Tom Lohr is a 24 year navy veteran. He served primarily on destroyers working on surface-to-air and cruise missile systems.
The World is Getting Chilly
The nuclear genie is most definitively out of the bottle. Previously, the club of nuclear power militaries was an exclusive group of high-tech and responsible nations. Today, that once level-headed cadre now includes few less stable members (India and Pakistan), one demented associate (North Korea), and an dangerous wannabe (Iran). More will follow as the technology and material for nuclear weapons production becomes more readily available and easier to produce. Couple the expanding atomic society with an newly aggressive (and large) Chinese fleet, and a resurgent Russian navy and suddenly the United States Navy has more to worry about than it did during the Cold War. Compounding the issue are dwindling fleet numbers and the introduction of the seapower diluting Littoral Combat Ship (LCS). America's navy is quickly finding itself outgunned.
During the Cold War, the United States relied on nuclear weapons to even the odds against the Soviet Union, whose strategy was to produce cheaper, less sophisticated ships, planes and missiles and simply overwhelm US units. The factor that leveled the playing field was the implementation of shipboard nuclear weapons. The RIM-2D, the nuclear warhead equipped version of the Terrier surface-to-air missile, was designed to wipe out hoards Soviet missiles. The missile's range and powerful blast allowed the navy to eradicate saturation missile attacks in one swoop. The Rocket Thrown Nuclear Depth Charge (RTNDC), a version of the Anti-Submarine Rocket (ASROC) system, enabled ships to sink or disable soviet submarines without needing a pinpoint location for a torpedo attack. The Tomahawk Land Attack Missile (TLAM) had a nuclear version that could deliver tactical warheads to land based targets 1,000 miles distant.
In the late 1980s, it was decided to pull the nuclear fangs and retire all atomic weapons from our surface ships. A few short years later it seemed like a prudent decision. After the Soviet Union imploded, America's only challenger for global military dominance vanished. We had beaten the
Russkies and won the Cold War. Celebration was in order, as was a well deserved respite from being one step away from the nuclear brink. Unfortunately, the party lasted far too long. While we were busy saving money by reducing overall ship numbers and building weakly armed Littoral Combat Ships, China emerged as the dominant force in the western Pacific and Russia, regaining its composure, returned to its' former modus operandi -- global monkey business. While our enemies grew stronger, our seapower atrophied.
Weapons are the word's equalizer. It enables 100 pound weaklings to defend themselves against a 300 pound aggressor by simply picking up a handgun. Militaries are no different. Our navy learned during the Cold War that placing nuclear weapons on surface ships made up for the lack in numbers, and was the proverbial “big stick” that Teddy Roosevelt famously referenced. Due to our lack of diligence, we find ourselves in the deja vu situation of having a less than adequate fleet to deal with growing threats. It is time to allow our surface navy to pack a more powerful punch and once again become a more valuable tool in our geopolitical toolbox. It is time to rearm our fleet with tactical nuclear weapons.
Excluding aircraft carriers, and the incapable Littoral Combat Ship, re-nuclearizing the fleet could be accomplished in three phases to include all Cruisers, Destroyers and future Frigates.
Reintroduce the TLAM-N as part of normal deployment loadout.
The Tomahawk never really went away, just the nuclear-tipped variant. Converting future TLAMs at the factory or retrofitting the existing rounds would be a uncomplicated addition to naval land attack capability. A wider dispersed sea leg of the nuclear triad, a cornerstone of the United States' strategic defense, allows for a more versatile implementation of nuclear strikes by including seaborne smaller tactical warheads
Manufacture a nuclear version of the Vertical Launch ASROC (VLA).
This anti-submarine weapon had a model known as the Rocket Thrown Nuclear Depth Charge (RTNDC). It was a last ditch effort to neutralize Soviet submarines in the event they decided to nuke the United States with sub launched ICBMs. The major drawback was the weapons range. With a short range, the RTNDC launching ship stood a good chance of damaging itself, sacrificing one warship for millions of lives. The newer VLA sports a substantial increase in range, making it an appealing choice for destroying any undersea threat, along without having to have a precise target location for engagement. If a battlegroup is threatened by the ever increasing subsurface threat, a nuclear ASROC provides commanders with an option to quickly dispatch any goblin.
Produce a nuclear capable SM-2/6.
During the peak years of the Cold War, a Soviet tactic was to saturate our fleet's air defenses by launching swarms of anti-ship cruise missiles from large formations of bombers. Lacking the ability to pick off every ASCM, the navy leveled the playing field by placing a small nuclear warhead on some of its Terrier missiles. The resulting atomic air burst would wipe out any airborne threat in a large radius.
The strategic air power of Russia is again on the rise. Their introduction of a new, supersonic bomber demonstrates that they are serious about revitalizing their air force. Launching ASCMs from their bomber fleet is bound to be part of their naval strategy. That, coupled with the fact that ASCMs are becoming increasingly stealthier, is reason enough to outfit every Aegis equipped ship with at least a few nuclear SM-2s or SM-6s. Killing the enemy before they can launch their own weapons is always a winning strategy, and the SM-6 has the range to do it. And the ability to place an atomic blast in front of an onslaught of ASCMs would be the ultimate in saturation air defense.
It's Not Us, It's Them
Renuclearizing our navy is doable, and as fleet numbers dwindle, injecting more deterrence into our ships makes a smaller navy more deadly. Our allies will undoubtedly chastise the US for placing more nukes on the globe, but most of them, particularly the europeans, will benefit from a stronger US navy as they have no interest in churning out warship numbers that matter. Asian nations will complain less loudly, but accept a new nuclear fleet as necessary counter to China. The Russians, while protesting, respect power, will be envious and perhaps follow suit.
While it may seem like a step backwards into a Cold War mindset, keep in mind that during the Cold War, there were only two superpowers: the US and the USSR. Today, with Chinese naval expansion in the Pacific, there are three; and two of those would very much like to sink our fleet. Arming our ships with nuclear weapons would make them think twice.
Nukes For The Navy?
Pamela Oglesby from Sunny Florida on June 28, 2021:
This is a very informative and good article, Tom. You clearly have a better understanding of the world's fighting capabilities. I think we have to be strong, and I have heard more lately about China's growing military power.
Thank you for sharing all of this information as I think I am better informed now.