ALLIES’ CONCERN OVER RELIABILITY OF US NUCLEAR UMBRELLA
Sandwiched between Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and South Korean President Yoon Suk-Yeol, US President Joe Biden was all smiles at the start of a news conference at Camp David on August 18. He opened up by stating:
“If I seem like I’m happy, it’s because I am. This has been a great, great meeting.”
Biden looked in good spirits. “It is hard to exaggerate the significance of Friday’s summit,” The Washington Post commented.
Obviously, China was a major topic of discussion at the summit, but Biden insisted that it was “not about China” without mentioning China while referring to what the three leaders accomplished. In point of fact, the trio met in Camp David specifically because the US, which no longer is able to address the Chinese threat single-handedly, wanted Japan and South Korea to commit themselves to making a greater contribution as America’s vital Pacific allies.
During the “historic” summit, the leaders achieved significant milestones. The security cooperation between the US and Japan was taken to new heights. The outcomes of this summit include the commitment to conduct joint annual training exercises involving the military forces of all three nations. Additionally, plans were set in motion to commence real-time sharing of missile alert data by the end of this year, a move evidently targeted at addressing concerns related to North Korea. Another pivotal aspect of the agreement is the reinforcement of supply chains to counteract economic pressure, particularly from China. These multifaceted objectives collectively establish a framework for coordinated responses between Japan, South Korea, and the US in the face of regional threats.
The fundamental structure of wide-ranging military cooperation between Japan and South Korea that the US desperately desires has thus been provisionally established. The US is faced with a situation in which it must get Japan and South Korea to cooperate more closely than ever before. Put simply, the deterrence, i.e., the nuclear umbrella, that the US has provided to date could crumble in the not too distant future if maintained in its present form. Sugio Takahashi, Director of the Defense Policy Division, National Institute for Defense Studies under the Defense Ministry had this to say when he appeared on my weekly “Genron” Internet TV news show on August 11:
“The era of overwhelming dominance by the US is about to end. China is expected to have close to 1,500 nuclear warheads by 2035. If we are again dealing with “mutually assured destruction” (MAD), all of America’s allies under its nuclear umbrella will become more than a little anxious. That would be the same anxiety America’s European allies are known to have felt in the 1970s.”
Takahashi stressed that the Biden administration’s logic behind its security policies does not sit well with him in the first place, noting that in its Nuclear Posture Review (released in October 2020), it declared that the US would reduce the role of nuclear weapons in spite of analysis showing that the security environment was deteriorating across the globe.
30-Year Lifespan of Nuclear Warheads
“From the perspectives of nuclear deterrence experts, including those in the US, we cannot get rid of our anxiety over the reliability of America’s nuclear umbrella.”
All of America’s nuclear warheads are old, Takahashi pointed out, as its “newest” model was manufactured 34 years ago, in 1989, purportedly because the US had no reason to produce new warheads following the fall of the Berlin Wall and the end of the Cold War. But the lifespan of nuclear warheads is only 30 years.
“That became a big problem during the Bush administration and led the US from the Obama administration down to repair or renovate vital parts of nuclear warheads, such as “the pit” (a term used to refer to the core of the bomb where the nuclear reactions take place). As a result, the US is now not that concerned about the possible deterioration of its nuclear warheads. The problem has instead become the means of delivery.
A nation’s nuclear force comprises three components—ICBMs (Inter-Continental Ballistic Missiles), SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), and strategic bombers. The Minuteman 3 ICBM was first deployed in the early 1970s and the Trident D5 SLBM in the 1980s. The oldest US strategic bomber still in use today is the B52, which dates back to the 1960s.
The US is now pushing forward a modernization of its ICBMs, SLBMs, and submarines, the completion of the project slated for 2040. But Russia is said to be aiming for a completion of its weapons modernization program 14 years sooner than the US—by 2026. Clearly, the US is lagging behind Russia, which has been aiming for the expiration that year of the new START (Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty). Furthermore, the current US production capability of the pits is extremely limited, creating a situation which makes it difficult to drastically increase its nuclear warheads production despite the need to have more.
Masahisa Sato, a leading Liberal-Democratic Party (LDP) lawmaker who formerly served as deputy foreign minister, also appeared on the August 11 Genron program and added:
“The US is handicapped by fundamentally possessing only strategic nuclear warheads: It doesn’t have tactical nuclear warheads. So, an argument was made advocating development of low-yield nuclear warheads that could be launched from submarines—tactical nuclear warheads, that is—to effectively cope with China’s tactical nuclear warheads. Production began under the Trump administration, but Biden has frozen the program.”
Obviously, the US is currently unable to cope with Russian and Chinese nukes squarely. What brought about this situation? The conventional military force of the former Soviet Union once overwhelmed European forces. Unable to cope with the Soviets, the US and its European allies formed the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, turning to American nukes to make up for the weaknesses in their conventional forces.
It is now feared that Russia will use nuclear weapons to win its war with Ukraine. Having consumed a lot of conventional weapons, Russia might decide to resort to its nukes to make up for the shortage. Viewed in this light, one can see quite clearly that the party overpowered by the conventional forces of its adversaries is more likely to be motivated to resort to nuclear weapons.
What has the situation been in the Far East in the postwar era? After World War II US naval and air forces, in other words its conventional forces, were overwhelmingly powerful. How did China address the issue after the Communists took over? It was after the fall of the Berlin Wall that China began implementing double-digit year-on-year increases in military spending. The collapse of the Soviet Union allowed China to forge ahead with a reinforcement of its conventional forces with impunity. China had established diplomatic relations with the US in 1979, and Washington did not take a hostile view of China and its people, vigorously extending assistance instead.
Current Democratic Administration Will “Absolutely” Not Use Nukes
As a result, China has maneuvered to establish an overwhelming advantage in conventional forces over East Asia. In recent years, it has been going ahead with a massive increase of its nuclear arsenal.
Given the structure of the military balance between the US and China, doesn’t this mean that the US would be more likely to be compelled to consider the use of nuclear weapons?
But Takahashi declares that the current Democratic administration will “absolutely” not use nuclear weapons, noting:
“Clearly, the US has been hesitant about attacking (Mainland Russia) whether with nukes or conventional weapons, even when an ally or a friendly nation like Ukraine turns into a fierce battlefield. Which would mean that American allies must make up their mind to take action to defend themselves. And, viewed from our side, that would mean that we would be abandoned by the US when push comes to shove.”
“An alliance doesn’t mean an automatic entry into war by its members. During the war over the Falkland Islands in 1982, for instance, the UK asked the US, its closest ally, for support in dispatching troops. But Washington turned down the request. The lesson is that each nation must defend itself.”
In the 78 long years since the end of the last war, Japan has unrelentingly been immersed in the sweet dream of the unenlightened pacifism enshrined in our peace constitution, firmly believing that we would be protected by America under all circumstances. But that situation has begun to evolve drastically, with the American perception of Japan having undergone a significant change: the US now wants Japan to be self-reliant in its security policy and become its powerful ally capable of supporting it in time of need.
Throughout the postwar years, the US has kept Japan under its thumb, militarily speaking. Now that this American perspective of Japan has substantially changed, it is incumbent on us Japanese to correctly come to grips with America’s true intentions and wishes and explore ways to defend each other like true allies on equal footing. Now is the time for us to make all-out efforts to become a genuine and courageous democracy by discussing earnestly and without taboo not only a much-awaited constitutional revision but measures to achieve powerful self-reliance in our national security, including a sharing and strategic deployment of nuclear weapons.
(Translated from Renaissance Japan column no. 1,062 in the August 31, 2023 issue of The Weekly Shincho.)