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US Navy No Likee Nukie?
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“I am not an atomic playboy”.  Admiral William Blandy, joint commander of the Crossroads nuclear test, perhaps demonstrating post-test the Navy’s preferred mode of encounter with nuclear weapons.
“I am not an atomic playboy”. Admiral William Blandy, joint commander of the Crossroads nuclear test, perhaps demonstrating post-test the Navy’s preferred mode of encounter with nuclear weapons.

I have an article up exclusively on Asia Times, The Case of the Missing Nukes…and a Disappearing US Mission in Asia, concerning an interesting and, I fear, transitory lack of tactical nuclear weapons in theater in Asia.

I see tactical nukes making a comeback in Asia, probably courtesy of the Long Range Stand Off weapon a.k.a. nuclear-tipped cruise missile that the Pentagon probably sees as the real game-changer in countering the PRC’s military buildup. I’m addressing that issue in depth in a separate piece.

I suspect the US Navy itself is happy to be out of the tactical nuclear business and, in fact, fears their return.

For one thing, surface ships do not do well in nuclear exchanges, tactical or otherwise, something that might appear obvious in retrospect but needed to be demonstrated to the overly-optimistic Navy brass by detonating a nuclear warhead amid a flotilla of derelict ships at Bikini Atoll for the benefit of Admiral Blandy.

I have a detailed write-up on the far-reaching significance of the Crossroads test (and the background of the legendary cake picture)here.

Second, judging by an appalling litany of Navy-related nuclear accidents compiled by the Federation of American Scientists, a pitchy platform on a slobbery ocean filled with enemy ships and other manmade and natural hazards is perhaps not the best place to store a nuclear arsenal.

Dozens of nuclear weapons were lost at sea over the decades because they were on ships, submarines, or aircraft that were lost. On December 5, 1965, for example, while underway from operations off Vietnam to Yokosuka in Japan, an A-4E aircraft loaded with one B43 nuclear weapon rolled overboard from the Number 2 Elevator. The aircraft sank with the pilot and the bomb in 2,700 fathoms (4,940 meters) of water. The bomb has never been recovered.

Here’s a picture from the FAS piece showing the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise on fire in 1969 after a conventional warhead exploded, ignited some jet fuel & caused a chain reaction of munitions and fuel explosions.

According to a subsequent account:

In all, there were 18 munition explosions or detonations. Eight holes were blown through the flight deck and deep into the ship. It took in a little over three hours to extinguish all of the fires. This incident resulted in 28 deaths and 344 injuries. There were 17 aircraft damaged and 15 destroyed. The cost of repairing the structural damage to the ship and replacing the aircraft and other equipment was over 126 million dollars.

According to the captain, losing the ship was a distinct possibility. In addition to its 8 nuclear reactors, the Enterprise carried about 100 nuclear bombs.

Six years later, the aircraft carrier USS Kennedy, also with about 100 nuclear bombs, struck and almost sank the USS Belknap. The Belknap’s aluminum superstructure burned to the deckline in the resulting fire (helping convince the US Navy to move to all-steel construction), killing 6, and the fires were stopped within a few feet of the bunker containing the Belknap’s nuclear munitions (warheads for its Terrier SAM battery).

…and the collision of the nuclear-armed attack sub USS Pintado with a Soviet sub

…and the loss of the USS Scorpion.

Even strategic subs, which I understand are supposed to stay aloof from the fray and lurk in safe, remote waters, have apparently had several accidents.

1968: USS Von Steuben (48 warheads on 16 Polaris missiles) collides with Spanish freighter…

1970: Fire on the submarine tender USS Canopus, itself carrying nuclear missiles & warheads, while moored next to two strategic subs in port. 96 nuclear warheads involved…

1974: The USS James Madison dives on top of a Russian attack sub that I guess was rather successfully shadowing it. 160 nuclear warheads on the James Madison. Number on Russian sub unknown.

1998: Collision between USS Kentucky & a US attack sub off Long Island; 192 warheads on Kentucky alone.

That’s just a sampling of what we know about. The FAS page has more.

And that’s just vulnerabilities exhibited in normal peacetime operations, without enemies shooting missiles, setting off bombs, firing torpedos, and whatnot. So maybe the US Navy on balance prefers that somebody else worry about storing and delivering tactical nuclear weapons.

Thirdly, nukes, especially tactical nukes, reduce the need for big, expensive conventional maritime platforms like aircraft carriers, destroyers, and so on, especially in dealing with a nuclear power like the PRC.

Because of the re-nuking of Asia, at least in US “defense” doctrine, that I anticipate, I view current Navy activities in the West Pacific as a dash by the US Navy to create a narrative supporting its relevance and enabling it to bulk up its position in the few years before the return of tactical nuclear weapons and growing local qualms about the wisdom of the pivot combine to sunset the Navy’s dominance of the China-containment narrative.

Make non-nuclear hay while the sun shines, in other words!

(Republished from China Matters by permission of author or representative)
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  1. The most fundamental problem with tactical nuclear weapons is that their use will lead to a strategic nuclear exchange and deaths in the tens of millions. I might see maintaining a few air-deliverable gravity bombs fo dissuade a non-nuclear power from pushing too far (essentially the French solution) but aside from that, the utility of tactical nuclear weapons is almost non-existent. Given the U.S. advantage in precision non-nuclear weapons, tactical nukes should be deemphsized. Anyone remember the “Pentomic Army?”

    • Replies: @Andrei Martyanov
  2. The Belknap ran into the Kennedy, not the other way around. I knew the officer of the deck and he wasn’t much of an officer, alas, and his career, and that of the CO of the Belknap ended at a court martial. Belknap was DDG and did not carry nukes.

    The Navy kept using Aluminum for superstructures as well.

  3. Andrei Martyanov [AKA "SmoothieX12"] says: • Website

    before the return of tactical nuclear weapons

    They never went away. Another matter, that US military’s doctrinal views were formed around supposition of US having an overwhelming conventional advantage over any peer or near-peer. This is way more applicable to naval affairs than to ground forces. What is happening right now is a change in naval paradigm and US Navy, for all its might, have some very serious force structure issues facing this change. If in 1960s or 1970s, say Soviet Navy’s heterogeneous forces would strongly consider the use of tactical nukes to deal with US Navy’s CBGs. Starting from 1980s, let alone today both Russia’s and China’s naval forces seriously consider keeping a possible maritime conflict within conventional framework. Judging by PLAN’s tempo of commissioning its DDG and FFGs all armed with supersonic anti-shipping missiles, as well as number of indigenous subs, however inferior to US or Russian subs, it is all about conventional conflict.

    • Replies: @5371
  4. 5371 says:
    @Andrei Martyanov

    Do you have an opinion on China’s nuclear arsenal, Smoothie? As small as it is officially stated to be in the west, or not?

    • Replies: @Andrei Martyanov
  5. Andrei Martyanov [AKA "SmoothieX12"] says: • Website

    A million, or a billion dollar question. I have an opinion but I don’t have the knowledge–I can totally see China under-reporting or under-stating her nuclear capability. By how much? I don’t know.

  6. Andrei Martyanov [AKA "SmoothieX12"] says: • Website
    @Diversity Heretic

    The most fundamental problem with tactical nuclear weapons is that their use will lead to a strategic nuclear exchange and deaths in the tens of millions.

    In naval war–not necessarily. But that is a separate topic in itself. On the other hand–the loss by the United States of even single CVN, say to the salvo of conventionally armed Kalibr or Onyx missiles, or, if to believe PLAN, by their DF-21, will have such an immense impact on both operational and image realities for the US that it is totally conceivable that US will decide to exercise a nuclear option. How will US do that is a huge topic in itself too.

    • Replies: @Diversity Heretic
  7. @Andrei Martyanov

    Good comment–you’ve given this some thought. Most of the tactical exchanges that I read about involved Central Europe–they invariably escalated to strategic exchanges within 3-7 days. I suppose naval engagements might be different. One might imagine a tacit agreement to limit nuclear weapons use to warships at sea.

    What I worry about most is that a carrier battle group tries to move in close, in support of some land operation on the periphery of a major power (e.g., Russia in the Baltic or Black Sea or China in the South China Sea) and gets clobbered by non-nuclear land-based assets (CVN sunk with all hands or completely disabled; supporting ships taking heavy losses). The ground forces that they are supporting are now surrounded and either surrender or face annihilation. The temptation (and I’m most afraid that Hillary Clinton would reach for it) is a tactical nuclear attack on the ground of the country from which the strikes disabling the carrier battle group came. That attack escalates into a strategic exchange within 3-7 days. Tens of millions, maybe more, dead–bad scene. The U.S. needs to rethink what it’s doing pushing so close around the periphery of Russia and China.

    • Replies: @Andrei Martyanov
  8. Andrei Martyanov [AKA "SmoothieX12"] says: • Website
    @Diversity Heretic

    There were number of studies done, including the NO-risk aversion to the use of CBGs, in 1980s at the Naval War College in Newport which became known as Newport Papers. You can find them on NWC website. Today things changed, what then was a risk-aversion may become a complete risk-avoidance when using CBGs against the enemy capable of sinking (or disabling) them. That is why the program Street Fighter was developed by late Admiral Cebrowski (the father of Net Centric Warfare), which we all know today as Littoral Combat Ships (a major flop), this is why the talk of Distributed Lethality is so popular today–all because of the dawning of the reality of extreme vulnerability of CVN. But CVNs are US Navy’s main tool for power projection and it is not good against any enemy with first-class A2/AD capabilities. I think American naval people know this, what is dangerous–US power “elites” don’t. I agree with your concern about incompetent and megalomaniac politicians simply giving a stupid order, which can not be carried out without starting a shitstorm. As per HOW this shitstorm may come about, well–long story, too many possibilities.

  9. Foggy Bottom fave Masha Gessen is sad that nuking Moscow is off the table – for now. After the Black Sea buildup – who knows?

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