Pivot With a Nuclear Edge: Low Yield in the South China Sea

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The much vaunted, U.S. “Pivot to Asia” was launched by the Obama administration in 2011. It was intended to deter China’s challenge to U.S. leadership and curb Chinese coercion in the South China Sea. The idea was sound, but the problem was lack of any real implementation. Aside from a symbolic deployment of U.S. Marines to Darwin, the Pivot failed, as discussed by Hugh White in his Quarterly Essay piece, “Without America.” China continued to systematically militarise and fortify the Spratly Islands, and in May 2018 there were reports that China had deployed land based anti-ship cruise missiles (YJ-12B) and long-range surface to air missiles (HQ-9B) to three islands within the chain.

This effectively means that China now can close the South China Sea if it chooses to and significantly affects the global economy. Approximately $3.4 trillion of trade passes through the South China Sea annually. It’s a major global trade route and China’s recent deployments of anti-ship cruise missiles and surface to air missiles in combination with the range of the DF-21D ‘carrier killer’ ballistic missile provides significant Area Denial  Anti-Access (A2/AD) capability. In the case of war, any surface naval vessels including aircraft carriers veering within the range of these weapon systems run a huge risk of being sunk. Even with the Aegis missile defense umbrella in place, the targets face the prospect of being overwhelmed with multiple cruise missiles. So how does the U.S. combat this problem that has entrenched itself as a major trade chokepoint? Enter the low yield tactical nuclear option.

Much has been said of the Trump administration, but an area where it has stepped up to the plate is nuclear modernization. The Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) released in February 2018 provides answers for not only dealing with the Russian tactical nuclear imbalance but also the South China Sea A2/AD problem. As outlined in the NPR, the Trump administration aims to “expand tailored response options” by developing a low yield sea-launched cruise missile (SLCM), reminiscent of the now retired nuclear tomahawk missile (TLAM-N). In the short term, however, the intention is to modify a small number of submarine-launched ballistic missile (SLBM) warheads to significantly lower their yield. These will launch from the Ohio class ballistic missile submarines currently in service.

These tactical nuclear weapons deployed in the Pacific could be used to counter Chinese fortifications by effectively neutralizing the A2/AD capability with the appropriate yield.  The thought of having to use any nuclear weapons is nothing to be taken lightly but so is the thought of a U.S. aircraft carrier being destroyed by multiple cruise missiles resulting in the loss of 5000 lives. Conventional weapons may have a degree of utility in countering this threat, but offensive operations would have to be carefully orchestrated and meticulously planned to avoid casualties from surface-to-air cruise and ballistic missiles. Advances in Chinese capabilities will only make operations more difficult and more dangerous.

By sending a strong message to the Chinese that any attack on U.S. forces such as the sinking of a naval vessel has a high likelihood of being met with a tactical nuclear strike on fortified islands, this will act to deter aggression and complement a pivot to the region, albeit delayed. The lack of a U.S. ‘no first use’ policy will reinforce this message as will the declaration that ballistic missile submarines will be fitted out with low-yield SLBMs and conduct patrols of the Pacific.

Critics of this strategy will argue that the use of low-yield nuclear weapons will lead to escalation and the use of strategic nuclear weapons by China in response. This is unlikely as long as the U.S. maintains strategic superiority. As illustrated in a study conducted by Matthew Kroenig, “The Logic of American Nuclear Strategy.” states in an inferior strategic position are less likely to run risks in a crisis due to the significantly higher costs it will incur. The Chinese strategic nuclear arsenal is dwarfed by the U.S. triad. The costs of a nuclear exchange would be catastrophic for both parties, but China would fare significantly worse due to factors such as the size of the U.S. arsenal, the population of China and the relatively small ICBM force deployed. It is highly unlikely that China would run this risk.

There are currently no deployed U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Asia. The deployment of the low-yield nuclear SLBM and SLCM will provide the U.S. with an option that will deter potential Chinese aggression to a higher level than conventional weapons. These options will be penetrable and effective against offensive weapons entrenched within the South China Sea. The U.S. “Pivot to Asia” never happened and China had a free hand in fortifying islands that don’t belong to them with advanced offensive weapons that threaten neighbors and vessels passing peacefully within range. The next step in China’s process will be the deployment of forces capable of greater projection well beyond the ‘nine dash line.’ It’s not too late to counter this militarization of the South China Sea and combat future coercion. The nuclear edge may be what is needed.


Adam Cabot has a Masters in International Relations and is currently researching Russian nuclear strategy.



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