Contact Us   |    Join   |    Donate


Editor’s Note: As noted in the Comments in the front of this issue, the future of the Navy’s only theater nuclear capability is currently being debated. There are, of course, very important and equally complex questions on the national level concerning that future and we in the submarine community should be aware of those aspects of the debate since the capability exists only in the attack submarine force. On a somewhat more parochial note, we might observe that the potential use of theater nuclear weapons from the sea certainly must be counted among the most important in the never-ending “roles and missions” discussions which seem to set the tone for force structure decisions.

In the interest of integrity in the debate about the nuclear capability of the Submarine-Launched-Crulse-Missile THE SUBMARINE REVIEW offers three articles, two for and one against retention, in their author’s own unedited words, and without endorsement of any of the facts, histories or projections presented by them. What we do ask is that they be read and commented upon.


By CAPT William L. Norris, USN(Ret.)

Captain Bill Norris is a retired submariner who commanded USS MEMPHIS (SSN 691) and Submarine Squadron 111REE. He also served as Chief of the Nuclear Policy Branch, J5, on the Joint Staff. Currently, he is on the staff of Sandia National Laboratories.

Since President Bush directed the removal of the nuclear variant of the Tomahawk (fLAM/N) from all ships in the fall of 1991, there has been very little mention of this weapon system. Only several times since has the subject been surfaced. First, President Clinton decided, in his approval of the Nuclear Posture Review, to remove the TLAM/N capability from surface ships, retain it for submarines, and convert all surface ship variants to the encapsulated submarine version. As an aside, he also deleted the capability or requirement for naval aviation, planes, or carriers, to be nuclear-capable. Second, the Submarine Force is developing a stand-alone fire control system that will 80 Force is developing a stand-alone fire control system that will allow the standard submarine fire control systems to be unencumbered with the nuclear quality control requirements for each and every version and alteration/update. Third, the Navy is consolidating its nuclear storage of these weapons from weapon stations to the Strategic Weapons Facilities.

The other concern one might hear is the annual verification of the capability of some of our SSNs to load and employ TLAM/N or the periodic nuclear weapon inspections. As with any verification or inspection, there are even more questions of why we are doing this to ourselves with a weapon system we don’t carry on a normal basis. This is accentuated by those who proclaim the non-utility of nuclear weapons. It may also be questioned by those who see the nuclear variant of the Tomahawk configured much as it was in 1991, while we are making state-of-the-art improvements to the conventional version of electronics and guidance systems. And one might also ask why the air-launched version of this system, Air-Launched Cruise Missile (ALCM) or Advanced Cruise Missile (ACM), might not be used in lieu of the submarine capability.

These would all appear to be valid concerns. Let’s look at how they might be answered. First, the world has changed greatly since President Bush first directed TLAM/N removal. The Berlin Wall and the Soviet Union have ceased to exist. The modified START Treaty has been ratified, ST ART Il has been negotiated, ratified by our Senate, modified at Helsinki (and formally documented in the accords recently signed by the U.S. and Russia at the United Nations in New York}, and awaits ratification by the Russian Duma and Re-ratification, as modified, by our Senate. A START m Treaty is being worked quietly in the hope that START II will be ratified and it will be the next arms control step, or if START II is not ratified, it can take its place.

One might ask how a strategic nuclear treaty affects a non-strategic, or tactical, nuclear weapon like TLAM/N. The answer is: it doesn’t, directly. But, as always, the devil’s in the details. Let me digress. All of the START treaties have reduced the number of strategic systems. But in START m, the arms control community may be altering its focus. Not only is it again reducing the overall numbers, this time probably to 2000-2500, but strong consideration is being given to counting actual strategic nuclear weapons and not delivery capability. If so, that would represent a roughly 75 percent warhead reduction between START and 81 START m. This will probably require a national targeting policy modification, meaning that every weapon will be needed, and dictating that any double coverage of even the most important targets may no longer be possible. And with the B-2, the bomber force will shift from a predominate cruise missile force to a predominate gravity bomb force. So, making the greatly reduced number of ALCMs or ACMs available for non-strategic missions may be more difficult.

In the initial discussions of what START m might be, the subject of non-strategic weapons has arisen. The United States would very much like to see the Russian numbers markedly decrease. The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) was used in discussions several years ago as an example for the Russians to follow in reducing both strategic and non-strategic arsenals. (‘The NPR reduced the U.S. requirements for U.S. non-strategic nuclear weapons to less than 1000.) The Russians were believed to have in excess of 10,000 non-strategic weapons at the time. Their response was something like they’d be glad to reduce their numbers if we’d trade them Canada and Mexico for their southern neighbors like China, India, Iran, Iraq, etc. Islamic fundamentalism in these border areas as well as their conventional forces’ performance in Chechnya, can’t be making the Russians feel any more secure. It is believed that they may have now defined this non-strategic nuclear weapon requirement at about 3500 non-strategic weapons.

One should also look at ST ART Ill as the last bilateral arms control treaty. Going below 2000 cannot be done without including the other nuclear powers. Russian paranoia about nuclear encirclement will mandate it. START m may also be the last arms control treaty not to include all nuclear weapon types. If you believe the premises in the above two paragraphs, the United States is presently negotiating a treaty that would allow the other side to keep more non-strategic weapons than strategic weapons and that would seem to give an overall total ratio of around 6000 Russian to 3500 U.S. nuclear weapons. Can we reduce strategic weapons further in the next treaty and not address this discontinuity, even if the Russians are our new friends?

Back to the subject at hand. The only presently dedicated non-strategic substitutes for the TLAM/N are the gravity-dropped bombs from our Air Force brethren on their F-15s and F-16s, called Dual Capable Aircraft (DCA). The Air Force has never forgiven the Navy for leaving them holding the nuclear bag by 82 first, being able to put the aircraft carrier nuclear weapons capability on a three-year reconstitution basis and then; its deletion in the NPR. During the NPR, there was significant lobbying by the Air Force to reduce or delete their non-strategic requirements, also. The new Chief of Staff of the Air Force was one of the lobbyists. One of their main whines concerned the pressures of the nuclear certification and maintenance on the poor, overworked aircrews as they strived to maintain their other aviation and precision-guided munitions skills, perceived as more of an immediate need and as more professionally enhancing. (‘There was no mention of any similar concerns for or problems in the Submarine Force. I guess that’s the penalty for doing well and passing inspections.) The political commitment to NATO was the main sticking point for the Air Force, and if one believes the 3500 Russian non-strategic number, it is doubtful if NATO is willing to give up its only intrinsic, multilateral non-strategic nuclear capability, albeit if significantly numerically inferior.

But aside from NATO, there may be significant other problems in bringing DCA to bear in countries where nuclear weapons don’t exist today. It remains to be seen whether even allies would allow the entry and basing of nuclear weapons during the building crisis or after it fully blossoms. In some cases, the weapons might be more at risk if introduced into a nation near or in any stage of a crisis.

There are pros and cons with either DCA or TLAM/N. The survivability of an airplane that must nearly over-fly the target in today’s air warfare environment is more problematic than it used to be. On the other hand. TLAM/N is a sub-sonic missile that is an easy target once detected. The DCA pilot can visually identify his target, while the TLAM/N relies on the accuracy of pre-flight programming. The DCA can be recalled up to the release point. (This may not be 100 percent reliable considering the pilot is flying low and fast and avoiding trouble many miles from the nearest ground transmitter and probably has no line of sight to it, but depending on the presence of AWACs aircraft, it may be an improving chance.) The TLAM/N is unrecallable after launch on flights that may be in excess of two hours. The targets for TLAM/N must be on the fire control disks when the submarine dives on leaving port, while the DCA target can be selected and planned shortly before take-off. The DCA strike may be more recognizable because of the number of supporting aircraft that will 83 probably be used.

So the answer. on balance, is that the TLAM/N is very evenly matched with the only other U.S. tactical nuclear weapon system. The numbers are definitely with the DCA, but the global flexibility with the TLAM/N. With the START II treaty moving toward a non-strategic nuclear weapons ratio of 3500 Russian weapons to less than 1000 U.S. weapons, there will be little political pressure to further cut non-strategic numbers or missions until the Russians do. It will be hard to envision how the administration spin doctors will play this inequity. Numbers have never been a total defining factor of balance, but perceptions are often viewed as, become, reality.

So what should be the Submarine Force position with respect to TLAM/N? First, we should be hesitant to surrender any mission to which we still are ideally suited and capable. As the numbers of nuclear weapons continue to shrink and our arsenal continues to age, the need for this system may well increase as both a non-strategic asset and a backup to the failure of some strategic system. We should always stay away from single points or failures by allowing our country just one option, or our potential enemy just one threat against which he needs to defend. [Emphasis added by Editor.] (Caspar Weinberger portrayed just such an
the unfavorable scenario in his recent book, The Next War.)

Second, just as the Submarine Force has always done, make sure this is not a paper capability. That is not to say. make it a primary mission, but we should balance its importance against our numerous other commitments and capabilities. As with all nuclear systems, the goal is deterrence and not its use. But deterrence requires a three-pronged approach: capability, ability to employ, and the will to employ. Lose one, and you have a
hollow threat, and consequently, no mission. [Emphasis added by Editor.]

Third, make sure that there continues to be money in the budget to maintain the technical viability of this system. As the Friedmans wrote in their book, The Future of War, history is replete with examples of weapon development, countermeasure development, weapon improvement, countermeasure improvement, etc. Only those intimately involved in TLAM/N management today know where we are on that path, but we must not let the capabilities of our conventional and nuclear delivery systems diverge.

Naval Submarine League

© 2022 Naval Submarine League