The Buzz

Does America Need Nuclear-Armed Cruise Missiles?

With Russia’s deployment of the new SSC-8 ground-launched cruise missile, the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty appears to be in its last death-throes. But what should the U.S. do in response to the treaty's demise? One suggestion is to bring back the nuclear version of the Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missile, the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile - Nuclear, or TLAM-N. The last TLAM-N was dismantled in 2013, though U.S. submarines hadn’t patrolled with them since President George H.W. Bush’s 1991 Presidential Nuclear Initiatives.

Much of this thinking has its roots in NATO’s Double Track Decision, which President Reagan’s opted to deploy Gryphon, a ground-launched version of the Tomahawk missile, and Pershing II, an intermediate-range ballistic missile, to Europe. These systems both aimed to enhance NATO’s nuclear warfighting capability while also allowing the United States to induce the Soviet Union to return to the bargaining table and negotiate from a position of relative strength.

Despite the Cold War deja vu, however, the 2010s are not the 1980s. As we attempt to apply any historical case study to a modern problem we would do well to examine what differences exist between the two. And in reviewing the decision to deploy Gryphon and Pershing II we can see that many of the factors behind that decision are simply not applicable in the same ways today and that the costs associated with re-fielding the TLAM-N to Europe exceed any potential benefit.

20th Century and 21st Century Coupling Have Different Requirements

Throughout the Cold War, the United States and its NATO allies offset Soviet conventional military superiority through the deployment of a vast array of tactical nuclear weapons. These included nuclear warheads in the form of landmines, artillery shells, artillery rockets, and bombs which could be dropped from fighter aircraft. These tactical systems were to ensure that any conventional attack against NATO by the Soviet Union would quickly escalate to a nuclear level, and as such risk the U.S. heavy bomber and missile force launching attacks directly against the Soviet Union itself. This, in turn, was designed to make the potential cost of a conventional attack against NATO unpalatable.

Throughout this period, however, NATO leadership was deeply concerned about ensuring that the United States (and its strategic nuclear forces) remained sufficiently “coupled” to Europe. If the U.S. should become “uncoupled” from Europe, the Soviet Union would be able to engage in a conventional attack safe in the idea that the United States would not risk using nuclear weapons out of fear of a reciprocal attack against the U.S. mainland. To compensate against this, the U.S. maintained longer-range theater nuclear systems to prevent this decoupling, starting with the Thor and Jupiter missiles.

In the wake of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the United States withdrew its Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missiles (IRBMs) from Europe in exchange for a Soviet withdrawal of its IRBMs from Cuba. The Soviet Union, however, maintained a large force of IRBMs inside of Soviet territory, which could target the majority of Europe. These IRBMs could be used to target key NATO targets, including NATO nuclear forces, stationed in Europe, leaving NATO unable to retaliate in kind without having to make use of strategic nuclear forces.

In response, the United States deployed both F-111 bombers and additional submarines armed with Polaris ballistic missiles to Europe and placed them directly under the command of the Supreme Allied Commander Europe. These systems were intended to counter Soviet IRBMs, essentially restoring the strategic balance in Europe. However, at the end of the 1970s, the Soviet Union began to field the SS-20 road-mobile ICBM. In addition to being a vast improvement in accuracy compared to the older IRBM systems, they were road-mobile and thus less vulnerable to NATO attack.

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