Jeffrey LewisExtending Deterrence from the Triad

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?


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.


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.


  1. Mark Lincoln (History)

    Lunatic ideologues not only rule the DPRK, they rule Congress.

    Limits on nuclear weapons are the work of commie liberals like Richard Lugar.

  2. Anon (History)

    I think we need to get Congress to print posters showing DPRK leaders in the form of rats. That too will help us, in addition to the proposed W. Pac. tactnukes and the missile defense non-shield, now coming on the East Coast. Am seriously considering not paying taxes and leaving the nation, like the facebook co-founder.

  3. joshua (History)


    Let me call to your attention an Oct. 2003 DTRA report, “The Future of Nuclear Forces in the New Triad,” which has cropped up here: It’s too bad about the lousy scan.

    The document itself doesn’t make it clear, but the lead author was Christine Wormuth.

    Some other studies are here: Why all these DTRA-sponsored unclassified policy studies didn’t make it into the DTIC database is beyond me.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      I forgot to mention this document, but I owe an enormous debt to it for prompting me to think about the problem in this way.

  4. anotherAnon (History)

    Its not clear to me (maybe I need to read the transcript from mark up) that Franks had the B-61 in mind for his study. Given the source of much of the advice the committee is getting (and the lack of depth of historical knowledge among some committee staff) I would not be surprised if he thinks we ought to redeploy land-based tactical systems. I’d suspect that the fact that we’ve destroyed those weapons and the Army wants no part of the nuclear mission might put a dent in that, but I don’t know if Franks is aware of such things.

    Bottom line though, and you nail it, is the fact that there’s no reason to assume assurance/extended deterrence requires nukes at all. If your goal is simply to incinerate the bad guy and level his country after he shells an island or sinks a ship, then you do need nukes, but that’s a rather crass and simplistic view of extended deterrence. You want to be able to convince your friends and allies that you’ll have their back if a crisis or conflict (or even a provocation) breaks out. In that case, you almost certainly want advanced conventional capabilities, because the threat to use them is far more credible than the threat to incinerate NK after it shells and island….

    • Moe_DeLaun (History)

      “If your goal is simply to incinerate the bad guy and level his country after he shells an island or sinks a ship, then you do need nukes, but that’s a rather crass and simplistic view of extended deterrence.”

      Indeed; wasn’t this Daniel Ellsberg’s “Aha!” moment? I understand that his first job was to review our East Asia nuclear posture and found that our strategy consisted of “If China farts in the general direction of Taiwan, we’ll pave China in trinitite.” This SAC-a-go-go policy led Robert McNamara to come up with “flexible response” and the effort to find non-nuclear methods of containment fueled the errors of Vietnam.

  5. Joe (History)

    It would be useful if the first use of an acronym, such as SSBN or SSGN, could include the expanded definition of that acronym. It would help those of us that are not steeped in the culture of non-proliferation to understand what you are talking about and learn more about the subject.
    Even AW&ST (Aviation Week and Space Technology) helps the gentle reader out in such a fashion.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Fair enough.

    • John Bragg (History)

      Or just keep wikipedia open in another tab.

    • Joe (History)

      I do find Jeffery’s (and others) posts on this site to be remarkably illuminating on a subject that can be depressingly stuffy. I am not denigrating his writing at all, but find it detracts from the flow of the post to have to go off and search out an acronym expansion (or more than one) in the middle of a paragraph. I imagine I will learn them all in time. I am both a pilot and a software geek, so have my daily rassles with mystery acronyms

      As a side note: A friend of mine was the keeper of the NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration :>} ) acronym glossary and had the duty of making sure that acronyms were not double-defined within the organization. She has a cat named MECO (Main Engine Cut-Off).

    • Jeffrey (History)

      You’re totally right. I generally try to minimize jargon, but that’s surprisingly hard — especially when I am in a rush.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Ok, I really made an effort to make it easier to read. I needed to do that anyway, because I was using one acronym — MUNSS — as a short-hand for any Air Force unit that handles nuclear weapons, which isn’t quite right.

      So, sometimes, jargon and acronyms can disguise laziness!

  6. anon2 (History)

    How about a thread on the new Parchin drawings and the AP article. Seems to me that the AP article was an intentional leak full of technical details.


  7. Andrew Tubbiolo (History)

    Why have tactical nuclear weapons in SK at all? Having tactical nuclear weaponry deployed in theater made sense when your strategic arsenal had to absorb a first strike from the other guys strategic force, or conduct a first strike against the other side. When your strategic weaponry with global reach is busy conducting another posture/mission having b-61’s in theater makes some sense. Not to mention you can hand them over to your allies and let them take responsibility for making the strike. The real deterrence to the DPRK is sitting on a CVN, SSBN, or tomahawk on a SSN. Putting B-61’s on SK airstrips is just asking the north to posture for a preemptive first strike, while depending on the USN keeps them hopelessly out of DPRK reach. I can only imagine if any real thinking lies behind this someone might be thinking of handing any B-61s over to the SK’s during a crisis.

    • Cameron (History)

      The SSBNs (1), probably. The TLAM-N (2) is being withdrawn from service, so for tactical weapons, I think that leaves the Navy with B83’s on CVNs (3) or W80 warheads on SLAMs? (4)

      per the request above:
      (1) Balistic Missle Submarine
      (2) Tomahawk Land Attack Missle – Nuclear
      (3) Nuclear Powered Aircraft Carriers
      (4) Standoff Land Attack Missles

    • Jeffrey (History)

      There are no B83s for deployment on CVN-based aircraft or the SLAM has never been armed with a nuclear weapon. The only “tactical” warheads left are the B61 3/4/10s for DCA delivery.

    • Cameron (History)

      Mea culpa, I did a quick look and saw F/A-18’s a being signed off for B83’s hadn’t written in the B61’s too. AND I got myself confused about B-52 cruise missles.

      I’m going to go get more coffee, and thanks for the quick correction. Wow. A lot more coffee.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      Dude, happens to the best of us.

    • John Schilling (History)

      The question, “Why have tactical nuclear weapons in SK at all?”, could just as easily be asked of Western Europe. So long as the United States does have B61s in vaults in e.g. Belgium, it is not entirely unreasonable for people in nations not so blessed to wonder if America’s commitment to their defense is somehow less than it is w/re Europe and NATO.

      Which makes for a pretty good argument to pull all the B61s back home, or at least no closer than the nearest CVN. I can see not-irrational counterarguments: a B61 in Belgium or South Korea is a B61 that won’t be used against e.g. Iran, and one that will fall into enemy hands if the US allows Europe or Korea to be overrun by the Godless Commies or whomever. Forward deployment will cause a rational actor to assess the odds of nuclear weapons being used in defense of a particular ally to be marginally greater than would otherwise be the case.

      But I think the magnitude of this effect is small, not worth the cost and risk, and better achieved through alternate means – some of which have already been discussed here. And if Belgium needs an SSBN port visit to feel safe, I’m certain the USN can oblige…

  8. ArkadyRenko (History)

    This is what I don’t get about the discussion. If the US is already drawing down military forces and faces a decade of military retrenchment, how can promises of superior conventional deterrence really be credible? In an ideal world, the US could possibly substitute tactical nuclear weapons in Korea for superior conventional arms, but that substitution becomes less credible with regards to China.

    It seems to me that the present state in Korea is sustained by dual deterrence, North Korea has WMD deterrence against South Korea and South Korea + the US has combined conventional and strategic deterrence against North Korea. That idea becomes much less strong when thinking about China. There the military challenge, and cost, facing the US dwarfs that of refurbishing the B61. For example, the B61 program has had its cost balloon to $6 billion. The USAF bomber program will spend at least 6 times as much for the NGB, which will have predominately a conventional role. Likewise, if the Navy wishes to replace the SSGN, that will be hideously expensive, far more than a nuclear arsenal.

    Conventional deterrence is far less credible when the costs are high. This seems to me why NATO, correctly, chose a nuclear deterrence for the Iron Curtain. (NATO could have matched the Warsaw pact in funneling 20%+ of GDP into the military. NATO didn’t, and guess who won). The cheapness of nuclear weapons has proven itself many times over, I wouldn’t be surprised if South Korea and Japan aren’t thinking about, not with North Korea as a threat, but China.

    Finally, if the US military does drop the tactical nuclear weapon role, wouldn’t that lead to an opening for acceptable tactical nuclear weapon use against US forces. Already the promise, or at least broad hint, to nuke countries that use chemical / biological weapons against US deployed forces is hardly credible. If the US forgoes all nuclear devices smaller than the 100kt warheads of the SSBNs, would that create an opening for small nuclear attacks against US forces? For example, say that the North Koreans go insane and launch an attack on South Korea. North Korea prepares for such an attack by nuking US depots in the south, say with small enough weapons that the civilian casualties are ‘acceptable.’ (within the range of the casualties already being inflicted by artillery bombardment north of the capital) Under your plan, the US will only have the ability to use 100kt warheads as the retaliation factor. If that threat doesn’t seem credible, the attacking country may think that it could get away with using small enough nukes.

    • Moe_DeLaun (History)

      I really like the idea of replacing fixed land bases with SSGN/SSBN port calls and regional cruises. (I think the LCS squadrons will be paired with SSN groups — the beat cop and the black op.)

      A big problem, though, is the friction between the power of subs as show-the-flag vessels vs. their essential nature as stealth platforms. Submariners know that a lot of intel about sub deployments and ops can be gleaned from public sightings, and are understandably reluctant to be seen a lot.

  9. Paul Bernstein (History)

    Just FYI, there is a consultative process with the Japanese. I believe it’s called Extended Deterrence Dialogue. It met recently in Omaha.

    • Jeffrey (History)

      That is a helpful data point, thank you.

  10. Moe_DeLaun (History)

    Donning my Metaphor Man tights:

    Nukes are to warfare what guns are to a card game — the ultimate sanction against predatory players (armed card-sharps) and disruption in venue (bar fights). Other game frictions are dealt with via custom, peer pressure, strong words and fists. Drawing a gun may win an argument and establish your don’t-tread-on-me bona-fides, but will also guarantee a manhunt and (if lucky) trial and jail.

    It’s necessary to carry a gun when you’re playing cards in a bad neighborhood; you should know how to shoot well and that gun should be in perfect working order. You should understand that others at the game will be armed as well and plan accordingly, but otherwise your gun sleeps in its holster, tucked away. Your penknife or other personal blade should be brought out and casually used as a tool or utensil, without comment. Perhaps you start a friendly comparison of knives.

    Translated into deterrence practice, this means more visibility and circulation of triad assets and more credible testing of greatly reduced nuclear stockpiles. Make sure everyone knows that the few nukes you have are combat ready and that your nuclear deterrence force is trained and tested. (Yes, this involves serious issues regarding weapons testing.)

    Precision Long Range Strike assets make up the balance of your deterrence force. We need weapons that can create localized effects commensurate with nuclear explosives without the tremendous collateral damage (HAZMAT, etc. etc.) Test them, train with them and regularly take them on tour to visit the allies in public. Extended deterrence may be the pursuit of the pinnacle of martial-arts practice, where the master is able to fend off six swordsmen with only a fan.

    • anotheranon (History)

      Sorry, your analogy doesn’t work for me. It fails on the question of credibility. If you bring a gun to a card game, and your unscrupulous opponent knows it, then he may be deterred from cheating. He may believe that you would shoot him. But he may not believe you if your threat is not just to shoot him, but to shoot everyone in the game and the bar, and lay waste for generations to the entire neighborhood around the bar, just because he had an ace up his sleeve.

      The threat to use a nuclear weapon in response to an extreme circumstance where vital national interests (i.e. national survival) are at stake may be credible, but the threat to use nuclear weapons in response to a marginal provocation (even one that costs a few dozen lives) is so out-sized as to be incredible. The adversary will not deterred if he does not believe you will follow through on your threat.

      Nuclear weapons are not just bigger guns…

  11. Ara Barsamian (History)

    Yes, B-61 soon will be history…

    As far as SK, we better have something credible in there, and that’s where tactical NW come in (something in the 1 to 10kT range, preferably an ERW that we foolishly dismantled.

    B83 at 1.2MT is using a sledgehammer to kill a fly…

    For the F35 and SK coverage, the perfect fit will be an ALCM with a 1 to 10KT yield…

    No question, either we stand solidly with our allies, or sooner or later they develop their own nukes…

    • Adrew Tubbiolo (History)

      Ara a few questions to ‘a believer’.

      1) Why put nuclear munitions in the range of a DPRK preemptive attack?

      2) Why is not a nuclear counter attack from a SSBN/SSGN/CVN just as effective as one from a SK airfield?
      2a) For that matter would you view a preemptive strike with tactical nuclear munitions based on the penensula as being more effective than using strategic munitions? Why?

      3) I assume you’ve thought this out and want tactical nuclear munitions in theater to hand over to the South Koreans during a crisis. What will that gain you in a crisis over simply using American munitions under American command?

      4) What do you think the DPRK reaction would be to having American theater nuclear forces return to the Korean Penensula?

      5) Do you forsee their reaction to the presence of such weapns to be more stabalizing to the region?

      6) Do you see a more stabalizing reaction of the DPRK to the presence of tactical nuclear weaponry than a reaction to the current state of having the deterrent based and on patrol far to the East in the Pacific? Please explain how you see the difference between two standoffs?

  12. joshua (History)

    Since the topic has yet to arise, let me throw in a mention of “continuous bomber presence,” the nearly decade-long practice of rotating strategic bombers through Guam. Rebecca Grant had a nice article on the subject late last year:

    It may be that we’ve already begun to extend deterrence from the Triad, or from a dual-capable component thereof.

  13. Jon (History)

    Removing B-61s from forward deployment in Europe and Asia is long overdue. Tactical nukes are not useful on battlefields. You end-up destroying your own army along with your enemy. Strategic nukes provide all the deterrence we need.