The Strategic Posture Commission Report contains at least one outright howler — the claim that the deployment of nuclear-armed cruise missiles is essential to extended deterrence in Asia:
In Asia, extended deterrence relies heavily on the deployment of nuclear cruise missiles on some Los Angeles class attack submarines—the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile/Nuclear (TLAM/N). This capability will be retired in 2013 unless steps are taken to maintain it. U.S. allies in Asia are not integrated in the same way into nuclear planning and have not been asked to make commitments to delivery systems. In our work as a Commission it has become clear to us that some U.S. allies in Asia would be very concerned by TLAM/N retirement.
Let’s be very, very clear that “as a result of the President’s 1991 Nuclear Initiatives, all TLAM/N nuclear weapons have been removed from U.S. Navy vessels.”
So, if extended deterrence to Japan relied heavily on the deployment of nuclear cruise missiles on some Los Angeles-class attack submarines, we would be hosed.
Look, I really don’t care if we store some TLAM/Ns at SWFPAC to make the Japanese feel better. Hell, I’d even let DOD commission some bizarre TLAM/N anime, like Rocket Girls (below), if I thought it would ease anxiety in Tokyo. Whatever floats your boat; just leave me out of it.
But let’s not pretend these useless relics of the Cold War sitting in a climate-controlled warehouse are all that stand between us and nuclear-armed Japan. Because they aren’t.
As part of my project at the New America Foundation, we undertook a pretty serious round of consultations with Japanese experts and officials on extended deterrence. (The crucial thing I learned is that Nobu Tokyo is a lot like Nobu New York.)
No one brought up the TLAM/N. Seriously, I have my notes. That doesn’t mean that the idea isn’t kicking around Japanese defense circles. I know others have looked at the same question, including whether TLAM/N re-deployment would be a good idea. But, when we mentioned the re-deployment of nuclear weapons on submarines or surface ships, we got the same amount of teeth-sucking for adding capabilities as we did for decreasing them.
The debate in Washington, I think, starts from a mistaken assumption. It is not the case that, if the US reduces the credibility of its extended deterrent, the Japanese will just build nuclear weapons to make up the difference.
On the contrary, there is no mainstream constituency in Japan for an independent nuclear deterrent. If you want to know where Japan is heading, read this article by Hajime Izumi and Katsuhisa Furukawa. Across the political spectrum, Japanese policy-makers realize that an independent nuclear deterrent would destroy the US-Japan bilateral relationship — a bilateral relationship to which Japan has no alternative.
It is this lack of viable geopolitical alternatives to the U.S. alliance that creates an extreme risk-aversion among Japanese policymakers to any change in U.S. nuclear policy, good or bad. An analogy might be the irrational fear of flying in some people – an anxiety that results from a sense of having little or no control over one’s fate.
The solution to this sort of anxiety isn’t to retain obsolete capabilities like the TLAM/N, any more than Aunt Ginny should skip her daughter’s wedding because she hates airplanes.
Take this thought experiment: What if a Japanese official suggested, in addition to the TLAM/N, that we design a new low-yield, earth penetrating nuclear weapon (PLYWD)? — “a weapon that does not make strategic or political sense” to borrow a phrase?
Would you do something dumb just because the Japanese asked you to? Of course not. That some Japanese officials irrationally focus on irrelevant capabilities to measure our commitment to Japan is a symptom of a much bigger problem that needs to be addressed with more than hardware.
Instead of TLAM/N or PLYWD, we need to do a better job of consulting Japan on a range of issues, from North Korea to nuclear posture. The truth is that if we get the big questions right — a good Ambassador to Japan, close cooperation to denuclearize the North Korean peninsula, making sure the President stops in Tokyo before he stops in Beijing — then the deployment or retirement of the TLAM/N won’t make any difference. And if we get those so horribly wrong that Tokyo is seriously contemplating building nuclear weapons, then the TLAM/N definitely won’t make any difference.
So, rather than keeping the TLAM/N in storage (or god forbid re-arming and re-certifying the SSNs, reviving RNEP or exploring some low-yield concepts), the Obama Administration needs to focus on the the political side of extending deterrence.
One option — which the Strategic Posture Commission did recommend — is to conduct consultations similar to those in the NATO Nuclear Planning Group (and its subsidiary High Level Group) with Japan, as well as Australia and South Korea. This is routinely done with non-nuclear members of NATO and would be considerably more effective than a handful of cruise missiles in storage.
We might still think about funding that the TLAM/N anime, though. Two words: Action Figures. (Seriously, it’s a real doll. Grown-ups buy this stuff.)
So why did this evident bit of silliness make it into the report?
The other Perry report — the CFR Task Force on U.S. Nuclear Weapons Policy — by contrast, does not single out the TLAM/N as central to extended deterrence in Asia. Perry and Scowcroft do mention, in passing, the existence of several hundred “warheads devoted to shorter range weapon delivery systems, including Tomahawk submarine launched cruise missiles (none of which are deployed) and B61-3/4 tactical bombs.”
The issue is a hobby horse for James Schlesinger, Vice-Chairman of the Strategic Posture Commission. The Secretary of Defense Task Force on DOD Nuclear Weapons Management, which Schlesinger chaired, also mentioned the TLAM/N — in fact, the Phase II Final Report mentioned the TLAM/N 42 times in 108 pages, including expressing frustration that no one in the Navy seems to share Jimbo’s deep love of the TLAM/N:
The Task Force found no COCOM, Joint Staff, or Navy advocacy for the nuclear sea-launched cruise missile capability provided by the TLAM-N. This lack reflects a failure to recognize the important deterrent capability of the TLAM-N that would give the President a degree of flexibility for escalation control and extended deterrence on behalf of our allies.
The sordid story of the TLAM/N is an indication of how much influence a single-minded member of a consensus oriented Commission can wield, even if he is wrong. That’s a lesson worth keeping in mind when reading the report.