Bring Back the Nuclear Tomahawks

by Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, U.S. Navy (Retired) and Dr. James N. Miller

It is now time to stop scolding and up the ante. There is no reason for Russia to deploy these missiles. The Russians face no serious threat from west, east, or south—no nation on the planet wants to attack Russia. While diplomacy should not be abandoned, it will have to be backed by the only type of power Russia really understands: principled strength. In fact, the treaty itself originated from the use of such power: President Ronald Reagan deployed nuclear-tipped ground-launched cruise missiles and Pershing II ballistic missiles to Europe in response to a previous Russian deployment. This U.S. deployment laid the groundwork for successful negotiation of the INF Treaty.

An especially elegant use of such power would avoid a tit-for-tat violation of or, worse, a withdrawal from the treaty. Rather, Russia should feel the pinch from a capability that lies well within international agreements (and a capability Russia itself possesses): a sea-based nuclear-armed cruise missile. This would require restoration of the Navy’s nuclear capability on Tomahawk cruise missiles in what was known as TLAM-Ns—Tomahawk land-attack missile-nuclear.

Bringing back the TLAM-N into the U.S. arsenal would not violate any treaty. It would not start an arms race; Russia already has thousands of tactical nuclear weapons that can be delivered from land, air, and sea.

The U.S. TLAM-N capability carries a number of inherent advantages:

  • It would show Russia that its violation of the INF Treaty is a mistake that has costs and needs to be corrected, even if it does so without actually admitting the violation, as long as the resolution is verifiable. For those who want to preserve the INF Treaty and the New START Treaty (as the United States does), demonstrating to Russia that there are consequences to cheating on existing treaties is essential.
  • While NATO would retain its dual-capable—conventionally and/or nuclear-armed—aircraft (DCA) capability to maintain the alliance’s “skin in the game,” deployment of TLAM-N would not require any action by or concurrence from our allies, who would be politically skittish over any new ground-based deployment.
  • The capability is essentially invulnerable, as the missiles likely would be placed only on board submarines. Any attack submarine can carry these missiles; the Ohio -class guided-missile submarines could carry even more, as could the Vertical Payload Module Virginia -class follow-on boats.
  • It would not be overly costly to reintroduce this capability. The required warhead could leverage the B-61 life-extension program and/or the planned warhead for the long-range standoff (LRSO) system. New missiles would need to be modified to carry the warhead, and the Navy would need to recertify boats assigned to carry these missiles. But these are modifications to existing programs; no new weapon would need to be dragged through the acquisition system.
  • Such a capability not only would provide a credible and survivable option for extended deterrence in Europe, but also would bolster deterrence and assurance in the Pacific at a time when North Korea is growing its nuclear capability.
  • Numbers matter. Deploying TLAM-Ns on SSNs would be a hedge against the potential vulnerability of future ballistic missile submarines (SSBNs) by increasing by several times the numbers of undersea platforms available for deterrence.
  • The latest variants of the Tomahawk missile incorporate major generational advancements. Accuracy and the survivability against advanced air defenses, which used to be major arguments against the TLAM-N, have improved.

Some would argue that that the United States has so much conventional superiority over Russia that it does not need these weapons. That is a dangerous assumption. In any case, conventional weapons mean much less to Moscow than nuclear capabilities. If anything, TLAM-N would provide NATO with a far more credible rung on an escalation ladder that currently is binary between conventional weapons and all-out nuclear war.

It may seem counterintuitive that an increase in U.S. nuclear weapons capability would be required to make progress toward the ultimate goal of reducing nations’ reliance on nuclear weapons for security purposes. But both Russia and North Korea are very intentionally expanding their nuclear abilities to threaten U.S. allies; it is imperative that the United States take the steps necessary to sustain effective nuclear deterrence of nuclear threats. A failure to bolster nuclear deterrence at best does nothing for nonproliferation, and at worst irresponsibly exposes our allies in Europe and Northeast Asia to greater risks of a preemptive attack or coercion.

To bolster nuclear deterrence and assurance of our allies, and to reinforce that there are serious consequences to cheating on treaties, the now-ongoing Nuclear Posture Review should bring back the TLAM-N.

Admiral Winnefeld is a Distinguished Professor of International Affairs at Georgia Tech’s Sam Nunn School and a Senior Fellow at Harvard’s Belfer Center. He also serves on the board of directors for Raytheon, which makes the Tomahawk missile. Dr. Miller is the former Undersecretary of Defense for Policy.



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