In the few years since the United States retired the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile-Nuclear (TLAM-N) from service, circa 2013, the world has been faced with rapidly evolving challenges. Such as a Russia increasing willingness to use force to achieve strategic objectives, the ongoing island building and militarization of the South China Sea by the People’s Republic of China and the nuclear posturing of the Democratic People’s Republic of North Korea, corresponding with its ongoing development of ballistic missiles and nuclear weapons technology. With these challenges posing a potential threat to the United States and its allies, perhaps it was a premature decision to retire the TLAM-N from naval service. This non-strategic nuclear weapon would be useful in the current global climate as an additional option in negating evolving threats.
Let’s look at Russia first. There is a clear tactical nuclear imbalance between the United States and Russia, both in quality and quantity. While the U.S. currently deploys 150 B-61 tactical nuclear gravity bombs, Russia has at its disposal, approximately 1850 non-strategic nuclear weapons capable of being fitted to a diverse range of platforms including the Iskander short-range ballistic missile, the sea-based Kalibr cruise missile and the A-135 missile defense system to name a few. Redeploying the TLAM-N to a select number of naval units would close this gap without breaching the INF treaty. While the B-61 needs to rely on the combat range of aircraft such as the F-16 and runs the gauntlet of avoiding surface to air missile defenses, the TLAM-N would have a significantly increased range, accuracy and ability to avoid ground-based air defense. If deployed on nuclear attack submarines such as the Los Angeles, Seawolf or Virginia class, the TLAM-N could potentially be launched from an undetected position within range of targets, as opposed to the aircraft carrying the B-61 which must contend with a greater risk of being detected well in advance of reaching its target. If Russia chose to invade the Baltic States, the currently deployed B-61s in Western Europe and Turkey would be unable to be deployed effectively due to limited range and penetration ability. The TLAM-N would circumvent this limitation, providing NATO with a viable strike option.
China is currently in the process of fortifying the South China Sea. In the case of war, China could effectively close this major shipping choke point and destabilize the global economy. In addition to this, China is not subject to the INF Treaty and has deployed a diverse group of land-based ballistic missile variants such as the DF-21D MRBM believed to be designed to destroy U.S. aircraft carriers. This has been classed as an Anti-Access Area Denial (A2/AD) weapon as it would potentially limit the ability of U.S. aircraft carriers to operate within the South China Sea region. If China were to close the South China Sea to shipping, there would be significant challenges to dislodging their forces. Redeployment of the TLAM-N opens the door to military and coercive options, from a reactive angle to combat Chinese forces already in position in the event of war and from a deterrence angle to prevent any Chinese aspirations to close South China Sea shipping lanes. At this point, the U.S. has no tactical nuclear option deployed in the Asia region. Redeploying the TLAM-N to naval units in the region could counter Chinese A2/AD weapon systems.
North Korea has made no secret of its desire to be able to reach the continental United States with high yield nuclear weapons. If it does not have this capability already, it appears to be on the way there. Currently, the only nuclear counterforce option available for dealing with North Korea is the U.S. strategic nuclear arsenal. This would potentially take time to reach targets in North Korea depending on which of the triad is utilized and depending on from where the missiles are launched, they could be mistaken by Russia and China as a First Strike attack against their forces. These problems can be overcome by deploying the TLAM-N on vessels within the U.S. Seventh Fleet. If intelligence was obtained that North Korea planned an imminent nuclear attack on South Korea, Japan or the United States, multiple TLAM-N cruise missiles could be launched directly at targets within North Korea with the ability to penetrate through ground-based air defense. Although deploying B-61 tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea is a potential future option that should not be discounted, the TLAM-N is a far superior option due to the B-61 carrying aircraft being vulnerable to surface to air missile batteries as discussed. Deploying the TLAM-N within this region may also have political benefits as South Korea would not necessarily need to base nuclear weapons in their territory.
Another crucial advantage to redeploying the TLAM-N is the reassurance it would provide to U.S. allies. In the current geopolitical landscape of multidimensional challenges and threats, redeploying tactical nuclear cruise missiles would send a message to nations both within and outside the U.S. extended deterrence umbrella that the U.S. is serious about increasing its options at a tactical level beyond conventional force projection.
Opponents to this outlook will evidently argue that this is a step backward for nuclear arms control and disarmament. This argument is often based on blind ideology. The U.S. made a decision to drastically reduce its tactical nuclear weapons force to the current point where only a handful of barely effective gravity bombs remain, yet all of the nuclear powers continue to modernize their arsenals and Russia retains a massive non-strategic nuclear weapons capability. A case in point is North Korea which pushes ahead at an alarming pace with nuclear warhead and ballistic missile advancement regardless of any non-proliferation efforts made by global powers and sanctions imposed. Steps taken by the U.S. to reduce reliance on nuclear weapons have not been met with the same actions by certain global actors.
The redeployment of the nuclear Tomahawk (TLAM-N) provides the U.S. with a range of options to deal with challenges at a tactical level that conventional weapons may not be able to counter. At a strategic level, the TLAM-N can have an increased deterrence effect to potential adversaries and a reassurance effect for allies. One must wonder if the TLAM-N would have been retired if decision makers had faced the current challenges faced by the world today. I would hope strategic reasoning and analysis would prevail, not blind ideology.
Lieutenant Junior Grade Patrick Grumley, Naval Gunfire Liaison Officer with 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, talks about Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) Flight Test 409 and it's purpose aboard San Nicolas Island off the coast of California, Jan. 28, 2015. TLAM Flight Test 409 is used by 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, alongside 3rd Fleet, in order to bring the TLAM from the strategic and operational level down to a more tactical environment.
Adam Cabot has a Masters in International Relations and is currently researching Russian nuclear strategy.