Nuclear Hiccup in South Korea: The Limits of Tactical Nukes

The F-16s (left) of the 8th Fighter Wing at Kunsan Air Base in South Korea lost their nuclear capability in 1991. The F-15Es (right) of the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Base in North Carolina no longer are certified for the nuclear strike mission. Instead, extended deterrence is served by conventional forces and long-range nuclear bombers and ballistic missiles.

By Hans M. Kristensen

In a surprising report, Korea Joongang Daily reported yesterday that White House coordinator for arms control and weapons of mass destruction, Gary Samore, had said that the United States would redeploy nuclear weapons to South Korea if the South Korean government asked for it.

I don’t know what Samore said or meant to say, but the hiccup comes at particularly bad time after two North Korean nuclear tests, its suspected sinking of a South Korean warship and the shelling of Yeonpyeong island, and repeated large-scale U.S.-South Korean military exercises, all of which have raised tension on the troubled Korean Peninsula again.

Fortunately the White House quickly corrected the record, explaning that “tactical nuclear weapons are unnecessary for the defense of South Korea and we have no plan or intention to return them” to the country.

It is particularly important that the rebuttal included more than “we have no plan” but also reiterated the fact that tactical nuclear weapons are “unnecessary” for the defense of South Korea.

As a consequence, the U.S. Air Force has over the past several years phased out the nuclear mission of two fighter wings in the United States that previously were tasked to forward deploy to Europe or Asia with tactical nuclear weapons (an example of a nuclear exercise in 1998 is available here). The F-15E aircraft of one of the wings, the 4th Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Base in North Carolina, are still considered nuclear capable but are no longer nuclear certified. Instead, the extended deterrence mission in Asia is, as it should be, served by forward-deployed conventional and long-range nuclear forces.

That tactical nuclear weapons are not necessary to defend a key ally is a fact that NATO should learn from. Nearly 200 U.S. tactical bombs are stuck in Europe because the alliance can’t figure out how to do what South Korea did 20 years ago. All the more strange because NATO, unlike South Korea, doesn’t have a large military threat right next door.

Background: A History of US Nuclear Weapons in South Korea

This publication was made possible by a grant from Carnegie Corporation of New York and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the author.

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6 Responses to “Nuclear Hiccup in South Korea: The Limits of Tactical Nukes”

  1. Frank Ch. Eigler March 2, 2011 at 5:31 pm #

    Yeah, maybe. Or could it be that the WH correction’s statement of definite non-necessity of tactical nukes is not entirely candid? It uses only the present tense, after all, whereas Samore was talking the future.

  2. sergey March 2, 2011 at 7:13 pm #

    These statements can compatible like this.
    US “have no plan or intention to return them” but “would redeploy nuclear weapons to South Korea if the South Korean government asked for it.”

    We must remember recent Nuke forward deployment issues raised from South Korean desperation, not US’s need or necessity.

    If US want to desuade South Korean needs to Nuke development, USG must consider it seriously.

  3. sergey March 2, 2011 at 10:07 pm #

    It would be better for US to prepare nuclear sharing. I think South Korean want to get US nuclear warhead accessibility via well-known dual-key agreement.
    South Korean cruise/ballistic missiles integrated with US nuclear warheads can demonstrate strong evidence for alliance.

  4. Distiller March 3, 2011 at 4:40 am #

    Don’t agree with that setup. All ACC F-15E units and all F/A-18F equipped VFAs should be kept nuclear capable. That would also make irrelevant the question of keeping tactical freefalling bombs in some foreign country, cause in the end they would always be only a couple of flight hours away.

    But in principal the nuclear option should be reinstalled to all theatre forces, from surface unit and SSN based cruise and anti-ship missiles, to ground based ATACMS, to heavy fighterbombers (SRAM should never have been retired, SRAM II built, and qualified for delivery by heavy fighterbombers). In addition a blast/EMP warhead option would be preferable.

    Strategic nuclear needs tactical nuclear to be effective, to inhibit salami tactics.

    Having dominantly strategic nuclear assets ready elevates the nuclear threshold in an unhealthy way. Tactical nuclear warheads are even more than their strategic counterparts an insurance against large land wars.

    And putting tactical nuclears on strategic delivery platforms (the heavy bombers) takes away capability from the strategic assets. In addition the posture to threaten minor nuclear powers (or nuclear suspects) with primarily strategic nuclear weapons might very well not work, as they speculate on a very high threshold for the use of strategic assets.

    In the end the nuclear capability has to be full range to be credible, all the way from rocket artillery to MIRV’d ICBMs.

  5. Daryl Press March 3, 2011 at 5:38 am #

    The common statement that tactical nuclear weapons are not needed to defend the ROK stems from the (in my view) correct assessment of how weak DPRK conventional forces are. Therefore, US nuclear weapons are not needed to rectify the conventional balance.

    But this way of thinking rests on a huge logical omission. Precisely because DPRK forces are so weak, escalation in the context of a conventional war on the Peninsula seems likely. If DPRK forces are rapidly smashed, Pyongyang will be looking for tools to force a stalemate — and escalation or threats or it (possibly against Japan) are a powerful lever. (For what it’s worth, Keir Lieber and I wrote an article in Foreign Affairs “The Nukes We Need” in 2009 on this challenge.)

  6. Keir Lieber March 3, 2011 at 12:37 pm #

    I’d just add that in such a coercive escalation scenario, tactical (low-yield) nukes would make for a more credible deterrent. (A U.S. leader is more likely to carry out a threat of retaliation if the consequences are thousands of civilian casualties versus millions.) Hans suggests that long-range nuclear systems are sufficient for any deterrence problem, but none of the fast-arriving strategic weapons in the U.S. arsenal are low-yield. And the consequences of high-yield detonations in North Korea — as shown by Hans’ excellent study of a hypothetical U.S. counterforce strike on China — would likely be catastrophically lethal in terms of regional fallout.

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