Posted: February 2, 2018 5:30 PM

Nuke Posture: More Flexible Response Posed for Navy Submarines

By RICHARD R. BURGESS, Managing Editor

ARLINGTON, Va. — The new 2018 Nuclear Posture Review outlines plans to give the Navy’s submarines more flexible nuclear response capabilities to meet a changing defense environment, Defense and Energy Department officials said.

Briefing reporters Feb. 2 at the Pentagon, Patrick M Shanahan, deputy secretary of Defense, said the nuclear yield of some of the warheads of the Navy’s submarine-launched ballistic missiles would be lowered and that a sea-based nuclear-tipped cruise missile capability would return to the fleet.

“Neither recommendation requires developing new nuclear warheads,” Shanahan said. “Neither will increase the size of our nuclear stockpile. They break no treaty. They align with our nonproliferation commitments. They strengthen American deterrence.”

The Navy maintained a nuclear-tipped version of the Tomahawk cruise missile in its arsenal until 2013. The briefers did not specify the vehicle that would return that capability to the fleet.

Shanahan stressed that the United States “would only consider the use nuclear weapons in extreme circumstances to defend the vital interests of the United States, its allies and partners.”

However, a U.S. nuclear response would not be limited only to nuclear attack. It could be a response to “significant non-nuclear strategic attacks,” Shanahan said. “This clarification is stabilizing. It lowers the risk of nuclear use by anyone.”

John C. Rood, undersecretary of Defense for Policy, affirmed that the United States, in order to preserve flexibility and credibility in its deterrent force, would “pursue some supplementary capabilities, one of which is a submarine-launched ballistic missile armed with a low-yield nuclear weapon.”

The fiscal 2019 budget request, expected to be released later this month, will announce more details of the plans, Rood said, adding it would be a “modest amount” in that it does not involve new warheads, missiles or submarines.

“There’s no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to deterrence,” Rood said. “A more flexible set of capabilities that is survivable, that is credible, and can be tailored to the circumstances to maintain deterrence, is the rationale behind looking at that capability.”

Rood said the Defense Department “will begin a study of the appropriate way to pursue [the cruise missile] and specifics around a program in that.”

He cited the “survivability of submarine-launched cruise missiles [and] the flexibility that that type of platform provides.

“Some of the attributes of the submarine-launched ballistic missile and the submarine-launched cruise missile [are] survivability, difficulty of detection, the flexibility and the range of circumstances to employ such a capability, where you place it, how you fly it, when you fly it,” he said. “The fact that you can have some flexibility in terms of whether you signal [the submarine’s] presence or you don’t, flexibility in basing options, given that most of the world’s surface is water, all of these things help provide flexible options for tailored deterrence.”

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