Representative Trent Franks (R-AZ) successfully sponsored an amendment to the House version of the FY2013 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) that would require Defense and State to submit a report on redeploying tactical nuclear weapons removed from South Korea in 1991, although the language is slightly more delicate in referring to the “Western Pacific.”

“What will they want next?” my colleague Jon Wolfsthal asked, “an MC Hammer comeback tour?”

Oh boy. Where to start?

1.

First, there is no military purpose for placing B61 gravity bombs in South Korea. Look, I am all for studying improved earth penetrators, but those are coming on B-2 bombers out of Missouri. I can’t come up with a single, credible scenario to use a B61 off the wing of a fighter aircraft operating from South Korea. Moreover, the United States would need to construct new hardened shelters to house redeployed nukes in South Korea* and stand up a unit to handle them.** The Air Force would hate this idea. And then there are the South Koreans. Some political figures may call for the reintroduction of nuclear weapons, but look at South Korea as a whole. Tens of thousands of people turned out in Seoul to protest Lee Myun Bak’s decision to allow the importation of US beef. These people rioted over the introduction of American hamburgers. Let’s not try nuclear weapons, OK?

Second, the US isn’t going to have B61s much longer. As I noted last year, the B61 Life Extension Program is in terrible, terrible trouble — largely because certain nuclear weapons afficionados insisted on a politically-driven exercise to implement as many technical changes as possible without regard to managing program risk. As a result, the cost for the program has now ballooned to $6 billion. You think the Air Force is going to spend several million to make the F-35 nuclear-capable when they are worried that cost growth will endanger the entire program? This whole enterprise has been seriously mismanaged. In 2010 and 2011, I warned that pointing to the F-35 and B61 as tangible symbols of our commitment to certain allies was a dumb idea. (“Still, I have my doubts about the viability of both the B61 LEP and the plan to make the F-35 nuclear-capable. Some future Administration is going to have to explain that the 2010 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) didn’t really mean what it said about forward-deployed nuclear weapons on tactical aircraft.”)

So, you know, apart from not having the bombs, airplanes, shelters, or people, redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to South Korea is a great fucking idea.

2.

But that’s not what really irritates me. Congress does dumb stuff all the time in the name of grandstanding. What really bothers me is that the study, as it is framed, misses a wonderful opportunity to ask a serious question. Every time I give a talk about extended deterrence, I make the case for someone, anyone to start thinking about how best to extend deterrence from our strategic triad.

The overall direction of the current budgetary environment is totally clear: With the impending retirement of the nuclear-armed Tomahawk (TLAM/N), the B61 is the last tactical nuclear weapons system. It has no support from US Air Forces Europe (USAFE) or the Air Force as a whole. Sooner or later, the B61 goes down too, and all we’re going to have are the capabilities embodied in the strategic triad of Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs), Submarine Launched Ballistic Missiles (SLBMs) and heavy bombers. It’s time to start thinking about ways to use these capabilities to reassure our allies.

  • My personal favorite suggestion is to resume visits by SSBNs or, in the case of politically sensitive countries like Japan, the four ballistic missile submarines converted to carry only conventional weapons (Guided Missile Submarines or SSGNs). When the Carter Administration reduced US nuclear weapons in South Korea, it inaugurated a series of SSBN visits to illustrate the continuing US commitment. It is impossible to assess how effective such visits were given how terribly Carter and Park Chung Hee got on, but the idea was, I think, basically sound. I know, for example, that certain European countries would be just as satisfied with SSBN visits as with forward-deployed aircraft. Or, at least, specific people in the correct jobs have said as much.
  • Another idea is to invite allied militaries to place liaison officers at United States Strategic Command (STRATCOM). STRATCOM’s mission is broad enough — it encompasses cyber areas, for instance — that countries with nuclear allergies could still participate. Why not invite a Japanese liaison officer with expertise on Chinese cyberwarfare capabilities? They have to have at least one, right?
  • I am rather less a fan of “forward deployment” of the B-2 bomber, if only because the US wouldn’t actually forward-deploy B-2s to use nuclear weapons. Call me crazy, but I don’t like reassuring allies with lies.
  • Finally, it’s now common to call for relying more on consultations than hardware, but let me make a specific recommendation about the agenda for consultations. The Obama Administration did a great job of consulting with Japan during the Nuclear Posture Review, but it is less clear to me that those consultations have been sustained. The US and ROK established an Extended Deterrence Policy Committee, which is a great idea, but I’ve heard less about comparable Japanese institutions. Perhaps that’s intentional. In any event, one of the challenges is how to consult with allies that have no operational role in nuclear missions. What is there to talk about? Who do we even talk to? Fortunately, STRATCOM seems to be moving, in the Deterrence JOC and other areas, toward a conception of deterrence that is not specific to nuclear weapons, but rather focused on a spectrum of capabilities including missile defenses and conventional strike. Our own evolution in thinking about deterrence offers an opportunity to have a frank discussion with certain allies about the role that nuclear weapons do, and more importantly do not, play in their security.

The Senate will, of course, have a chance to respond to the House language. Rather than just eliminate the study, which responds to a reasonable concern about North Korea’s myriad provocations albeit in an entirely unreasonable manner, the Senate might propose a broader study, not limited to the Western Pacific, about how to strengthen extended deterrence in an era of budget austerity, with a particular emphasis on how to get more reassurance out of the capabilities we have. That seems rather more productive than asking for studies of things that won’t happen.

OK, you’ve been very patient since I opened with the MC Hammer joke. Here you go:

* The shelters themselves are probably relatively cheap. The USAF spent $214 million over 1994/1995 to build 215 shelters. In 2012 dollars, that works out to about $1.3 million per shelter. If you build 11 shelters, which is about standard from looking at airbases in Europe, you have my estimate of $15 million. That’s a rough calculation based on secondary sources — so caveat emptor — but still the cost of shelters is probably in the tens-of-millions-of-dollars range. One option, I suppose, would be to let the ROKs pay for the construction of the appropriate shelters, without committing to filling them with nuclear weapons.

** I originally wrote Munitions Support Squadron (MUNSS), but that was me being lazy. Kunsan is a US airbase, so the existing munitions squadron would assume the responsibilities, although this would not be a trivial alteration in mission. MUNSS are units that, as best I can tell, exist to support allied aircraft with DCA (dual-capable aircraft).

Updates | 12 May 2012 8:13 PST A “military source” tells conservative Chosun Ilbo that the “amendment adopted by the U.S. House Armed Services Committee to redeploy tactical nuclear weapons in the Korean Peninsula will hurt attempts to resolve the North Korean nuclear weapon issues.”  The article also manages to completely foul up the issue of nuclear weapons yields.

Also, I noticed that KCNA is now offering more detailed (though still false) claims that the US has nuclear weapons in South Korea. This is nonsense, but I’ll probably try to figure out what KCNA is sourcing.  The story refers to a “report” from the ROK National Assembly dated October 9, 2005 and a “confidential document of the U.S. forces declassified in December 2010.”

Finally, in response to a commenter, I tried to reduce the overall acronym burden.