Should U.S. tactical nukes Return to Asia? Probably not. A new Project Atom report includes among its recommendations the U.S. forward deployment of “tactical” nuclear weapons.
I can think of very few reasons why redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to Asia would be a good idea, and many reasons why it would be a terrible one.
There’s no consensus definition of what constitutes a tactical nuclear weapon, but considering the various things it’s used to describe—suitcase nuclear bombs, nuclear artillery, short-range nuclear missiles, nuclear depth charges, or “battlefield” nuclear weapons—it’s clear that tactical nuclear weapons are considered eminently usable nuclear weapons in the context of military planning.
As a brief historical primer, the United States first moved to adopt tactical nuclear weapons during the Cold War, initially deployed to Europe as a means of offsetting Soviet superiority in conventional ground forces. They gained strategic relevance in U.S. military circles at the height of the nuclear arms race with the Soviet Union, and by the 1970s the United States had more than 7,300 tactical nuclear weapons in the European theater alone. All that came to an end in 1991 when President George H.W. Bush unilaterally announced the near total global withdrawal of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons, including from Asia. By 1994, some 90% of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons had been decommissioned.
For advocates of the nuclear taboo, who believe nuclear weapons should be stigmatized because of their grotesquely destructive power, this was of course a great moment. The tactical turn in U.S. nuclear doctrine had always militated against the notion of stigmatization because they served a purpose other than mutually assured destruction, and that was something that many considered dangerous (though contemporary American attitudes seem to not view nuclear use as taboo as once thought).
But now, a sub-community in U.S. defense policy seeks their return, principally for the purpose of maintaining credible extended deterrence commitments. The Project Atom report suggests some implied reasons as well, like preventing further nuclear proliferation, but these are ancillary arguments founded on muddled causal claims.
As I recently wrote in Foreign Policy, U.S. extended deterrence commitments—especially in Asia—are something of a necessary evil. In my conversations with experts from Australia, Japan, and South Korea over the years (and contrary to the opinions I brought with me when I entered government service), I’ve concluded that these states are signatories of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty and have not gone nuclear mostly because of the U.S. nuclear umbrella extended to them, not because of any nuclear taboo per se. Put another way, U.S. extended deterrence is, paradoxically, a necessary condition for the norm against nuclear proliferation to obtain.
How, then, can I or anyone else argue against redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons? I can think of at least four reasons why this is a bad idea, and that excludes the now forgotten argument from the Cold War that tactical nuclear weapons don’t deter adversaries any better than conventional forces. Taken together, redeploying tactical nuclear weapons to Asia in particular seems likely to stir up more trouble than the decision would be worth.
First, bringing tactical nuclear weapons back puts the United States in an eventual lose-lose situation, stemming from either a mistaken understanding about what makes extended deterrence commitments credible, or mistaken understanding about the risk propensities of civilian leaders. In other words, either we deploy them with no intent to use them, in which case we put our own credibility at risk by bluffing, or we do intend to use them under certain conditions but refuse to pull the trigger in the heat of the moment.
The former reason is problematic because credible extended deterrence is the ostensible reason justifying the tactical nuclear weapons debate in the first place. Wouldn’t it be ironic to put our credibility at risk for the sake of our credibility? But the latter reason for redeploying tactical nuclear weapons—because we do intend to use them under certain conditions—is just as problematic. U.S. policymakers tend to be famously risk averse. Even if military planners believed tactical nuclear weapons could and should be used in certain scenarios and draw up plans to make it so, no president wants to be the one responsible for ushering in the era of nuclear warfighting and its attendant strategic risks. In this case, then, redeploying tactical nuclear weapons might end up being incredible despite our best intentions to have them be so.
Second, introducing tactical nuclear weapons into Asia’s existing competitive dynamics will generate needless friction and increase the stakes of lower salience disputes. Escalating tensions exacerbates disputes, not resolves them. China isn’t wielding nuclear weapons in either the East or South China Seas, nor is India. North Korea routinely makes nuclear threats, but as my forthcoming book discusses, it never does anything to suggest they’re serious about acting on them. If the United States brings tactical nuclear weapons back to Asia, it will rationalize others doing so as well, locking in an elevated state of competition. And the United States risks being seen by the region—not just China—as the aggravating party.
Unassured Allies and Over-Politicized Alliances
Third, not all allies (or any for that matter) are necessarily assured by the presence of tactical nuclear weapons. I grant you that some in South Korea have called for the redeployment of tactical nuclear weapons in the past, but others in South Korea oppose the idea, and Japanese and Australian policy elites have made no such noise one way or another. And because tactical nuclear weapons are controversial, there is a high risk that the issue will become politicized and contested in ally polities, which needlessly threatens the political sustainability of alliance relations. To the extent that tactical nuclear weapons are intended to assure allies that the U.S. extended deterrence commitment is credible, it will fail more than it succeeds under current political conditions in ally governments.
A Superfluous Capability
Finally, the United States doesn’t need tactical nuclear weapons. It maintains conventional superiority over every would-be adversary; a point that even the Project Atom report acknowledges. It’s true that in actual conflicts U.S. superiority would be significantly checked by adversaries employing anti-access concepts, but tactical nuclear weapons don’t bring any kind of balance or equilibrium to this kind of competition. Such weapons utterly fail to address anti-access concepts and capabilities, which remains the primary outstanding operational challenge facing the U.S. military in Asia. Putting a nuclear warhead on a conventional munition does nothing to resolve this asymmetry. Given the relative austerity of projected defense budgets, investing in a needless set of weaponry at the opportunity cost of something else is at best wasteful.
Of course, as a caveat on all of the above statements, it may very well be the case that tactical nuclear weapons should be redeployed under certain conditions, and I haven’t really considered European or Russo-U.S. dynamics at all; I’ve confined my thoughts here to Asia. Just as Cold War era thinking about deterrence was widely considered to be outmoded in academia at the end of the Cold War, so too may post-Cold War “normative” thinking about nuclear weapons be outmoded by the rise of nascent nuclear states of questionable character (like North Korea). I’ve simply yet to see a sufficiently persuasive argument, and the Project Atom report doesn’t satisfy in this regard.
For now I can only conclude that the balance of risks and consequences associated with bringing tactical nuclear weapons back to Asia far outweighs the purported benefits.