuclear Weapons Rap

Does the United States Have Any Real Capability to Forward Deploy Nuclear Weapons Rapidly Outside of NATO Europe?
By: Mark B. Schneider - RealClearDefense - 08-27-21

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At the end of the Cold War, in an extraordinarily bad example of making national security policy, the United States, as part of what is called the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs), eliminated almost its entire arsenal of nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons. Dick Cheney, then Secretary of Defense, rejected this proposal. Cheney rejected it because of the near-unanimous opposition from senior Defense Department officials before it came to the Pentagon as a dictate from the George H.W. Bush White House.[1] Then-Secretary of Defense Cheney and General Colin Powell, then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, announced that the U.S. would eliminate 1,300 nuclear artillery shells and 850 Lance short-range ballistic missile nuclear warheads. Bush asked the Soviet Union (and later Yeltsin’s Russia) to eliminate its nuclear artillery, nuclear air defense missiles, and nuclear landmines. Both announced their own PNIs. Reportedly, the announced U.S. reductions involved about 5,000 nuclear weapons. President Bush also said that under “normal circumstances, our ships will not carry tactical nuclear weapons” and asked the Soviet Union to do the same. It agreed. Cheney and Powell said that 500 U.S. tactical nuclear weapons would be removed from submarines and surface ships and that 50% of them would be destroyed. General Powell also stated that all U.S. land-based naval nuclear depth bombs would be destroyed. In fact, actual U.S. reductions went well beyond those announced. In 2011, senior Obama administration NSC official Gary Samore stated that “The U.S. has a very small number -- only a few hundred tactical nuclear weapons….In contrast, the Russians have a much larger number -- probably a few thousand [tactical] nuclear weapons…”

There are now three hostile nuclear-armed states in the Asia Pacific area that have strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons – Russia, China and North Korea. All three have nuclear-capable nonstrategic missiles. Significantly, the United States has none. In April 2021, Major General Michael J. Lutton, Commander, Twentieth Air Force, Air Force Global Strike Command, stated that:

Specifically, Russia, China, and North Korea share five themes in foreign nuclear development and proliferation:

* Increasing numbers or capabilities of weapons in existing programs;
* Enduring security threats to weapons and material;
* Developing delivery systems with increased capabilities;
* Developing nuclear weapons with smaller yields, improved precision, and increased range for military or coercive use on the battlefield;
* Developing new nuclear weapons without conducting large-scale nuclear tests.

The INF Treaty eliminated our nonstrategic ballistic and cruise missile capability. As a result of decisions made in the Nuclear Posture Reviews of 1994 and 2010, the United States decided to eliminate all of its remaining naval tactical nuclear weapons.[2] Actual U.S. reductions apparently went beyond what was announced. In 2015, Russian Defense Minister General of the Army Sergei Shoigu stated that "About 200 US nuclear bombs are currently deployed in Belgium, Italy, the Netherlands, Germany and Turkey.” Since eliminating all U.S. nuclear weapons from Europe has long been a basic Russian objective, General Shoigu clearly had no reason to understate the U.S. number.

Russia violated its commitments, particularly with regard to nonstrategic nuclear weapons, under the Presidential Nuclear Initiatives. Russia also violated the INF Treaty by developing and deploying prohibited missiles. These Russian violations are, in part, responsible for the current massive Russian advantage in nonstrategic or tactical nuclear weapons.

Russia has consistently claimed it has reduced its nonstrategic nuclear forces from Cold War levels by 75%.[3] Alexei Arbatov, a Russian expert and former Vice Chairman of the Duma Defense Committee, and others (e. g., former Obama administration Assistant Secretary of Defense Graham Allison) have said that the late Cold War Soviet tactical nuclear arsenal was comprised of 22,000 tactical nuclear weapons. Some 22,000 nonstrategic nuclear weapons appear reasonably consistent with the announced peak Soviet nuclear stockpile in 1986 of 45,000. Using 22,000 as a baseline for calculation, the number of nonstrategic nuclear weapons in the Russian inventory after a 75% reduction would be over 5,000. In 2014, reported, “Russia, according to conservative estimates, has 5,000 pieces of different classes of TNW [tactical nuclear weapons] - from Iskander warheads to torpedo, aerial and artillery warheads!.” Dr. Philip Karber, President of the Potomac Foundation, has stated that roughly half of Russia’s 5,000 tactical nuclear weapons have been modernized with new sub-kiloton nuclear warheads for air-defense, torpedoes and cruise missiles.” The estimated 2,000 and growing Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report appears to be a major underestimate. In February 2021, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General John Hyten confirmed reports of large-scale Russian deployment of low-yield nuclear weapons when he stated there were “thousands [of] low-yield … and tactical nuclear weapons that Russia is building and deploying…”

In March 2021, a German publication said it had obtained a German Defense Ministry document that stated Russia has about 6,375 nuclear warheads ready for use. This number appears to be substantially higher than the threat level assumed in the U.S. 2018 Nuclear Posture Review.

In December 2017, Bill Gertz reported, “Russia is aggressively building up its nuclear forces and is expected to deploy a total force of 8,000 warheads by 2026 along with modernizing deep underground bunkers, according to Pentagon officials. The 8,000 warheads will include both large strategic warheads and thousands of new low-yield and very low-yield warheads to circumvent arms treaty limits and support Moscow’s new doctrine of using nuclear arms early in any conflict.” In August 2019, then-Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Nuclear Matters Rear Admiral (ret.) Peter Fanta confirmed the Gertz story, stating that “The Russians are going to 8,000 plus warheads.”[4] Again, it does not appear that such a threat level was assumed in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review. In April 2021, noted Russian journalist Pavel Felgenhauer wrote, "Indeed, taking into account nonstrategic (tactical) nuclear weapons, which no one has ever verifiably counted, Russia may have more (maybe twice as many overall) than all the other official or unofficial nuclear powers taken together.” He may well be correct.

It is not only the number of Russian tactical nuclear weapons but the diversity of types that is of concern.[5] According to a 2017 Defense Intelligence Agency report on Russia Military Power, Russian nonstrategic nuclear weapons "…include air-to-surface missiles, short-range ballistic missiles, gravity bombs, and depth charges for medium-range bombers, tactical bombers, and naval aviation, as well as anti-ship, anti-submarine, and anti-aircraft missiles, and torpedoes for surface ships and submarines. There may also be warheads remaining for surface-to-air and other aerospace defense missile systems.” A similar but slightly longer list appears in the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report. Russia has clearly maintained the diverse Soviet tactical nuclear arsenal, albeit at reduced but still very large numbers. Since the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, Russia has revealed the development and deployment of a wide array of strategic and nonstrategic nuclear-capable hypersonic missiles. A popular Moscow weekly summed up the situation, “The Russian tactical nuclear arsenal dominates Europe…”

The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review report stated that "China, too, is modernizing and expanding its already considerable nuclear forces….China's military modernization has resulted in an expanded nuclear force, with little to no transparency into its intentions.” China is now engaged in a massive expansion of its strategic nuclear forces. It very much looks like China is engaged in a “Sprint To Nuclear Superiority.” The 350-400 DF-41 large ICBM silos now under construction have the potential to carry 3,500-4,000 nuclear warheads. This is only a part of Chinese strategic modernization.

No one expected such a large and rapid expansion in Chinese nuclear forces in 2018. Indeed, China may have a much larger stockpile of nuclear weapons, particularly nonstrategic nuclear weapons, than they are generally given credit with.[6] The biggest difference in estimates of the current Chinese nuclear weapons number is in the estimates for Chinese nonstrategic nuclear weapons. For example, The South China Morning Post reported that "…a source close to the Chinese military said that its stockpile of nuclear warheads had risen to 1,000 in recent years, but less than 100 of them are active.” "Active" is apparently a reference to storing nonstrategic nuclear weapons separate from their delivery systems. China, through its English language mouthpiece Global Times, has indicated that the annual Pentagon report estimate of the “low-200s” for the Chinese nuclear weapons inventory understates the current Chinese arsenal and that the Pentagon number is what they reportedly had in the 1980s.

Recently, the Chinese Communist Party has been threatening nuclear first use and continuous nuclear strikes against Japan. While there have been occasional threats from Chinese generals before, a direct linkage to the Chinese Communist Party is new, and the formulation goes well beyond anything we have heard in the past.

The U.S. 2018 Nuclear Posture Review report states, "North Korea is illicitly developing a range of strategic and nonstrategic nuclear systems to threaten the United States, allies, and partners. It may mistakenly perceive that these systems, when coupled with the threat of a strategic nuclear attack against the United States, would provide advantageous nuclear escalation options in crises or conflict.” North Korea probably has more nuclear weapons than then they are generally credited with. Almost all estimates of the number of North Korean nuclear weapons assume an unreasonable large amount of fissile material necessary to make a bomb.

In May 2021, General Paul LaCamera, then-nominated to be the next commander of U.S. forces in South Korea, stated, “In January of this year, [North Korean leader] Kim Jong-un announced plans and programs to expand its nuclear deterrent, specifically, the development of miniaturized nuclear warheads, tactical nuclear weapons, and even multiple independently-targetable reentry vehicles.” The development of MIRV warheads implies a relatively large and growing stockpile. The 2018 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review report lists 11 types of North Korean nuclear-capable ballistic missiles. This suggests a relatively large and growing nuclear arsenal. An important April 2021 Rand Corporation report concluded that:

…we estimate North Korea’s number of nuclear weapons from 2017 through 2027, with the starting value of 30 to 60 nuclear weapons in 2017, with one to two plutonium weapons added by 2020, and with the numbers growing by either 12 weapons per year (120 total by 2027) or 18 weapons per year (180 total by 2027). These estimates suggest that, in 2020, North Korea already could have had 67 to 116 nuclear weapons, and, by 2027, North Korea might have 151 to 242 nuclear weapons.

The assumption in the Rand report is that a nuclear weapon “requires 20 kg of HEU [highly enriched uranium].” HEU comprises and will comprise a large percentage of North Korean fissile material. It is clear that many types of nuclear weapons, particularly low-yield, do not require about 20-kg of HEU. It could be that essentially all open source estimates of the current and future North Korea nuclear capability dramatically underestimate the number of weapons.

Irrespective of whether one believes the high or low estimates of Russian, Chinese and North Korean nuclear capabilities, it is clear that these states have a monopoly on the deployment of both strategic and nonstrategic nuclear weapons and, critically, their capabilities are growing. Equally worrisome, they also have a monopoly on nonstrategic ballistic and cruise missile nuclear capabilities.

As a result of the 1991-1992 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives, the 2002 and the 2010 Nuclear Posture Reviews, the only tactical nuclear weapon retained by the U.S. was the B-61 nuclear bomb. The 2010 U.S. Nuclear Posture Review report recognized the importance of the forward deployment of nuclear weapons as part of extended deterrence but, regrettably, reduced our capability. It announced a bad decision eliminating the U.S. nuclear submarine-launched nuclear cruise missiles (SLCMs), arguing that, "The United States will retire the nuclear-equipped sea-launched cruise missile (TLAM-N). This system serves a redundant purpose in the U.S. nuclear stockpile. It has been one of a number of means to forward-deploy nuclear weapons in times of crisis. Other means include forward-deployment of bombers with either bombs or cruise missiles and forward-deployment of dual-capable fighters….The deterrence and assurance roles of TLAMN [Tomahawk nuclear land attack missile] can be adequately substituted by these other means, and the United States remains committed to providing a credible extended deterrence posture and capabilities." It also noted, "These decisions [the nuclear-capable F-35 and the B61-12 nuclear bomb] ensure that the United States will retain the capability to forward-deploy nonstrategic nuclear weapons in support of its Alliance commitments.”

The U.S. nuclear SLCM was hardly redundant. It was the only highly survivable U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapon that had been retained under the 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives. Delays in the availability of the B61-12 nuclear bomb and the F-35 have limited current U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons to older versions of the B61 with non-stealthy F-16s and F-15s as the delivery systems. The F-35s with the B61-12s will reportedly be deployed in Europe in 2022-2024. There is no indication that the F-15EX fighter will be nuclear-capable.

For a number of reasons, U.S. nuclear-capable heavy bombers, while capable of forward deployment, do not represent a good idea for projecting nonstrategic nuclear capability. They are old, carry old weapons and are limited in number. If forward based, they are less survivable.

Under the New START Treaty classification system, the U.S. has only 46 deployed nuclear-capable heavy bombers. The current U.S. penetrating bomber force consists of only 20 B-2s, of which only 11 are deployed. The main function of our heavy bombers is now conventional attack. Our heavy bombers carry a wide variety of conventional weapons. The U.S. B-52 carries the AGM-86B, an early 1980s vintage nuclear cruise missile that is now inadequate and declining in reliability and being a pre-stealth design. It is so old that the conventional version of it has been retired. In June 2017, General John Hyten, commander of the U.S. Strategic Command, said replacing the existing nuclear AGM-86B Air Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) is particularly needed because it is so old, “It’s a miracle that it can even fly,” and its reliability was “already unacceptable” and would get worse every year. The new nuclear ALCM, the LRSO, is about a decade in the future. The advanced nuclear-capable B-21 bombers will only begin to be deployed in the late 2020s. Until the new nuclear air-launched cruise missile is operational, the only thing it can deliver its nuclear bombs. This is hardly the best weapon against advanced air defenses.

The only improvement to U.S. strategic bomber capability until the B-21s come online will be the B61-12 bombs which are a nuclear JDAM. Yet, in 2017, General Herbert J. “Hawk” Carlisle, then-Commander of the Air Force Air Combat Command, stated that, "The Air Force also must have a follow-on to the Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) satellite-guided bomb that is stealthy and maneuverable enough to survive the last few miles of an attack on ever-improving air defense systems.” JDAMs have a small standoff range which could help stealth aircraft penetrate defenses. However, when depending on a 30 years old penetrating bomber, this is not a terribly great improvement. In the conventional realm, we do not rely on JDAMs to attack heavily defended targets.

Deterrence depends on survivability. There is no practical way of protecting heavy bombers with aircraft shelters (as is possible with fighter aircraft) from the massive Chinese force of medium- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles, not to mention the emerging threat of Chinese hypersonic missiles. Russia does not have the same number of nonstrategic nuclear missiles but still poses a serious threat and is ahead in developing and deploying hypersonic missiles. Hypersonic missiles have a shorter time of flight than ordinary ballistic missiles. This reduces the survivability of aircraft. Hence, relying on forward deployed heavy bombers to project extended nonstrategic nuclear deterrence against high-intensity threats does not seem to be very plausible, at least until we develop and deploy effective defenses against hypersonic missiles. Even then, the logic of the Triad applies just as well to nonstrategic nuclear weapons. It makes no sense to have a deterrent based solely on aircraft.

There are a number of reports, including Russian state media and U.S. Congressional Research Service, that the U.S. has removed one-third of its nuclear bombs from NATO Europe. According to Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda of the Federation of American Scientists:

The United States has one type of nonstrategic nuclear weapon in its stockpile, the B61 gravity bomb. The weapon exists in two modifications: the B61-3 and the B61-4. A third version, the B61-10, was retired in September 2016. Approximately 230 tactical B61 bombs of all versions remain in the stockpile. About 100 of these (versions −3 and −4) are thought to be deployed at six bases in five European countries: Aviano and Ghedi in Italy; Büchel in Germany; Incirlik in Turkey; Kleine Brogel in Belgium; and Volkel in the Netherlands. This number has declined since 2009 partly due to the reduction of operational storage capacity at Aviano and Incirlik (Kristensen 2015, 2019c). The remaining 130 B61s stored in the United States are for backup and potential use by U.S. fighter-bombers in support of allies outside Europe, including northeast Asia.

Sputnik News, which is Russian state media, also says that the U.S. has reduced its nuclear weapons in NATO Europe to 100 and “about 130 B61s [are] now said to be stored at bases in the U.S. and kept ready for operations in Asia or other locations outside Europe.” Again, Sputnik News has no motive to understate the number of U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons. According to Hans M. Kristensen and Matt Korda, “We estimate that approximately 1,800 [U.S.] warheads are currently deployed, of which roughly 1,400 strategic warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles and another 300 at strategic bomber bases in the United States. An additional 100 tactical bombs are deployed at air bases in Europe.” Note the absence of any indication of deployment of nonstrategic nuclear weapons at any fighter bases in the U.S.

In 2021, STRATCOM Commander Admiral Charles Roberts stated that two-thirds of U.S. nuclear weapons are “operationally unavailable." This seems consistent with the Kristensen/Corba numbers for deployed U.S. nuclear weapons.

Thus, there is a serious question of whether or not the U.S. has any real capability to forward deploy nonstrategic nuclear weapons to the Asia Pacific on any timely basis. It is not only the small number of U.S. nonstrategic nuclear weapons and the lack of stealthy delivery systems. To forward deploy nuclear weapons, it is necessary to have certified aircraft and crews to operate nuclear weapons and nuclear-certified maintenance and security forces. It is quite possible that such a capability does not really exist. There is certainly nothing in the annual presentations to the Congress concerning U.S. fighter capability that suggests there are any high readiness units based in the U.S. for deployment to Asia to deter Chinese, Russian and North Korean first use of nuclear weapons.

In the 2018 Nuclear Posture Review, the Trump administration decided to improve our deterrent against nonstrategic nuclear attack by deploying low-yield Trident missile warheads and developing nuclear submarine-launched cruise missiles. The number of low-yield Trident warheads is small. According to Hans Kristensen and Matt Corda, the number is under 25. Under the Biden Administration, both of these programs are apparently at risk since they are under attack from Russia and the American left.

The Navy slow-rolled the nuclear SLCM program, and in 2021 the Acting Secretary of the Navy terminated funding for the program. This was done without Pentagon leaders being consulted.

When Republican Senators challenged this decision, Secretary of Defense General (ret.) Lloyd Austin said he had “not seen the memo, but I would say that all of us, all the services, and the department, are again making tough choices in terms of what to prioritize and where to accept risk. That memo has to be pre-decisional because of where we are in the process.” This is a very bad signal about the Biden administration’s intent. Under current circumstances, cutting back on what can only be seen by our adversaries as a minimal deterrent capability would be irresponsible. It will not exactly reassure our Asian allies, particularly Japan. Termination of the U.S. nuclear SLCM program combined with little or no capability to forward deploy nonstrategic nuclear weapons on a timely basis would almost be inviting first use of nuclear weapons against us and our allies.

About this writer: Dr. Mark B. Schneider is a Senior Analyst with the National Institute for Public Policy. Before his retirement from the Department of Defense Senior Executive Service, Dr. Schneider served in a number of senior positions within the Office of Secretary of Defense for Policy including Principal Director for Forces Policy, Principal Director for Strategic Defense, Space and Verification Policy, Director for Strategic Arms Control Policy and Representative of the Secretary of Defense to the Nuclear Arms Control Implementation Commissions. He also served in the senior Foreign Service as a Member of the State Department Policy Planning Staff.

O Almighty Lord God, who neither slumberest nor sleepest; Protect and assist, we beseech thee, all those who at home or abroad, by land, by sea, or in the air, are serving this country, that they, being armed with thy defence, may be preserved evermore in all perils; and being filled with wisdom and girded with strength, may do their duty to thy honour and glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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