A US think tank has proposed installing nuclear weapons on the Lockheed Martin F-35C Joint Strike Fighter for deployment aboard aircraft carriers as a hedge against Russia and China.
Clark Murdock of the Center for Strategic and International Studies floated the idea of a return to carrier-based nuclear weapons in a new report published on 22 June.
The US government has committed to outfitting only the land-based F-35A with nuclear weapons as a “dual-capable aircraft,” namely the Boeing B61-12 thermonuclear guided bomb.
According to Murdock though, the F-35C should also receive nuclear weapons in the future as a “visible manifestation” of the United States’ commitment to protecting its allies.
“While I think bombers are an important hedge capability, what’s really important are nuclear-capable aircraft that can be forward-deployed on the territory of our allies,” he said at a report unveiling in Washington. The report, titled Project Atom, considers alternative nuclear strategies and force postures in the 2025 to 2050 time frame.
Murdock believes the “nuclear umbrella” the United States extends to its allies is more effective and reassuring when it is planted in allied territory instead of relying solely on long-range nuclear bombers, ballistic missiles and submarines.
According to the US Air Force, the first full-up B61-12 nuke will be assembled by 2020 and early aircraft integration activities with the F-35A are due to begin next year. The current time line would see the F-35A achieve dual-capable status by 2024 as part of the Block 4 configuration.
“We had 7,000 nuclear weapons forward-deployed in Europe at the pinnacle of the Cold War,” says Murdock. “In Asia, we had almost 1,000 deployed on the Korean Peninsula. About 3,000 total were in the Asia Pacific theatre.
“When the Soviets looked out at their borders, they didn’t just see a ring of American men and women in uniform, they saw a ring of nuclear weapons. They knew that any major, conventional aggression on their part would go nuclear because all the weapons were there.”
A Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit drops the B61-11, an earth penetrating nuclear weapon.
National Nuclear Security Administration
Murdock’s analysis also concludes that America needs to field range of nuclear weapons, at least one for every rung of the nuclear escalatory ladder, from low-yield, tactical nukes right up to those capable of mass destruction. The current US strategy favours a massive retaliatory response as the primary deterrent against a nuclear attack, leading some to question how the West will respond in the event of a lower-lever crisis.
Murdock as well as contributing author Elbridge Colby of the Center for a New American Security believe America needs a variety of air-delivered tactical nuclear weapons, including low collateral, enhanced radiation, earth penetration, electromagnetic pulse “and others as technology advances”.
“US nuclear weapons should and need to do more than threaten unhindered devastation,” says Colby. “It’s not very credible if the United States threatens to loose apocalyptic destruction that would call forth a matching response over something less than a very central or grave interest. It’s a bad idea.
“I do think the US should reserve the right and the ability to use nuclear weapons first in extreme circumstances to respond to aggression.”
The conversation about the strategic nuclear force structure comes as the US Defense Department embarks on a major recapitalisation of its nuclear triad, which critics and supports alike say is unaffordable.
It also comes as the West’s former Cold War rivals Russia and China invest heavily in their nuclear infrastructure, while America’s nuclear weaponry ages out.
The DOD is requesting billions of additional dollars from Congress to buy a new nuclear-capable bomber, submarine, ballistic missile, cruise missile and nuclear command-and-control apparatus.
Center for Strategic and International Studies