Jeffrey LewisJapan ♥ TLAM/N

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.


  1. FSB

    It would have been way better if they wrote 2 reports: a sensible folks version, and a hawkish Cold War neanderthal greybeards version.

    That way we may actually have a had a chance to see if there were any new thoughts that this committee came up with, but that perhaps got buried in trying to make consensus with people who are wrong or too old or both.

    FAS has a good summary eg. on extended deterrence —

    “The Commission reports that “some allies located near Russia” are saying that “U.S. non-strategic forces in Europe are essential to prevent nuclear coercion by Moscow and indeed that modernized U.S./NATO forces are essential for restoring a sense of balance in the face of Russia’s nuclear renewal.” Yet the Commission does not say that the German foreign minister has called publicly for the withdrawal of the U.S. weapons from Europe, the Belgian Senate has unanimously called for the same, and that the overwhelming majority of Europeans want the weapons to go.”

  2. anon (History)

    Throughout the report you can find talking points inserted from the perspective of Keith Payne. Since they sound sensible on the surface (Japan is concerned with the credibility of our extended deterrent), no one seems to have questioned them, or addressed them with the nuance that you describe about extended deterrence and TLAM-N. A credible extended deterrent does not rest on the micro details of our nuclear weapons, but on the macro impressions of our political and military relationship with our allies (Japan in particular). I think part of the problem is that no one on the disarmament side has seen your notes on Japan. Everyone seems to accept Keith’s interpretation without the least little bit of salt.

    Second point is that the commission’s report reflects the expertise of the commission members, and points out a huge weakness in the process that selected the commissioners (something we all noted at the time). The Commissioners on the “right” include some with strongly held views and long years of work on nuclear weapons (Johnny Foster has longer years than anyone else), while the commissoners on the left include several gray-beards with broad credentials but little nuclear weapons expertise. They lacked the ability to challenge Keith’s talking points. That, of course, does not explain why the working groups, or even the report writers, accepted the talking points with little challenge, although I’ve heard that earlier drafts of the report leaned even harder to the right, so, things could have been alot worse.

  3. Austin Long (History)

    This is a bit off topic, as it does not deal with TLAM-N, but Japanese hawks are into Tomahawk. They are really interested in the conventional variant to give the Navy, which has good platforms, offensive punch.

    On TLAM-N, I am curious about the logical foundation of the argument the commission puts forward. Why is TLAM-N better for extended deterrence than Trident D-5? I wonder if there is not some conflation of some Japanese attitudes towards conventional Tomahawk with the nuclear mission.

  4. Distiller (History)

    Maybe a couple of commission members are old enough to remember the TM-76B installation on Okinawa and see TLAM/N in that tradition. Would fit in with the extremely conservative views of the report.

    As I understand the commission, they seem to limit the umbrella to tactical weapons, not strategic. And what exactly would be the tactical role of an U.S. nuclear weapon in helping Japan be? Creating a kamikaze to fend off the Great Khan again?

    Re nuclear Japan: When the time comes that decision will be taken without the U.S., though it will depend on the fortune of the U.S. in the western Pacific.