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By Ensign Christopher M. Duquette, Supply Corps, U.S. Naval Reserve
One of the strongest arguments against eliminating nuclear Tomahawks is that you can’t distinguish the nuclear version (right) from the conventional one, and thus can’t verify such an agreement. Solving this problem is simple: Get rid of both of them.
Because it is one of the major unresolved issues in arms control negotiations between the two superpowers, the sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM) has been thmst into the public limelight. Essentially a subsonic, automated jet aircraft capable of the highly accurate delivery of a conventional or nuclear payload to a designated target, the SLCM has been portrayed as safeguarding the interests of allied as well as [U.S.] national security and “the most difficult question” confronting arms reduction negotiators.1 With so much attention focused on the strategic, political, and arms-control implications of the SLCM, the debate has become increasingly clouded.
The Sea-launched Cruise Missile: An Overview
The SLCM represents the extension of cruise-missile technology to the naval arena. Able to be launched from both submarines and surface ships, the SLCM can be equipped with either a conventional or nuclear warhead. In addition to categorization by warhead, SLCMs can be categorized by range; long-range SLCMs have ranges exceeding 600 kilometers, and short-range SLCMs have ranges of less than 600 kilometers. Both may carry a conventional or nuclear warhead. However, the long-range SLCM is primarily intended for land-attack missions, and is therefore usually nuclear configured. The short-range missile is designed for antisurface warfare. Because of their low flight altitude and relatively small radar crosssections, both the conventional and nuclear SLCM are difficult for antiair defenses to detect. But despite this covertness, the SLCM is generally viewed as unsuited to potential nuclear first-strike application because of its limited range, speed, and throw-weight capabilities.
Both superpower navies currently have one operational SLCM system. The United States began to deploy its Tomahawk in 1982, while deployment of the Soviet SS-N- 21 Sampson began only in 1988. The six-year interval between superpower SLCM deployments underscores what is widely recognized as a U.S. advantage in cruise- missile technology, particularly in miniaturized guidance and propulsion systems. For this reason, the United States is reluctant to limit SLCM deployments, while the Soviet Union has pressed vigorously for strict SLCM ceilings.
The first arms-limitation measure to address the SLCM question explicitly was the protocol accompanying the 1979 Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT) II treaty, which prohibited SLCM deployments until 1982. SALT II negotiating teams expected the SLCM question to be comprehensively resolved in the subsequent SALT III negotiations, which Were to begin upon ratification of the SALT II accord. In response to the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, however, President Jimmy Carter withdrew the SALT II treaty document from U.S. Senate consideration. Consequently, the SALT III negotiations aimed at achieving deep reductions in aggregate superpower nuclear arsenals and resolving the numerous issues left unresolved by SALT II were postponed indefinitely- Following expiration of the SALT II protocol, the SLCM questions resurfaced at the October 1986 Reykjavik summit, where both the U.S. and Soviet delegations required more than an hour simply to agree to seek a mutually acceptable solution to the issue. The subsequent December 1987 and May 1988 summits in Washington and Moscow, respectively, yielded no further progress on the SLCM issue.
Until the 7-9 February 1990 meeting between Secretary of State James Baker and Soviet Foreign Minister Eduard Shevardnadze in Moscow, the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) were held hostage to an agreement limiting SLCMs. At this meeting, however, the two nations agreed that the issue would be dealt with outside of START, by each side stating its production plans for SLCMs for the next five years. These declarations would be politically binding. Baker and Shevardnadze agreed that the remaining issues involving SLCMs will be addressed by the arms control negotiators in Geneva.2 Chief
among these unresolved issues is that of how to distinguish between nuclear and conventional SLCMs—and how to verify the difference. Neither the question of range nor of ceilings was resolved at the Moscow ministerial.3
The Simplest Solution
A number of proposals have been advanced for resolving the SLCM question. They range from indirectly limiting SLCM deployments by confining deployments to certain, explicitly prescribed varieties of naval vessels, to an outright ban on the nuclear-armed SLCM. Often overlooked in the SLCM debate, however, is the simplest proposal of all—a complete, no-exceptions SLCM ban. Of all the SLCM options currently under examination by the U.S. defense community, the total ban offers the greatest contribution to U.S. national security and overall strategic stability, while simultaneously resolving the nettlesome question of verification. There are many virtues to a blanket prohibition on SLCM deployments.
► Enhanced Crisis Stability: In a crisis, the inherent SLCM attributes of mobile deployment platforms, low flight altitude, and small radar cross-section would render it the likely weapon of choice for a preemptive, damage- limiting strike. A preemptive SLCM attack might target an adversary’s forward-deployed naval assets, fuel and ammunition stockpiles, air-defense facilities, or logistical infrastructure. On balance, however, the continued acquisition by both superpower navies of long-range, land- attack, nuclear-armed SLCMs would place the U.S. homeland at a comparatively greater vulnerability to such a preemptive strike.
From a purely geographical standpoint, the coastal locations of numerous U.S. cities and military installations would represent potentially tempting targets for Soviet SLCMs. In contrast, most comparable Soviet military facilities and population centers are situated deep inside the Eurasian landmass, often beyond the range of the U.S. Tomahawk. Moreover, Tomahawk access to the limited number of high-value Soviet coastal targets is restricted by the existence of narrow sea lanes (doubtless patrolled by Soviet attack submarines) and extensive Soviet air defenses. To Soviet military strategists, the U.S. homeland would therefore represent a far more inviting target for Soviet nuclear-armed SLCMs than the Soviet homeland would represent to U.S. strategic planners. The relative vulnerability of the U.S. homeland to a nuclear SLCM strike would complicate U.S. crisis decision-making and correspondingly reduce stability in a crisis.
► Diminished First-strike Concerns: In a first strike, one superpower uses nuclear weapons in an all-out, surprise attempt to destroy its adversary’s retaliatory capability. A successful first strike would thus mean the military defeat of one nuclear-armed superpower by the other. This is why a perceived first-strike capability in the possession of either superpower would be dangerously destabilizing.
Because of their speed, range, and payload limitations, current-generation SLCMs are poorly suited for first strikes. Technological innovations, however, may change this. Many enhancements to existing SLCM capabilities
are currently under exploration. The Soviet military is continuing development of the SS-NX-24 with supersonic capabilities and an estimated range of 3,000 kilometers. The United States, meanwhile, is perfecting its Tomahawk and exploring the possibilities for applications of radar- evading stealth technologies.
The inevitability of such developments and others could result in an unforeseen technological breakthrough in the speed, range, and payload limitations of the SLCM. The nuclear-armed SLCM could present (or be perceived as presenting) a legitimate counterforce threat. The nation possessing such an SLCM would therefore be perceived as having successfully acquired a potential first-strike capability. And in the absence of a limitation on SLCMs, thousands of such perceived first-strike-capable weapons could conceivably line the arsenals of either, or perhaps both, superpowers, with negative implications for overall strategic stability.
- Reduced Likelihood of Accidental Escalation: Without a verifiable blanket prohibition on superpower SLCM deployments, the possibility exists that, during the pre-escalation phase of a U.S.-Soviet military conflict, a conventional SLCM strike might unintentionally provoke a nuclear response. After all, incoming conventional and nuclear-armed SLCMs are indistinguishable from each other. Such a nuclear response, regardless of intentions, would breach the nuclear threshold. Although “once the nuclear threshold has been crossed, it is difficult to predict or even to understand the conflict’s course, much less its outcome, the possibility of escalation to a general nuclear exchange cannot be excluded.4
- Preserve the Existing Maritime Balance: Unquestionably, the U.S. Navy has conventional superiority over its Soviet counterpart.5 The introduction of the nucleararmed SLCM into this conventional maritime equation, however, alters the superpower maritime relationship radically. The Soviet Navy’s acquisition of the nuclear-armed SLCM represents a quantum leap in Soviet antisurface warfare capabilities.
Assuming widespread Soviet SLCM deployments, a Soviet decision to use such weapons against the U.S. fleet would transform the U.S. dependence upon its 15-strong carrier battle groups from a relative advantage into a liability, as these carriers disappear, one by one, in nuclear mushroom clouds. The entire Soviet fleet, by comparison, includes only four less-capable A'/ev-class carriers, and Soviet maritime strategy views aircraft carriers merely as a useful complement to the central objective of defending the Soviet homeland. Because the penetration of U.S. battle group defenses by a single nuclear-armed SLCM would destroy even the largest battleship or carrier, the margin for error accorded to battle group defenses is zero. It is not surprising, then, that the primary mission of the Soviet SLCM is antisurface warfare.
Although the United States also plans to deploy the nuclear-armed SLCM against Soviet ships, large-scale nuclear SLCM deployments still give the Soviet Navy a relative advantage. On the one hand, the U.S. maritime strategy, envisioning an aggressive, forward-deployed U.S. Navy centered around its carrier battle groups, is
Widely recognized as indispensable to the overall U.S. national strategy. On the other hand, the cardinal mission °f the Soviet fleet is considerably less ambitious— Primarily the rear-guard defense of the Soviet homeland. Moreover, the central element of the Soviet maritime strategy is the attack submarine, which is invulnerable to U-S. nuclear-armed Tomahawks. This greater emphasis that the United States places on its navy means that “improved antiship capabilities inherently favor the Soviets, because our surface fleet is crucial to our strategy while theirs is not.”7 Therefore, the deployment of thousands of nuclear-armed SLCMs by both superpower navies would he a great equalizer for an inferior Soviet fleet.
Paul Nitze, senior arms control adviser during the Reagan administration and Secretary of the Navy during the Johnson administration, reacted to this potential upsetting °f the maritime balance of power by declaring that the large-scale acquisition of nuclear-armed SLCMs by the
U.S. and Soviet navies renders those weapons, on balance, “inherent losers” for the United States.8 Recognizing the dilemma posed by continued SLCM deployments, Nitze subsequently recommended in April 1988 that both superpower navies eliminate them. Despite Nitze’s stature within the U.S. defense community, the Reagan administration withheld endorsement of his suggestion, fearing the potential unverifiability of a ban on nuclear SLCMs alone. Such concerns persist within President Bush’s administration.
Answering the Critics
The sweeping nature of the blanket SLCM prohibition virtually ensures its subjection to intensive scrutiny from all sides. Criticisms, however, are either misplaced or overwhelmingly counterbalanced by the strategic benefits to be derived from an outright SLCM ban. Of the foreseeable questions raised concerning an SLCM prohibition, three in particular merit special examination.
► The Verification Question: The nature of the SLCM ban proposal, coupled with continuing advances in national technical means of verification and the recent historical experience of the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty, promotes confidence that such a regime would be adequately verifiable. A complete, no-exceptions ban on SLCM deployments would preempt the thorniest aspect of the SLCM verification question—the fact that the nuclear and conventional SLCMs are externally identical. Some recent statements by Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev notwithstanding, it is impossible to distinguish between the conventional SLCM and its nuclear counterpart from a distance. Not only are the airframes of both SLCM variants identical, but any radioactive emissions from nuclear SLCM warheads could easily be contained by lead shielding. Verification of a treaty that permitted SLCMs would therefore require intrusive measures such as on-site inspection of ships and the attachment of tamper-proof electronic tags to every newly manufactured SLCM— measures that, aside from the logistical difficulties involved, neither side is likely to be willing to accept.
Moreover, historical precedent exists for the regulation of the superpower competition with regard to cruise missiles. Recall the 1979 SALT II treaty protocol, which deferred SLCM deployments for three years and proscribed specific limitations on air-launched cruise missile deployments on long-range intercontinental bombers. More recently, the 1987 INF accord outlawed all superpower ground-launched cruise missile (GLCM) deployments. Both the SALT II and INF treaties were regarded to be adequately verifiable (the final U.S. Senate vote on the INF agreement was 93-5). When a mutually agreed-upon
Uncontrolled proliferation of nuclear-and conventionalarmed SLCMs puts the United States at a relative disadvantage. Moreover, it increases the risks of someone accidentally crossing the nuclear threshold.
SLCM database is established between the superpowers and verification measures similar to those contained in the INF accord are enacted, the SLCM component of a START agreement should be similarly verifiable.
Charges that a blanket SLCM prohibition would not be 100% verifiable are misplaced. No treaty is 100% verifiable—not the 1962 Nuclear Test-Ban Treaty, the 1972 SALT I accord, the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, the 1979 SALT II agreement, or even the 1987 INF accord. Nor would be a treaty eliminating SLCMs. To expect otherwise would be both unrealistic and unnecessary. As former U.S. Secretary of Defense Harold Brown once observed,
“There is a double bind which serves to deter Soviet cheating. To go undetected, any Soviet cheating would have to be on so small a scale that it would not be militarily significant. Cheating on such a level would hardly be worth the political risks involved. On the other hand, any cheating serious enough to affect the military balance would be detectable in sufficient time to take whatever action the situation required.”9
Insistence upon 100% verifiability as a precondition to any START treaty would require the complete and permanent cessation of the underlying superpower competition, which would remove the need for superpower arms limitation negotiations to begin with. The question, therefore, is whether a specific proposal safeguards the vital national interests of both superpowers while simultaneously enhancing strategic stability, within a framework adequate to detect militarily significant violations quickly and decisively. The SLCM proposal satisfies this criteria.
► Hamper the Nuclear Defense of Western Europe: Some—including U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff and former U.S. Secretary of Defense Frank Carlucci—are concerned that a comprehensive SLCM ban could weaken NATO by fueling Western European fears of U.S. nuclear abandonment of the European continent. One should recall, however, that even in the aftermath of the 1987 INF accord eliminating all intermediate-range nuclear forces, a comprehensive SLCM prohibition would still leave the United States with many options short of strategic nuclear warfare for ensuring the continued nuclear defense of Western Europe. These include nuclear air strikes from U.S. aircraft carriers deployed in either the Mediterranean Sea or the North Atlantic, nuclear air strikes by land-based aircraft operating from any of a number of Western European airfields, and short-range nuclear strikes employing ground-based nuclear artillery not covered by the 1987 INF treaty. Thus, the unwavering U.S. commitment to the nuclear defense of Western Europe within the framework of the NATO flexible response doctrine would continue, regardless of the ultimate resolution of the SLCM question.
► The Inclusion of the Conventional SLCM: Finally, the proposal to eliminate both the conventional and nuclear SLCM completely might be criticized on the grounds of including conventional forces in an ostensibly strategic arms treaty. This criticism is essentially semantic. If the elimination of the conventional SLCM is a prerequisite to the elimination of its nuclear counterpart and to preventing its use as an equalizing offset to U.S. maritime superiority, then such semantic concerns should not be permitted to impede an SLCM ban. In addition, the treatment accorded the GLCM under the 1987 INF accord, which eliminated both the conventional and nuclear variants entirely, provides a precedent for the inclusion of conventional arms within the framework of a “nuclear” treaty.
The case for an outright SLCM ban is compelling. Current superpower SLCM deployment schedules project an eventual proliferation of potentially uncountable thousands of nuclear- and conventional-armed SLCMs. In 1946, following the onset of the cold war between the United States and the Soviet Union, a concerned Albert Einstein wrote, “The unleashed power of the atom has changed everything save our mode of thinking, and we thus drift toward unparalleled catastrophe.”10 Four-and- a-half decades later, SLCM deployments by both superpowers in the numbers currently envisioned provide a telling case in point. Clearly, a reexamination of official thinking on the SLCM question is in order.
Ensign Duquette is the disbursing officer on board the USS Nimitz (CVN-68). He was commissioned through Officer Candidate School in 1988 after graduating with honors from Willamette University with degrees in mathematics and economics. In April he represented the Nimitz in the Boston Marathon.
'D.S. Yost, “The Most Difficult Question,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, September 1989, pp. 60-70.
-“Joint Statement of the Moscow Ministerial,” U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Washington, DC, 10 February 1990, p. 1.
Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Arms Control and Disarmament Agency, Washington, DC, 21 February 1990.
*Capt. L.F. Brooks, USN, “The Nuclear Maritime Strategy,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, April 1987, p. 35 5Ibid„ p. 36.
^S. Talbott, “Why START Stopped,” Foreign Affairs, Fall 1988, p. 62. Testimony of Harold Brown, The SALT II Treaty, Hearings before the U S Senate Committee on Foreign Relations (Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1979), p. 249.
'°R.E. Lapp, “The Einstein Letter That Started It All,” The New York Times Magazine, 2 August 1964, p. 54.
_ No Place Like Home _
rend ^ ^ 3 pre^ht j5nefing’ s0 the young enlisted man sat down in the ready room to
ad He had just propped his feet on the table when a burly petty officer entered and bellowed Get your feet off that table! Would your mother let you do that around the house?” ’
Nope, but she doesn’t let planes land on our roof either.”