Should U.S. Allies in Asia Get Their Own Nukes?

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Should U.S. Allies in Asia Get Their Own Nukes?

With the U.S. stretched to provide a conventional deterrence, is it time to reconsider a fundamental policy?

Should U.S. Allies in Asia Get Their Own Nukes?
Credit: Reuters

The prospects for the U.S. being able to project its power and defend its allies in Asia are not good. The U.S. security guarantee – known as “extended deterrence” – was never really tested in Asia the way it was on a daily basis in Europe during the Cold War. Understandable, since Asia was not the global center of strategic gravity. But it is now. Military modernization and expansion by all the players is causing greater friction between the tectonic plates of Japan, China, South Korea, and the United States, testing the limits of U.S. extended deterrence, which currently minimizes the role of nuclear weapons. However, the very foundations of this concept were designed to deal with a land, European theater, not the Asian maritime environment.

Historically, the foundation of power projection has been sea-control. Since the end of World War Two, U.S. power in Asia has been uncontested. What contributed to making the U.S. such a decisive power there for over sixty years was a robust sea-control capacity with low risk, with therefore little cost. Since the late 90s, however, China has been gradually building up its sea-denial capabilities, which have progressively increased the costs for the U.S. to maintain sea-control. And as Hugh White and others have pointed out, whilst Washington has commitments all over the world, Beijing only has to focus all its military power in one area and focus on a denial strategy. And sea-denial is a lot easier than sea-control. What strategic effect does the U.S. want to achieve with the deployment of its forces? Is there a theory of victory? The vast logistical challenges of relying mainly on conventional forces for sea-control means that if Washington wants to keep playing the extended deterrence game, then nuclear weapons are going to have to feature much more prominently in American strategy.

Nuclear weapons are special. They “connect” allies (especially those in far-flung lands such as Australia) in a way that was not possible in the past without the protector state forward deploying substantial conventional forces to the ally’s territory – a costly exercise. In the conventional world, commitments need to be much more explicit and physically visible to appear credible. And that becomes more difficult and costly for the protector state depending on geography. Relatively less effort is needed when nuclear weapons are involved. Compared to Western Europe, the Asia-Pacific is a vast maritime environment, with many more actors , and allies that all have diverging interests. Big geography (the Pacific, Russia), and big military and industrial bases require big weapons (nuclear weapons) to reassure allies that the U.S. is capable of defending their vital interests in a major conflict. Currently, the role of nuclear weapons in U.S. policy is marginalized. It is not even clear what U.S. strategy in Asia actually is, let alone how nuclear weapons fit in the picture. But they should.

Whilst nuclear disarmament will not happen any time soon, lowering the stockpiles of the United States and Russia to a few hundred weapons each brings big issues of “conventional” strategy back to the surface. And these may be much harder to manage in a world where much more precise conventional systems (including ballistic and cruise missiles) take center stage. Furthermore, the proliferation of precision-strike weapons poses additional challenges for conventional deterrence. China, for instance poses a formidable arsenal of ballistic and cruise missiles. The nuclear aspect of U.S. extended deterrence has always been important for Seoul, Tokyo, and even Canberra. Conventional forces alone simply do not provide the same level of reassurance. Compared to Western Europe (which was never happy with a purely conventional deterrent anyway), there are immense logistical difficulties extending conventional deterrence in a maritime environment as vast as the Asia-Pacific. Tasks include the need to ensure the prompt replenishment of destroyed combat ships, establishing defensive perimeters for fleet support, and ensuring the safety of fleet replenishment oilers and dry cargo/ammunition supply ships, to name but a few. Meanwhile, the budget constraints of sequestration in 2013, coupled with longer-term financial uncertainty raise questions about the future of the U.S. Navy’s Military Sealift Command and its Combat Logistics Force. As David Gompert and Terrence Kelley have argued: “Air-Sea battle does not solve the underlying problem of U.S. forces’ growing vulnerability in the Western Pacific. That is the result of military-technological trends, geographic realities, and the limitations and costs of defending overseas deployments.” Europe was, and remains, one single geostrategic entity connected by land. In the Asia-Pacific, Japan, South Korea, Australia and Taiwan are more dispersed and far apart from each other, with neutral and non-aligned states dotted here and there in between. U.S. forces need to be able to move around a lot of vessels, aircraft, troops, and munitions. A significant problem here is that U.S. and allied air and naval bases in the western Pacific are vulnerable to Chinese conventional ballistic and cruise missile strikes. The closer the base is to Chinese territory, the more vulnerable it is. Guam is also within range of cruise missile strikes launched from aircraft and submarines.

Unless the U.S. maintains permanent bases on allied territory, it is not clear that the American military would be able to deploy replacement capabilities on short notice if its ships/aircraft carriers were destroyed. Consider the geographic setting. It is difficult to concentrate large numbers of strike aircraft other than on aircraft carriers (which are limited in number anyway), which substantially reduces sortie rates. As a recent RAND study shows, posturing high numbers of strike aircraft close to the enemy during interventions against Iraq’s attack on Kuwait and the Serbian atrocities in Bosnia-Herzegovina, allowed U.S. and coalition forces to generate high sortie rates and put a significant amount of ordnance on targets, making important contributions to victory. However, those were small adversaries that largely lacked the capabilities to strike U.S. bases and major weapons systems. That is not the case with China, which wields a formidable arsenal of cruise and ballistic missiles. True, placing more forces in-theater and closer to allies makes them highly vulnerable to enemy surprise attack. Then again, the same holds true for enemy forces, since closer basing results in shorter warning times for enemy forces, and compressed decision times for leaders. In addition, placing aircraft carriers away from enemy forces (to reduce vulnerability) in a crisis reduces sortie rates, thereby reducing the potency of the deterrent threat they can bring to bear. Penetrating long-range bombers may offer an advantage here, but they alone may not be sufficient to perform all war-fighting and deterrence tasks. In addition, having more shore-based ballistic missile defense (BMD) systems would reduce the demand for BMD ships, which are more vulnerable to enemy missiles.

Also, there are more air bases across the western Pacific islands suitable for aerial refueling tanker operations than there are for combat aircraft. A lack of bases greatly increases the demands and stress on an aerial fleet and the logistics involved in keeping U.S. forces adequately supplied. It also makes for significantly longer ship and submarine transit times to and from more distant resupply points. The U.S. Navy does not procure war reserve replacement equipment, weapons, or sensors. These items would need to be purchased and built at the outset of a war. Submarines and many surface combatants are unable to replenish their missile magazines without sailing back to the U.S. West Coast.

Indeed it is only now that U.S. planners are starting to think very seriously about the logistics and operational issues of extended deterrence in Asia, which were never given much attention because U.S. sea power in this region was never contested. A recent CSBA report points out many more of these issues: how quickly cruisers and destroyers exhaust their missiles; how adversaries will attempt to use “cheap” missiles (such as the BrahMos cruise missile) to attack U.S. warships to get them to use their most effective defenses first (such as the long-range SM-6), then strike with more effective weapons to destroy carriers and their escorts; the rate at which missiles can be launched; the amount and availability of sensor resources that can be devoted to BMD versus other missions (especially since the demand for BMD ships will likely increase given the proliferation of such systems); the capacity of combat logistics forces to cycle ammunition ships between rear bases and forward reloading areas; maintaining long-range, high capacity, carrier-based aerial refueling capabilities; the sustainability of different operational concepts over long periods of conflict; and ordnance consumption rates.

On July 31 2013, U.S. Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced that the Obama administration was considering reducing the number of carrier strike groups from 11 to perhaps 8 or 9, and to draw down the size of the Marine Corps from 182 000 to between 150,000 and 175,000. There are also concerns that the number of nuclear attack submarines could be reduced by 2020. The advanced conventional capabilities of the United States are produced in small numbers and take considerable time and money to make. Depending on where one draws the “starting line,” the duration of the design and development phase, the duration of production time can be long and variable. But in terms of production from a stable design, indicative figures for an F-35 or F-22 would be around three years. An Arleigh Burke-class destroyer requires four years, and an aircraft carrier six. While the F-35 program is a major expense, what is more significant is the time that it takes to build any of these critical systems.

Those problems are compounded by the estimated build rate of the Chinese ballistic missile inventory provided by the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments (CSBA). According to the authors of a CSBA report, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) inventory is likely to number in the thousands by the 2020s. China’s forces pale in comparison to U.S. forces in the region, but the major issue is that China holds home-court advantage in terms of political resolve in a conflict. And it is clear that Beijing has been trying to redress the military imbalance, including with land-attack cruise missiles and nuclear-powered submarines armed with ballistic missiles. As a result, U.S. bases are increasingly under threat from precision-strike systems. According to one report, Navy leaders do not believe the U.S. fleet’s carriers and destroyers have the anti-aircraft capacity to defend against modern air and missile threats, such as those posed by China, and lack the reach to defeat submarines and surface ships before they can attack with long range anti-ship cruise missiles. As a recent defense think tank reported, there are also major issues with the number of missiles that would be used in a confrontation with China. According to Bryan Clark from the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, “A cruiser or destroyer will exhaust its missiles relatively quickly against incoming missiles — about 50 incoming missiles will use up the inventory of air-defense weapons.” Even worse, a warship’s most effective defensive weapons — expensive long-range SM-6 Standard missiles — will probably be used up first, since they’ll be engaging missiles further away. An opponent could saturate a carrier strike group with cheap missiles, using up the defenses, then strike with effective weapons that would wipe out the carrier and its escorts. Not surprisingly, according to the report, that Navy leaders today do not believe U.S. warships have the anti-air warfare capacity to defend against modern air and missile threats.

Numbers are but one part of the story. What will be important is 1) which U.S. and Chinese ships, aircraft, and missiles are available at the outset of hostilities 2) how they perform in a particular military contingency, and 3) the resolve of both parties to achieve various military objectives. What malevolent behaviors will U.S. forces be postured to deter in the western Pacific? Will U.S. carriers even be able to get close enough to China’s shores to launch effective air strikes? Will U.S. naval vessels be “outgunned” by Chinese ships? Will China conduct conventional missile strikes against U.S. regional airbases, and how well would those airbases withstand attacks? For how long? How will China’s home-court advantage in logistics affect combat outcomes? How might the Chinese navy and air force project power beyond Taiwan against U.S. and allied forces? Again, resolve is a major issue here.

During much of the Cold War, the credibility of extended deterrence depended on Washington being able to show that it was capable and willing to “fight” a nuclear war. Hence the deployment of short and intermediate-range nuclear missiles, and concepts such as escalation control and damage limitation. The same issues hold true for conventional extended deterrence, except the challenges for U.S. forces in Asia are immense. If the U.S. cannot demonstrate its ability to fight a conventional war with China, then U.S. allies – Japan, South Korea, and Australia – will have to do a whole lot more for their own defense. Nuclear weapons helped prevent the Cold War from turning hot. In Asia they can stop a conventional arms race that is forcing the United States to invest in weapons that can block the Chinese military on its doorstep, thousands of miles from its own. America’s policy of opposing the proliferation of nuclear weapons needs to be more nuanced. It does not want Iran or Saudi Arabia to get the bomb, but why not Australia, Japan, and South Korea? It is opposed to nuclear weapons because they are the great military equalizer, because some countries may let them slip into the hands of terrorists, and because the U.S. has a significant advantage in precision conventional weapons. But its opposition to nuclear weapons in Asia means the U.S. is committed to a costly and risky conventional arms race with China over its ability to protect distant allies and partners lying nearer to China and spread over a vast maritime theater. But there is a better, cheaper way to provide security in Asia. Washington should encourage its allies to acquire their own nuclear weapons, and let its Asian allies defend themselves with the weapon that is the great equalizer.

Christine M. Leah is a Postdoctoral Associate in Grand Strategy at Yale University. Previously a Stanton Postdoctoral Fellow in Nuclear Security at MIT.