January 4th, 2018
By Dr Rowan Allport – Senior Fellow
During the Cold War, the availability of tactical nuclear weapons to the militaries of non-nuclear NATO states was a staple of Western European defence. Sourced from the US and only possible to deploy with authorization from Washington, these weapons included tactical ballistic missiles such as the MGM-52 Lance, artillery shells, free-fall bombs, depth charges and surface-to-air missiles. West Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Greece, Italy, Turkey and Canada, as well as the independently nuclear UK, all had one or more of these weapon types available for their use should appropriate firing clearance have been issued.
The military logic of the forward stationing of such weapons in front-line states and allowing non-nuclear nations to field them with their forces was clear. In the event of a conflict breaking out, the time needed to deploy them would be reduced, and by integrating the weapons into the units that would actually be tasked with the fighting, they could be utilized in the optimum manner. Sharing the responsibility of nuclear weapons delivery (while still keeping it on a tight leash) also ensured that a burden that otherwise would have been carried exclusively by US forces was shared between the allies.
Had the Cold War continued, the Lance missile would likely have been replaced by a nuclear variant of the Army Tactical Missile System (ATACMS), the conventionally armed version of which entered production in the late 1980s. Such a weapon, launched from the plentiful M270 Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) that was already deployed in a saturation bombardment role, would have been longer range and far more flexible than its predecessor.
As it was, the Cold War ended, and the number of tactical nuclear weapons stationed in Europe dwindled to around 150 free-fall bombs. There were two main reasons for this. Firstly, Russia’s conventional forces are no longer in a geographical or numerical position to inflict an outright military defeat on NATO in Europe. Moscow’s modern military no longer sits on the Inner German Border, nor does it have millions of active personnel at its disposal.
Secondly, precision guided weapons have taken over much of the tasking from tactical nuclear forces. For example, where as in the past the only way to eliminate an armoured regiment in one go would be to use a nuclear warhead, a handful of aircraft carrying munitions such as the UK’s Brimstone or US SDB II can now do the job in the right circumstances.
At the same time, stand-off precision guided munitions are also taking the role of nuclear weapons in threatening targets further behind the front line. While knocking out an airfield or bunker might in the past have called for a theatre nuclear missile such as the MGM-31 Pershing, conventional cruise missiles with advanced warheads can now often be used.
Given that a major role of nuclear weapons in any guise is to act as a deterrent, this task (minus the apocalyptic undertones) is also now falling to conventional precision guided munitions. Both the operational and deterrent value provided by modern non-nuclear technology helps explain the decision of both Poland and non-NATO Finland to procure the AGM-158 JASSM cruise missile for their aircraft fleets. While unable to stand up to their neighbour Russia outright, JASSM does at least allow them to hold key targets at risk. It also reduces the need for the US to forward base such systems in Europe in peacetime and – much like Cold War tactical nuclear weapons – ensures that such munitions are available on day one, and in the hands of those who have the ‘local knowledge’ to use them best.
There are, however, weaknesses in this strategy for NATO in Europe as currently being executed. Air-launched stand-off weapons of the type currently being used are vulnerable both on the ground and in the air. In Poland, the F-16s – from which the JASSMs would be launched – are split between just two air bases, both of which are vulnerable to Russia’s own missiles such as the KH-101 – as recently used in Syria – and, more significantly, the Iskander-M – a short-range ballistic missile to which NATO does not possess a counterpart. Even once launched, unsupported subsonic cruise missiles can be shot down with relative ease. This is particularly the case when they are used in small numbers: at present, Poland is only looking to purchase 200 JASSM/JASSM-ER missiles, with Finland buying a further 70.
Ideally, the solution to this would be to deploy a more survivable conventional weapons system to target militarily and politically sensitive sites within Russia. The problem is that as a stand-alone programme, this would cost a considerable amount of money. However, an alternative option – one that would involve ‘grafting’ a new capability onto a system in or about to enter service – already exists.
As previously noted, had the Cold War vision of a nuclear ATACMS to replace the Lance missile been taken forward, one of the main attractions would have been that – like its conventional version – the weapon would have been able to be fired by any appropriately modified MLRS launcher. By the late 1980s, these were already in service with or on the horizon for the US, British, French, German, Greek, Italian, Turkish, Dutch and Danish armies within NATO as firing platforms for unguided sub-munition-dispensing rockets. With the exception of the Netherlands and Denmark, all of these nations retain – in some reduced form – the MLRS launchers procured during the Cold War. Meanwhile, the US has led the deployment of the 190 mile-range conventionally-armed ATACMS. In recent years, the tracked MLRS has been joined in service by the High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS) – a truck-based launcher which fires the same range of ordinance as the MLRS, albeit with half the capacity (e.g. one ATACMS instead of two).
Currently, two parallel developments are in train that allow this situation to be built on to Europe’s wider defensive benefit. Firstly, two new NATO states – Romania and Poland – are in the midst of adopting MLRS-derived HIMARS variants. Romania has been cleared to buy 54 launchers, 54 ATACMS and 162 shorter-range guided rockets. Poland is also procuring a domestically-built but HIMARS-based system, and to support this is buying 61 ATACMS and 25 shorter-range guided rockets.
Secondly, ATACMS is now due for replacement under the Long-Range Precision Fires (LRPF) programme. Conceptually, the missile is designed to help to wean the US Army off its dependence on air superiority by providing striking power out to a range of 499km – a limitation dictated by the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty which bans US or Russian possession of land-based missiles which can travel beyond 500km. Practically, it will provide a more compact (both the MLRS and HIMARS will be able to carry twice as many LRPF missiles as ATACMS) and more survivable weapon. Both Lockheed Martin and Raytheon have been awarded development contracts, with the latter having named their system DeepStrike.
A clear path to deploying a survivable, effective and quantitatively strong conventional deterrent and strike force in Europe would therefore seem to be marrying existing and future MLRS/HIMARS users with LRPF missiles. For Eastern European NATO members in particular, the options this would present are significant.
As it stands, the purchase of HIMARS and ATACMS provides little ‘in country’ utility to the Romanian Land Forces. Potentially, strikes could be launched against the 1,500 or so Russian troops stationed in the Moldovian breakaway territory of Transnistria, although such an act would have little military value. Procuring LRPF missiles, however, would bring much of Russian-occupied Crimea – including the naval base in Sevastopol – into range for launchers stationed on the Romanian coast. Furthermore, it is expected that the LRPF missile will join HIMARS in being fitted with an anti-ship capability. This would give Bucharest – and by extension NATO – the ability to create an extremely hazardous environment for Russia’s newly revitalised Black Sea surface fleet in the western half of its namesake realm.
Poland would also have additional options. Already, ATACMS can easily reach the entirety of the heavily militarized Kaliningrad Oblast from Poland. LRPF missiles could potentially reach most of notional Russian ally Belarus, and would likely be more able to penetrate the defences of closer targets while having a greater area within Poland within which it could be kept concealed.
Further north, Finland is a non-NATO MLRS user that has become increasingly jittery over Russia’s behaviour. Having already embraced the conventional deterrent approach through purchasing JASSM, LRPF missiles would be the logical next step.
In the far north is Norway, a country that purchased twelve MLRS launchers only to withdraw them from service and place them in storage. Like Finland and Poland, Norway is also assembling a conventional airborne deterrent, this time through a combination of 52 F-35A aircraft equipped with the domestically developed Joint Strike Missile. However, the F-35 fleet will be largely confined to one main operating base, leaving it exposed to even a limited attack. An easily dispersible ground-based deterrent system such as LRPF would both complement existing plans and likely prove more survivable. Even if reactivating the stored MLRS force proves unviable, an alternative option exists. The US Marines keep a large stockpile of material in storage in Norway under the Marine Corps Prepositioning Program-Norway, ready to support a force of Marines that would be airlifted into the country in a crisis. As the Marines are already users of the HIMARS system, adding it and the missile that results from the LRPF programme to the equipment stockpiles would take little effort. Launching from northern Norway, it would be possible to hit most of the Kola Peninsula, home to Russia’s Northern Fleet.
It could of course be argued that such deployments along Russia’s borders would be provocative. However, this is easy to counter: the fielding of the LRPF system would simply redress the balance. At present, NATO has no equivalent to the Iskander missile family. Already deployed across Russia, the units based in Kaliningrad can hit most of Poland, and the Baltic States are completely exposed to missiles launched from this location or Russia proper. As such, any protests from Moscow can be seen as hypocritical at best.
There are also potential barriers presented by the Missile Technology Control Regime (MTCR), an agreement which aims to halt the spread of ballistic and other missiles with a range of over 300km while carrying over 500kg of payload. However, while the LRPF will exceed this range, its warhead will likely not. In any case, the MTCR arrangement is flexible, and is tasked primarily with averting the spread of weapons of mass destruction delivery systems.
The Cold War notion that the presence of tactical nuclear weapons in Europe during peacetime acted as part of the deterrent to an attack is the correct one. However, they formed part of an escalation process that could easily have ended with an irrecoverable Armageddon. In this context, a modern survivable conventional deterrent can be effective while being infinitely less dangerous. But core practices of NATO’s Cold War tactical nuclear force – forward basing in Europe, and integrating weapons systems into local forces – are still of major value.
If confronted with a LRPF-derived deterrent alongside other systems already in or entering service, Russia would – providing NATO unity held – have to face up to the prospect of rapid retaliation to any aggression that would strike a range of military and politically valuable targets. It would also help buy time for the laborious process of shipping in US reinforcements, and make the European environment more permissive when they arrived.
Fundamentally, there is a need for the West to develop new capabilities without continuously falling down the rabbit hole of entirely new systems. The adding of a 30mm cannon onto the US Army’s Stryker armoured vehicle and the modification of the US Navy’s SM-6 surface-to-air missile to serve an anti-shipping role are great examples of how this can be done. Leveraging existing platforms and the LRPF programme to develop a 21st century conventional deterrent for Europe is a further logical step.
Image: an MLRS launcher fires an ATACMS – the missile type the LRFP programme will replace