Leave nuclear Tomahawks where they belong — in the ‘80s

Getty Images

Two former defense officials are circulating a proposal in Washington to resurrect an obsolete nuclear weapon and deploy it near Europe. The rationale is to punish Russia for violating the Intermediate Nuclear Forces (INF) treaty. 

The Trump administration and European allies should not be lured by this dangerous and flawed proposal. In addition to reigniting a nuclear arms race ended by Ronald Reagan 30 years ago, reintroducing nuclear-armed Tomahawk cruise missiles would aggravate the INF crisis by validating Moscow’s claims of U.S. noncompliance. At the same time, it would have no added value for U.S. security or extended nuclear deterrence.

{mosads}The authors — retired U.S. Navy Admiral Sandy Winnefeld, who serves on board of the company (Raytheon) that makes the cruise missile, and James N. Miller, the undersecretary of defense for policy in the Obama administration — want to “show Russia that its violation of the INF Treaty is a mistake that has costs.” 


Their answer is to arm the latest version of Tomahawk sea-launched cruise missiles with nuclear warheads and deploy them on Navy submarines off European coasts. Winnefeld and Miller argue that the move would bolster extended deterrence on the continent.

The last time the U.S. pursued such a strategy was in the 1980s when both the U.S. and the Soviet Union poured hundreds of nuclear weapons into Europe, raising fears of a global thermonuclear war and igniting massive protests. The crisis only ended in 1987 when Ronald Reagan and Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev forged the INF Treaty — leading to the elimination of all land-based missiles with a range of 500-5500 km.

President George H.W. Bush continued the dismantlement of obsolete cold war arsenals by withdrawing all nuclear weapons from Navy ships. The historic process was concluded during the Obama administration, with the dismantlement of the nuclear Tomahawk cruise missiles. 

The logic behind this long-term bipartisan policy was sound: Due to their indiscriminate effects and the risk of escalation, the so-called “battlefield nuclear weapons” are irrelevant for real-world military operations.

That logic is now being questioned both due to Russian and U.S. actions. The United States believes that Russia is violating the INF Treaty by deploying a new cruise missile within the prohibited range. Russia, for its part, argues that the Vertical Launching System (VLS) at the land-based “Aegis Ashore” missile defense sites in Poland and Romania constitutes an American violation of the treaty.

The Russian allegation has to do with the multipurpose nature of the launch tubes: VLS can be used for both antimissile interceptors and Tomahawk cruise missiles. As President Putin argued last year, “The launch tubes where these missiles are stored … are the same that are used on navy ships to carry Tomahawk missiles. You can replace interceptor missiles with Tomahawks in a matter of hours … All they need is to change the software.” 

Because the INF Treaty also bans launchers, Moscow’s allegations are not as “ridiculous” as Winnefeld and Miller suggest. Russian concerns about the Romanian and Polish missile defense sites would increase with the prospect of Tomahawks being armed with nuclear weapons. A resuscitated nuclear Tomahawk would thus complicate any political settlement of either the INF or the missile defense dispute.

Winnefeld and Miller also argue that the nuclear Tomahawk would give NATO a “more credible rung on an escalation ladder … between conventional weapons and all-out nuclear war.” But this is a false choice. First, the idea of a limited nuclear war is dangerous and misleading: Nuclear weapons are by nature indiscriminate, and any use of them carries the risk of uncontrollable escalation.

Second, even if you buy into this logic, the U.S. already has plenty of “limited nuclear options” short of all-out war. These could involve the launch of one, a dozen, or a hundred weapons from a wide-variety of air-, sea- and land-based systems, including the tactical B-61 gravity bombs deployed on the territory of five NATO allies. It is hard to see what an obsolete cruise missile would add to these options. 

Bringing back 1980s weapons systems to Europe will not force Russia to back down — it will provoke further escalatory steps and increase the risk of accidental nuclear war.

Instead, Washington should maintain the high ground and put more effort in seeking a diplomatic solution to the INF crisis. This means not only pressing Russia to dismantle its illegal cruise missile but also inquiring into the motivations behind Moscow’s cruise missile policy and making clear that the U.S. antimissile systems only serve defensive purposes.


Tytti Erästö, Ph.D., is the Roger L. Hale fellow at the Ploughshares Fund, a global security foundation in Washington, D.C. 

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill. 
Tags Cold War Cruise missile Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty International relations International security Military doctrines Military strategy NATO Nuclear arms race Nuclear strategies Nuclear warfare Nuclear weapons Tomahawk
See all Hill.TV See all Video

Most Popular

Load more


See all Video