At the March 1997 Helsinki Summit, Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin agreed that they would, as issues separate from ST ART m negotiations, explore measures for the possible reduction of tactical nuclear systems and nuclear sea-launched cruise missiles (SLCMs-synonymous with a nuclear version of the Tomahawk cruise missile TLAM/N). Despite the Russians’ publicly heralded increasing reliance on tactical nuclear weapons, their historical attempts to limit United States SLCMs indicate that these discussions will go forward. The United States must now decide if we want nuclear SLCMs brought under arms control agreements, and if so, the types of limitations we will accept. The forthcoming negotiations must take into account not just nuclear SLCMs, but the total nuclear force package and the effect that nuclear SLCM limits will have in both warfighting and political arenas.
Should we place limits on or ban nuclear SLCMs? The answer will depend on how we answer two further questions: What do we hope to gain by doing so; and what abilities or capabilities are we negotiating away to achieve that gain? This question must be addressed from a strategy and policy approach, not driven by programmatic or fiscal constraints. There are those who argue that the nuclear SLCM capability competes with the Navy’s other primary missions; that the weapon is obsolete and requires upgrade; that the capability takes too long to generate and that alternate systems do the job better; and that the planning is labor-intensive and non-responsive. It is true that the financial support for the program has not kept pace with the true deterrent power that the weapon possesses. But, to these critics, I submit that the true issue lies in the increased risk of aggression abroad with the loss of the nuclear SLCM deterrent power, not in the modest financial gains from eliminating our nuclear SLCM capability.
In 1991, President Bush removed all non-strategic nuclear 93 weapons from naval ships as part of a broader effort to reduce the nuclear stockpile and lessen reliance on tactical nuclear weapons (the ability to regenerate nuclear-armed attack submarines has been retained). Additionally, in compromising to a Russian attempt to ban long-range nuclear SLCMs during the 1991 START I negotiations, the United States agreed to limit the inventory of nuclear SLCMs, agreed to place no more than one warhead on a nuclear SLCM, and agreed to provide Russia with information concerning nuclear SLCM deployment. Since 1991, the United States and NATO have significantly reduced their non-strategic nuclear weapons. Additionally, the United States has declared annually since 1992 that no nuclear SLCMs are deployed.
Russia responded with similar pledges, and while they have removed nuclear SLCMs from submarines, funding shortfalls and a focus on dismantling strategic systems have prevented them from fulfilling reduction pledges. The deterioration of Russia’s conventional military and increasing reliance on nuclear weapons makes it unlikely that those pledges will be carried out in the near future. Maintaining a large non-strategic stockpile, exempt from arms control initiatives, provides the Russians with a high level of security comfort as they dismantle their heavier strategic assets and move to a more mobile and agile nuclear force structure.
What is at Stake?-flexible Deterrence
Our only remaining nuclear SLCM, the submarine-launched TLAM/N is a credible nuclear option available to regional CINCs. As the United States faces the fiscal reality of a smaller military force structure with fewer forward-deployed forces, the ability to perform our primary task, to deter conflict, becomes increasingly more difficult. How do we deter the North Koreans from relieving their country’s blight by invading the South with the use of weapons of mass destruction? How do we deter a headline-hungry terrorist group from bombing the World Trade Center? How do we deter the Russians from deploying a submarine, capable of the launching of non-strategic nuclear weapons, to the eastern seaboard of the U.S.? A well-executed employment strategy of the TLAM-/N could play an important role in such an adversary’s decision
Deterrence in a crisis involves expressing our national commit-94 meant to thwart aggression by enhancing U.S. warfighting capability in the theater. Deterrence is based on fear and perception, so that the potential adversary will calculate the likelihood of success as so uncertain and risks so excessive that there is no incentive for the attack. A covert submarine, lurking in the backyard of an adversarial country, ready to launch a nuclear weapon at a moment’s notice, is a big stick that weighs heavily in the minds of those who consider the consequences of using military force for political ends. It is a flexible deterrent against a myriad of threats and a powerful political tool to convince an adversary that seeking a military solution would be futile. Submarines are non-provocative until the right moment when informing the aggressor of their presence makes a potent political statement. This option poses little risk to our operating forces and does not require foreign basing or over-flight permission to support a strike. This is a significant advantage over dual-capable aircraft or continental-based bombers. To unilaterally squander the capability without advancing our own national security objectives would be a travesty. We must carefully consider the lost deterrence value before we abolish or trade it away. Who are the potential adversaries in the next decade and what is the negotiating power necessary for ST ART VII or VIll? Force structure decisions must be farsighted, not for small gains today, but for long-term stability and security.
It is true that nuclear SLCMs are somewhat destabilizing, but it is from their uncertainty and utility that they derive a deterrent power and if the opportunity presents itself, a negotiation power. These compact and mobile devices have identical conventional counterparts so they are difficult to locate and account for, difficult to find when forward deployed, and an insurmountable challenge to counter after launch. They are considered to be more a proportional response than the use of a heavier strategic asset. Russia understands the deterrent power of a nuclear SLCM poised in their backyard because, as human nature dictates, they fear the unknown and they have no defense against such an unlocatable threat. As a result, they urge us to bring it to the negotiation tables. But just as any shrewd businessman proceeds with caution when negotiating a contract, our arms control teams must understand the pitfalls associated with the process.
Proceed with Caution-Arms Negotiation Pitfalls
The removal of nuclear SLCMs from both the United States and Russian arsenals would enhance strategic stability and may provide the United States negotiating leverage to achieve objectives in the transparency of, and limitations on, non-strategic nuclear forces. It is in our national interest to limit or abolish nuclear systems that are, or could be, arrayed against us. Since the ratification of the Non-Proliferation Treaty in 1968, it has been national policy to proceed to the eventual goal of eliminating all nuclear weapons provided the specific international preconditions are met. As the strategic nuclear arsenal is reduced with ongoing arms control initiatives, the nuclear SLCM force becomes a more important player in the world nuclear chess game. Negotiations, however, must be carefully crafted to ensure that this initiative does not come at the cost of limitations on our conventional warfighting capabilities.
The United States has developed far more mission applications for its cruise missiles than has Russia. Where the U.S. Navy has rolled SLCM strategy and tactics into almost all operational deployments, Russia seems to view their land attack SLCMs as little more than a hedging device in arms control negotiations. Russia is concerned that highly accurate U.S. conventional SLCMs could be used in a strategic role to attack command and control centers and other vital installations. They may attempt to group and place limits on all (nuclear and non-nuclear) long-range SLCMs. This is a pitfall we must avoid. With the proliferation of conventional technology throughout the globe, bilateral conventional SLCM limitations lessen our security posture and make us vulnerable to the rest of the world.
The Russians may tie nuclear SLCM negotiations directly to U.S. submarine operations. These operations have always been a great concern for the Russians and they have often linked the issue to a variety of negotiation initiatives. We anticipate that they will continue to want to trade operating areas for weapon options. They may attempt to assuage concerns about short-range nuclear SLCMs by proposing submarine exclusion zones along each nation’s coast where the other nation would not be allowed to operate. Any such zones would be unacceptable because such restrictions would contradict our stalwart support of worldwide 96 freedom of navigation.
Preventing the Russians from linking the TLAM/N to conventional warfighting capabilities will be a challenge, but perhaps not nearly the challenge of verifying nuclear SLCM limitation agreements. Our arms control teams know about removing warheads from strategic missiles and destroying launchers, but they know little about Russian stockpile management or warhead reversibility. How will we verify the process without being overly intrusive? There are no observable differences between a nuclear and conventional cruise missile variant. The best course of action may be to verify that the shipboard launch capability no longer exists, through the absence of training and the removal of systems. Of course, a total ban of nuclear SLCMs is much easier to verify than any limitation agreement. In any case, initiatives that increase Russian stockpile transparency as a part of nuclear SLCM negotiations would enhance our confidence and trust and perhaps reduce the probability of unauthorized use or theft of Russian non-strategic nuclear forces.
Where Do We Go From Here?
The nuclear SLCM provides the theater CINC with a credible nuclear deterrent capability that must not be squandered. The disposition of the 11.AM/N belongs on the arms control negotiation table, not on the domestic agenda for those seeking a source of revenue for under-funded programs. The capability must be preserved as a ready-to-use flexible deterrent in case of regional crisis and as a bargaining chip for future arms control negotiations. Although these negotiations have associated pitfalls, there is great potential to enhance our national security at the expense of this capability. If we can significantly reduce the nuclear threat arrayed against us, like the formidable Russian non-strategic arsenal, by negotiating to limit or remove a capability for which we have other contingencies-we have won. If we unilaterally dissolve an important deterrent force and powerful negotiating hedge without a proportional gain in national security-we have lost. [Emphasis added by Editor.]