U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Nuclear Deterrence and Assurance Gap

By Walter Pincus

Pulitzer Prize Winning Journalist Walter Pincus is a contributing senior national security columnist for The Cipher Brief. He spent forty years at The Washington Post, writing on topics that ranged from nuclear weapons to politics. He is the author of Blown to Hell: America's Deadly Betrayal of the Marshall Islanders. Pincus won an Emmy in 1981 and was the recipient of the Arthur Ross Award from the American Academy for Diplomacy in 2010.  He was also a team member for a Pulitzer Prize in 2002 and the George Polk Award in 1978.  

OPINION — The Biden Administration’s fiscal 2023 budget and yet-to-be-publicly-released 2022 Nuclear Posture Review (NPR) call for ending research on a low-yield, nuclear submarine-launched cruise missile (SLCM) that was begun under the Trump administration.

However, at last Wednesday’s meeting of the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Strategic Forces, Adm. Charles Richard, head of Strategic Command (STRATCOM), forcefully promoted the need for such a weapon, with no Senator questioning Richard’s reasoning.

They should have.

The discussion began with Subcommittee Chairman Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) pointing out the SLCM defunding and asking, “Do we have a deterrent capability below the level of a massive response, and if not, isn’t that a gap in our current deterrent capacity?”

Richard responded saying, “We do have a deterrence capability.” He then further explained that in the case of SLCM, it was “a class of deterrence challenge,” which he described as “how do you deter limited employment?” By that he meant, in the face of the threatened use of one or more low-yield, tactical or battlefield nuclear weapons, does the U.S. only have high-yield strategic weapons as a response.

Russian President Vladimir Putin has been threatening such usage of tactical weapons for years, and more often since the beginning of the Ukraine crisis. Adm. Richard, as he has done in previous hearings, said STRATCOM has been working on responses to the limited employment of low-yield nuclear weapons since 2015, but neither King nor any other Senator asked at that moment what STRATCOM’s answer was.

Instead, Richard went on to say, “I think it is incumbent on us to learn lessons as we go along, as the threat changes – both China’s strategic [nuclear] breakout and what we’re learning in real time in the crisis inside Ukraine…The question becomes, as we go forward, what changes to building capacity and posture do we need to have to better deter the threats we face? I do submit that is the question we should be looking at based on what we are learning from the Ukraine crisis.” He added, “The deterrence and assurance gap, it’s important not to leave that out.”

At that moment, Richard answered his own question by providing his description of the nuclear weapon that apparently would fill his deterrence and assurance gap.

He described, “A non-ballistic, low-yield, non-treaty-accountable system that is available without visible generation would be very valuable.”

It should be no surprise that “non-ballistic” would fit the SLCM cruise missile; as would “non-treaty-accountable” as well as “without visible generation,” which is an advantage of a sub-launched missile.

When Sen. King asked, “And we don’t have that today?” and Adm. Richard responded, “That’s correct.” The STRATCOM Commander was not quite being honest.

Two years ago, the Trump administration developed a low-yield warhead, the W-76-2, for the D-5 strategic sub-launched missile, which it then deployed in 2019 on Trident submarines.

Some of those low-yield W-76-2 warheads are on U.S. Navy submarines on operational patrols today.

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More important, the W-76-2s were justified three years ago as being a response to the very same threat of Russian limited employment of battlefield nuclear weapons that Richard used last week to justify the SLCM.

Employing Richard’s description, these U.S. nuclear warheads currently in service, are “low-yield” and “without visible generation.” True they are on ballistic missiles and treaty-accountable, but so what?

Don’t the W-76-2s fill Richard’s deterrence/assurance gap? He didn’t mention them last Wednesday.

It also needs to be pointed out that there are other low-yield nuclear warheads in the U.S. arsenal that are available to match anything being threatened by Putin.

The Air Force has B-61 tactical nuclear bombs – with more than 100 deployed on NATO air bases in Europe – with dial-a-yield capability lower than one kiloton. In addition, the Air Force has hundreds of air-launched cruise missiles, with a more modern one on the way. All can be dialed to low yields.

However, when talking about nuclear weapons, U.S. delivery aircraft, such as F-15s, F-22s and B-52s, are often discounted with the argument that they could not penetrate Russian or other enemy anti-air defenses. However, when justifying building new generation fighter aircraft or bombers, the argument always has been that they can penetrate, thanks to their stealth or other electronic defensive capabilities.

Late in the hearing, Sen. Mike Rounds (R-S.D.) asked the basic question: “Can you imagine a world today where the United States did not have a clearly recognized nuclear deterrent capability that helps to keep peace in the world?”

Richard explained his version of the theory of nuclear deterrence: “No other capability today, or combination of capabilities, gets anywhere close to the destructive potential of nuclear…When you’re in competition with another nuclear capable opponent, if you can’t deter their vertical escalation, everything else is useless to you. But the reverse is also true. If you set that strong [nuclear] foundation, then using every military and other instrument of national power is actually much to your benefit because it enables you to resolve conflict at the lowest possible level of violence.”

Rounds then asked, “What do you mean when you say the deterrent [involves]…that you have multiple options available for the President of the United States in order to keep peace?”

Richard responded: “What you want to do is to be able to offer the President any number of ways at which he might be able to create an effect that will change the opponent’s decision calculus and get them to refrain or otherwise seek negotiations, vice continued hostilities. So, ballistic versus non-ballistic. Do you want it visible or do you want it not visible; do you want it prompt or do you want it [to] come in a long period of time. Each of these is very situational specific.”

Richard then went on to link those views to the SLCM program.

He said, “My recommendation on the SLCM, for example, is not an effort to re-litigate the Nuclear Posture Review [which ends the SLCM program]. It is based on the conditions we find ourselves in today. When I look at what I am able to offer the President, and ask myself what would do a better job, lower the risk, give us more confidence in our deterrent capability, that’s where that recommendation is a specific example of the broader – that’s why you want a lot of options.”

One problem for Richard is that the term “options” for the President when discussing nuclear weapons has two different contexts. In one case it involves public acknowledgement for the purpose of deterrence Russia or perhaps China or North Korea. Another purpose could be to encourage Congress to fund one weapon or another.

But in the second case of “options,” which would not be public, Richard would be involved in giving the President his alternatives when discussing the ordering of the possible use of nuclear weapons against an enemy. That would be a totally different type of conversation.

In the case of SLCM, for example, is Richard publicly promoting the weapon for deterrence value, to show Putin that the U.S. has yet another alternative to respond to his threatened use of battlefield nuclear weapons – even though the W-76-2 is already deployed? Or does Richard believe the SLCM has some needed military value that the W-76-2 and other low-yield nuclear weapons don’t have?

During last Wednesday’s hearing, Richard said the Biden 2022 NPR “has produced in my opinion, a very good strategy. I think as we implement the NPR, we have to take that strategy, and then as threats change…We don’t know where China is going to wind up in capability and capacity. We’re learning probabilities are different, based on what we are seeing in Ukraine, and the NPR calls for that. The next step is to actually implement that process and ask ourselves what posture, what capability, what capacity do we need to execute that good strategy?”

Against the background that Richard has created, don’t be surprised if the Democratic-led Congress reinstates fiscal 2023 funding for the SLCM and even adds funds to step up development of the new W-93 new strategic warhead to meet the Chinese rapid nuclear buildup.

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