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Declassified: US Nuclear Weapons At Sea

This piece was originally published by the Federation of American Scientists.  It is republished here with the author’s permission.  Read it in its original form here.

By Hans M. Kristensen

ASROC nuclear test.
ASROC nuclear test.

Remember during the Cold War when US Navy warships and attack submarines sailed the World’s oceans bristling with nuclear weapons and routinely violated non-nuclear countries’ bans against nuclear weapons on their territories in peacetime?

The weapons were onboard ballistic missile submarines, attack submarines, aircraft carriers, battleships, cruisers, destroyers, frigates and supply ships. The weapons were brought along on naval exercises, spy missions, freedom of navigation demonstrations and port visits.

Sometimes the vessels they were on collided, ran aground, caught fire, or sank.

Not many remember today. But now the Pentagon has declassified how many nuclear weapons they actually deployed in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean. In our latest FAS Nuclear Notebook published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists we review this unique new set of declassified Cold War nuclear history. 

The Numbers

The declassified documents show that the United States during much of the 1970s and the 1980s deployed about a quarter of its entire nuclear weapons stockpile at sea. The all-time high was in 1975 when 6,191 weapons were afloat, but even in 1990, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there were 5,716 weapons at sea. That’s more nuclear weapons than the size of the entire US nuclear stockpile today.

The declassified data provides detailed breakdowns for weapons in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Mediterranean for the 30-year period between 1961 and 1991. Prior to 1961 only totals are provided. Except for three years (1962, 1965 and 1966), most weapons were always deployed in the Atlantic, a reflection of the focus on defending NATO against the Soviet Union. When adding the weapons in the Mediterranean, the Euro-centric nature of the US nuclear posture during the Cold War becomes even more striking. The number of weapons deployed in the Pacific peaked much later, in 1987, at 2,085 weapons.

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The declassified numbers end in 1991 with the offloading of non-strategic naval nuclear weapons from US Navy vessels. After that only strategic missile submarines (SSBNs) have continued to deploy with nuclear weapons on board. Those numbers are still secret.

In the table above we have incorporated our estimates for the number of nuclear warhead deployed on US ballistic missile submarines since 1991. Those estimates show that afloat weapons increased during the 1990s as more Ohio-class SSBNs entered the fleet.

Because the total stockpile decreased significantly in the early 1990s, the percentage of it that was deployed at sea grew until it reached an all-time high of nearly 33 percent in 2000. Retirement of four SSBNs, changes to strategic war plans, and the effect of arms control agreements have since reduced the number of nuclear weapons deployed at sea to just over 1,000 in 2015. That corresponds to nearly 22 percent of the stockpile deployed at sea.

The just over 1,000 afloat warheads today may be less than during the Cold War, but it is roughly equivalent to the nuclear weapons stockpiles of Britain, China, France, India, Israel, Pakistan and North Korea combined.

Mediterranean Mystery

The declassification documents do not explain how the numbers are broken down. The “Atlantic,” “Pacific,” and “Mediterranean” regions are not the only areas where the U.S. Navy sent nuclear-armed warships. Afloat weapons in the Indian and Arctic oceans, for example, are not listed even though nuclear-armed warships sailed in both oceans. Similarly, the declassified documents show the number of afloat weapons in the Mediterranean suddenly dropping to zero in 1987, even though the U.S. Navy continued so deploy nuclear-armed vessels into the Mediterranean Sea.

During the naval deployments in support of Operation Desert Storm against Iraq in early 1991, for example, the aircraft carrier USS America (CV-66) deployed with its nuclear weapons division (W Division) and B61 nuclear strike bombs and B57 nuclear depth bombs. The W Division was still onboard when America deployed to Northern Europe and the Mediterranean in 1992 but had been disbanded by the time it deployed to the Mediterranean in 1993.

B61 and B57 nuclear weapons are displayed on board the USS America (CV-66) during its deployment to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The nuclear division was also onboard in 1992 but gone in 1993.
B61 and B57 nuclear weapons are displayed on board the USS America (CV-66) during its deployment to Operation Desert Storm in 1991. The nuclear division was also onboard in 1992 but gone in 1993.

As ships offloaded their weapons, the on-board nuclear divisions gradually were disbanded in anticipation of the upcoming de-nuclearization of the surface fleet. One of the last carriers to deploy with a W Division was the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67), which upon its return to the United States from a Mediterranean deployment in 1992-1993 ceremoniously photographed the W crew with the sign: “USS John F. Kennedy, CV 67, last W-Division, 17 Feb. 93.” The following year, the Clinton administration publicly announced that all carriers and surface ships would be denuclearized.

The last nuclear weapons division on the USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) is disbanded in February 1993. The following year the entire surface fleet was denuclearized.

Since nuclear weapons clearly deployed to the Mediterranean Sea after the declassified documents showing zero afloat nuclear weapons in the area, perhaps the three categories “Atlantic,” “Pacific,” and “Mediterranean” refer to overall military organization: “Atlantic” might be weapons under the command of the Atlantic Fleet (LANTFLT); “Pacific” might refer to the Pacific Fleet (PACFLT); and “Mediterranean” might refer to the Sixth Fleet. Yet I’m not convinced that organization is the whole story; the Atlantic numbers didn’t suddenly increase when the Mediterranean numbers dropped to zero.

The declassified afloat numbers end in 1991. After that year the only nuclear weapons deployed at sea have been strategic weapons onboard ballistic missile submarines. Most of those deploy in the Atlantic and Pacific but have occasionally deployed into the Mediterranean even after the declassified documents list zero afloat weapons in that region, and even after the surface fleet was denuclearized.

In 1999, for example, the ballistic missile submarine USS Louisiana (SSBN-743) conducted a port visit to Souda Bay on Crete with it load of 24 Trident missiles and an estimated 192 warheads. The ship’s Command History states that the port visit, which took place December 12-16, 1999, occurred during the “Alert Strategic Deterrent Patrol in support of national tasking” that included a “Mediterranean Sea Patrol.”

Risks of Nuclear Accidents


Deploying nuclear weapons on ships and submarines created unique risks of accidents and incidents. Because warships sometimes collide, catch fire, or even sink, it was only a matter of time before the nuclear weapons they carried were threatened, damaged, or lost. This really happened.

During night air exercises on November 22, 1975, for example, the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) and cruiser USS Belknap (CG-26) collided in rough seas 112 kilometers (70 miles) east of Sicily. The carrier’s flight deck cuts into the superstructure of the Belknap setting off fires on the cruiser, which burned out of control for two-and-one-half hours. The commander of Carrier Striking Force for the U.S. Sixth Fleet on board the Kennedy issues a Broken Arrow alert to higher commands stating there was a “high probability that nuclear weapons (W45 Terrier missile warheads) on the Belknap were involved in fire and explosions.” Eventually the fire was stopped only a few meters from Belknap’s nuclear weapons magazine.

The fire-damaged USS Belknap (CG-26) after colliding with USS John F. Kennedy (CV-67) new Sicily in 1975. The fire stopped a few meters from the nuclear warhead magazine.

The Kennedy also carried nuclear weapons, approximately 100 gravity bombs for delivery by aircraft. The carrier caught fire but luckily it was relatively quickly contained. Another carrier, the USS Enterprise (CVN-65), had been less fortunate six years earlier when operating 112 kilometers (70 miles) southwest of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. A rocket on a F-4 Phantom aircraft exploded puncturing fuel tanks and starting violent fires that caused other rockets and bombs to explode. The explosions were so violent that they tore holes in the carrier’s solid steel deck and engulfed the entire back of the ship. The captain later said: “If the fire had spread to the hangar deck [below], we could have very easily lost the ship.” The Enterprise probably carried about 100 nuclear bombs and was powered by eight nuclear reactors.

The nuclear-armed and nuclear-powered USS Enterprise (CVN-65) burns off Hawaii on January 14, 1969. The carrier could have been lost, the captain said.

Dozens of nuclear weapons were lost at sea over the decades because they were on ships, submarines, or aircraft that were lost. On December 5, 1965, for example, while underway from operations off Vietnam to Yokosuka in Japan, an A-4E aircraft loaded with one B43 nuclear weapon rolled overboard from the Number 2 Elevator. The aircraft sank with the pilot and the bomb in 2,700 fathoms (4,940 meters) of water. The bomb has never been recovered. The Department of Defense reported the accident took place “more than 500 miles [805 kilometers] from land” when it revealed the accident in 1981. But Navy documents showed the accident occurred about 80 miles (129 kilometers) east of the Japanese Ryukyu Island chain, approximately 250 miles (402 kilometers) south of Kyushu Island, Japan, and about 200 miles (322 kilometers) east of Okinawa. Japan’s public policy and law prohibit nuclear weapons. (For a video if B43 aircraft carrier handling and A-4 loading, see this video.)

An A-4 Skyhawk with a B43 nuclear bomb under its belly rises on an elevator from the hangar deck to the flight deck on the USS Independence (CV-62) in an undated US Navy photo. In December 1965, a B43 attached to an A-4 rolled off the elevator on the USS Ticonderoga (CVA-14) while the carrier was on its way to Yokosuka in Japan.

Three years later, on May 27, 1968, the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Scorpion (SSN-589) suffered an accident and sank with all 99 men on board in the Atlantic Ocean approximately 644 kilometers (400 miles) southwest of the Azores. The Department of Defense in 1981 mentioned a nuclear weapons accident occurred in the Atlantic in the spring of 1968 but continues to classify the details. It is thought that two nuclear ASTOR torpedoes were on board the Scorpion when it sank.

The USS Scorpion (SSN-589) photographed in the Mediterranean Sea in April 1968, one month before it sank in the Atlantic Ocean. The Navy later located and photographed the wreck (inserts).

Risks of Nuclear Incidents

Another kind of risk was that nuclear weapons on board US warships could become involved in offensive maneuvers near Soviet warships that also carried nuclear weapons. Sometimes those nuclear-armed vessels collided – sometimes deliberately. Other times they were trapped in stressful situation. The presence of nuclear weapons could significantly increase the stakes and symbolism of the incidents and escalate a crisis.

Some of the most dramatic incidents happened during the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962 where crisis-stressed personnel on Soviet nuclear-armed submarines readied nuclear weapons for actual use as they were being hunted by US naval forces, many of which were also nuclear-armed. At the time there were approximately 750 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Atlantic Ocean.

Less serious but nonetheless potentially dangerous incidents continued throughout the Cold War. In May 1974 the nuclear-powered attack submarine USS Pintado (SSN-672) collided almost head-on with a Soviet Yankee I-class ballistic missile submarine while cruising 200 feet (60 meters) below the surface in the approaches to the Petropavlovsk naval base on the Kamchatka Peninsula. The collision smashed much Pintado’s bow sonar, jammed shut a starboard side torpedo hatch, and damaged the diving plane. The Pintado, which probably carried 4-6 nuclear SUBROC missiles, sailed to Guam for seven weeks of repairs. The Soviet submarine, which probably carried its complement of 16 SS-N-6 ballistic missiles with 32 nuclear warheads, surfaced immediately and presumably limped back to port.


On August 22, 1976, for example, US anti-submarine forces in the Atlantic and Mediterranean had been tracking a Soviet nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed Echo II-class attack submarine for ten days. The Soviet sub partially surfaced alongside the US frigate USS Voge (FF-1047), then turned right and ran into the frigate. The collision tore off part the Voge’s propeller and punctured the hull. The Voge is thought to have carried nuclear ASROC anti-submarine rockets. At the time there were around 430 U.S. nuclear weapons deployed in the Mediterranean Sea. The Soviet submarine suffered serious damage to its sail and some to its front hull section. (For a US account of the incident, see here; a Russian account is here.)

Even toward the very end of the Cold War in the late-1980s, nuclear-capable warships continued to get involved in serious incidents at sea. During a Freedom of Navigation exercise in the Black Sea on February 12, 1988, the cruiser USS Yorktown (CG-48) and destroyer USS Caron (DD-970) were bumped by a Soviet Krivak-class frigate and a Mirka-class frigate, respectively. Both U.S. ships were equipped to carry the nuclear-capable ASROC missile and the Caron had completed a series of nuclear certification inspections prior to its departure from the United States. Yet the W44 warhead for the ASROC was in the process of being phased out and it is possible that the vessels did not carry nuclear warheads during the incident. The declassified data shows that the number of U.S. nuclear weapons in the Mediterranean dropped to zero in 1987. The Soviet Krivak frigate, however, probably carried nuclear anti-submarine weapons at the time of the collision.

The nuclear-capable USS Caron (DD-970) and USS Yorktown (CG-48) are bumped by Soviet frigates during Freedom of Navigation operations inside Soviet territorial waters on February 12, 1988. For a video of the Caron collision, see here, and the Yorktown collision, see here.

Nuclear Diplomacy Headaches

In addition to the risks created by accidents and incidents, nuclear-armed warships were a constant diplomatic headache during the Cold War. Many U.S. allies and other countries did not allow nuclear weapons on their territory in peacetime but the United States insisted that it would neither confirm nor deny the presence of nuclear weapons anywhere. So good-will port visits by nuclear-armed warships instead turned into diplomatic nightmares as protesters battled what they considered blatant violations of the nuclear ban.

The port visit protests were endless, happening in countries all over the world. The national governments were forced to walk a fine line between their official public anti-nuclear policies and the secret political arrangements that allowed the weapons in anyway.

Public sentiments were particularly strong in Japan because it was the target of two nuclear weapon attacks in 1945. Japanese law banned the presence of nuclear weapons on its territory and required consultation prior to introduction, but the governments secretly accepted nuclear weapons in Japanese ports.

During the 1970s and early-1980s, opposition to nuclear ship visits grew in New Zealand and in 1984 culminating in the David Lange government banning visits by nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed vessels. The Reagan administration reacted angrily by ending defense cooperation with New Zealand under the ANZUS alliance. Only much later, during the Obama administration, have defense relations been restored.

The nuclear-powered and nuclear-armed attack submarine USS Haddo (SSN-604) is barraged by protestors during a port visit to Oakland in New Zealand in 1979.

The treatment of New Zealand was partially intended to deter other more important allies in Europe from adopting similar anti-nuclear legislation. But not surprisingly, the efforts backfired and instead increased opposition. In Denmark the growing evidence that nuclear weapons were actually being brought into Danish harbors despite its clear prohibition soon created political pressure to tighten up the ban. In 1988, this came to a head when a majority in the parliament adopted a resolution requiring the government to inform visiting warships of Denmark’s ban. The procedure did not require the captain to reveal whether his ship carried nuclear weapons, but the conservative government called an election and asked the United States to express its concern.

The crew of the nuclear-armed destroyer USS Conyngham (DDG-17) uses high-pressure hoses to wash anti-nuclear protestors off its anchor chain during a standoff in Aalborg, Denmark, in 1988.

Across the Danish Straits in Sweden, the growing evidence that non-nuclear policies were violated in 1990 resulted in the government party deciding to begin to reinforce Sweden’s nuclear ban. The policy would essentially have created a New Zealand situation in Europe, a political situation that was a direct threat to the US Navy sailing its nuclear warships anyway it wanted.

These diplomatic battles over naval nuclear weapons were so significant that many US officials gradually began to wonder if nuclear weapons at sea were creating more trouble than good.

After The Big Nuke Offload

Finally, on September 27, 1991, President George H.W. Bush announced during a prime-time televised address that the United States would unilaterally offload all non-strategic nuclear weapons from its naval forces, bring all those weapons home, and destroy many of them. Warships would immediately stop loading nuclear weapons when sailing on overseas deployments and deployed vessels would offload their weapons as they rotated back to the United States. The offload was completed in mid-1992.

Two years later, the Clinton administration’s 1994 Nuclear Posture Review, decided that all surface ships would loose the capability to launch nuclear weapons. Only selected attack submarines would retain the capability to fire the nuclear Tomahawk land-attack sea-launched cruise missile (TLAM/N), but the weapons would be stored on land. Sixteen years later, in 2010, the Obama administration decided to retire the TLAM/N as well, ending decades of nuclear weapons deployments on ships, attack submarines, and on land-based naval air bases.

After the summer of 1992, only strategic submarines armed with long-range ballistic missiles have carried U.S. nuclear weapons at sea, a practice that is planned to continue through at least through the 2080s. These strategic submarines (SSBNs) have also been involved in accidents and incidents, risks that will continue as long as nuclear weapons are deployed at sea. Because secrecy is so much tighter for SSBN operations than for general naval forces, most accidents and incidents involving SSBNs probably escape public scrutiny. But a few reports, mainly collisions and groundings, have reached the public over the years.

USS Von Steuben (SSBN-632) after collision with tanker Sealady.

During a strategic deterrent patrol on August 9, 1968, the USS Von Steuben (SSBN-632) was struck by a submerged tow cable while operating submerged about 40 miles (64 kilometers) off the southern coast of Spain. As it surfaces, the submarine collides with the tanker Sealady, suffering damage to the superstructure and main deck (see image right). The submarine carried 16 Polaris A3 ballistic missiles with 48 nuclear warheads.

Two years later, on November 29, 1970, a fire breaks out onboard the nuclear submarine tender USS Canopus (AS-34) at the Holy Loch submarine base in Scotland. Two nuclear-powered ballistic missile submarines (USS Francis Scott Key (SSBN-657) and USS James K. Polk (SSBN-645)) were moored alongside Canapus. The Francis Scott Key cast off, but the Polk remained alongside. The fire burns out of control for four hours killing three men. The submarine tender carried nuclear missiles and warheads and the two submarines combined carried 32 Polaris A3 ballistic missiles with a total of 96 nuclear warheads.

Four years later, in November 1974, after having departed from its base at Holy Loch in Scotland, the ballistic missile submarine USS James Madison (SSBN-627) collides with a Soviet submarine in the North Sea. The collision left a nine-foot scrape in the Madison, which apparently dove onto the Soviet submarine, thought to have been a Victor-class nuclear-powered attack submarine. The Madison carried 16 Poseidon (C3) ballistic missiles with 160 nuclear warheads. The Soviet submarines probably carried nuclear rockets and torpedoes. Madison crew members called the incident The Victor Crash. Two days after the collision, the Madison enters dry dock at Holy Loch for a week of inspection and repairs.

The missile submarine USS James Madison (SSBN-627) in dry dock in Scotland in 1974 only days after it collided with a Soviet Victor-class nuclear-powered attack submarine in the North Sea.

After nuclear weapons were offloaded from surface ships and attack submarines in 1991-1992, nuclear-armed ballistic missile submarines have continued to run aground or bump into other vessels from time to time.

On September 24, 1993, for example, after conducting a medical evacuation for a suck crew member, the ballistic missile submarine USS Maryland (SSBN-738) ran aground at Port Canaveral, Florida. The submarine was on a strategic deterrent patrol with 24 missiles onboard carrying an estimated 192 warheads. The Maryland eventually pulled free and continued the patrol two days later.

On March 19, 1998, while operating on the surface 125 miles (200 kilometers) off Long Island, New York, the ballistic missile submarine USS Kentucky (SSBN-737) was struck by the attack submarine USS San Juan (SSN-751). The Kentucky suffered damaged to its rudder and San Juan’s forward ballast tank was ruptured. In a typical display of silly secrecy, the Navy refused to say whether the Kentucky carried nuclear weapons. But it did; the Kentucky was in the middle of its 21st strategic deterrent patrol and carried its complement of 24 Trident II missiles with an estimated 192 nuclear warheads.

In 1998, the USS Kentucky (SSBN-737) carrying nearly 200 nuclear warheads collided with an attack submarine less than 230 miles (378 kilometers) from New York City.

Conclusions and Recommendations

The Obama administration has made an important contribution to nuclear policy by declassifying the documents with official numbers of US nuclear weapons deployed at sea during the Cold War. This adds an important chapter to the growing pool of declassified information about the history of the U.S. nuclear arsenal.

The new declassified information helps us better understand the extent to which nuclear weapons were involved in day-to-day operations around the world. Every day, nuclear-armed warships of the US and Soviet navies were rubbing up against each other on the high seas in gong-ho displays of national determination. Some saw it as necessary for nuclear deterrence; others as dangerous nuclear brinkmanship. Many of those who were on the ships submarines still get goosebumps when they talk about it and wonder how we survived the Cold War. The tactical naval nuclear weapons were considered more acceptable to use early in a conflict because there would be few civilian casualties. But any use would probably quickly have escalated into large-scale nuclear war and the end of the world as we know it.

The declassified information, when correlated with the many accidents and incidents that nuclear-armed ships and submarines were involved in over the years, also helps us remember a key lesson about nuclear weapons: when they are operationally deployed they will sooner or later be involved in accidents and incidents.

This is not just a Cold War lesson: thousands of nuclear weapons are still operationally deployed on ballistic missile submarines, on land-based ballistic missiles, and on bomber bases. And not just in the United States but also in Britain, France, and Russia. Some of those deployed weapons will have accidents in the future. (See here for the most recent)

Moreover, growing tensions with Russia and China now make some ask if the United States needs to increase the role of its nuclear weapons and once again equip aircraft carriers with the capability to deliver nuclear bombs and once again develop and deploy nuclear land-attack sea-launched cruise missiles on attack submarines.

Doing so would be to roll back the clock and ignore the lessons of the Cold War and likely make the current tensions worse than they already are.

Instead, the United States should seek to work with Russia – even though it is challenging right now – to reduce deployed nuclear weapons and jointly try to persuade smaller nuclear-armed countries such as China, India, and Pakistan from increasing the operational readiness of their nuclear forces. That ought to be one thing Russia and the United States could actually agree on.

Background information:

Hans M. Kristensen is the director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists where he provides the public with analysis and background information about the status of nuclear forces and the role of nuclear weapons.

The research for this publication was made possible by a grant from the New Land Foundation, and Ploughshares Fund. The statements made and views expressed are solely the responsibility of the authors.

Reviewing Charles Glasers’ “China-U.S. Grand Bargain”

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Peter Marino

In May of this year, the PLA released its most expansive defense White Paper ever. Having now firmly left in the past the original missions of the PLA simply to defend the Chinese mainland, the paper imagines a solidly regional, and even global, role for its armed forces to protect Chinese vital interests in economics and politics. This has understandably put additional pressure on US and Western defense planners to review their own strategic postures towards China and reassess how they intend to position themselves against it, as the post-First Cold War international architecture breaks down and a Second Cold War seems to be coming into focus. Squarely in the middle of any reassessment of U.S. strategic posture towards China would undoubtedly be Taiwan policy. Should the US hold to its commitments under the 1979 Taiwan Relations act? Should it strengthen these commitments? Or should it abandon them altogether? China specialists across the spectrum are weighing in. Today, I take a moment to review one such proposal, by Professor Charles Glaser of the Elliott School.1

[1] Charles L. Glaser. “A U.S.-China Grand Bargain? The Hard Choice between Military Competition and Accommodation.” International Relations 39, No. 4, Spring 2015, 49-90.

Peter Marino holds an MSc in Global Politics from The London School of Economics and is a graduate of Norwich University. He lived in Shanghai from 2003 to 2008 and served as head of China development for London-based Aurigon, Ltd. He founded and sold Quaternion, a political risk startup, and is currently establishing a new Think Tank for International Affairs aimed at promoting engagement with the “Millennial Generation.” He also produces Globalogues, a video blog with commentary on global politics and economics. The views expressed in this article are his own.

CIMSEC content is and always will be free; consider a voluntary monthly donation to offset our operational costs. As always, it is your support and patronage that have allowed us to build this community – and we are incredibly grateful.

Avoiding Conditions for an Asia-Pacific Cold War

Guest post for Chinese Military Strategy Week by Jack McKechnie

The People’s Republic of China’s new Military Strategy white paper indicating China’s military strategy is a positive step towards transparency, but comparison with the recent U.S. National Military Strategy (NMS) reveals a significant difference and ominous implications of future paths. Should China and the U.S. pursue their stated military strategies, a period of increasing tension and force buildup will ensue as the U.S. and allies seek to maintain an absolute advantage over a rising Chinese regional advantage. While the national leaderships of China and the U.S. will likely strive to avoid the use of force, miscalculations can occur and attempts at reassurance can fail with severe, complicating, and long-lasting consequences for everyone involved. A future strategy by China that reassures the rest of the world that its rise is peaceful is necessary to avoid this situation.

Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, Reuters
Barack Obama and Xi Jinping, Reuters

Although both documents appear to portray each country’s military strategies, there is a key difference that makes this an imperfect comparison. While the U.S. president is both commander-in-chief of the U.S. military as well as party chief of his political party, the U.S. military is not a party army, and the U.S. NMS has no mandate to keep the Democratic Party in power. Xi Jinping is both chairman of the China’s central military commission as well as general secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC), but the PLA is a party army, and the PRC defense white paper declares that “China’s armed forces will unswervingly adhere to the principle of the CPC’s absolute leadership” and “remain a staunch force for upholding the CPC’s ruling position.”

Communist Party of China in the Great Hall of the People, CNN.com
Communist Party of China in the Great Hall of the People, CNN.com

The PRC defense white paper articulates a response to security threats to the CPC, not China, and there are circumstances in which a move benefitting the CPC does not benefit China. A fixation to remain in power and a tendency to exaggerate threats to party rule may lead the CPC to assume a more aggressive posture resulting in higher risk of conflict than the actual security threat to China would justify. The risk of a serious conflict, which would be devastating for the Chinese people, warrants consideration of an assuring and less threatening stance instead. The CPC’s aggressive rhetoric regarding Taiwan, Japan, and the South China Sea may be intended to bolster domestic support for the CPC, but should miscalculation and conflict occur, the impact to China’s growth could be severe. Ironically, these economic consequences of conflict may cause the CPC to face a primary concern, disorder at home, and which they may hope to forestall by rallying their populace with assertive foreign policy.

From the perspective of the CPC, this makes reassurance and the avoidance of miscalculation critical, but the difference in objective for the PRC defense white paper contributes to difficulties in reassuring the U.S. and other countries that China’s rise will remain peaceful. The U.S., distrustful of authoritarian governments and wary of attempts to unilaterally disrupt the international order by a rising power, would need enhanced reassurances from China.

Dale Copeland describes the commitment problem as the inability of one state’s leadership to convince another state’s leadership that promises made today will be kept. In this case, the U.S. may not only be concerned that China may have a change of heart later once they have more relative power, but also that new leaders in China may adopt very different policies.1 Ambiguity in the PRC defense white paper regarding how they intend to safeguard Chinese maritime interests and address the issue of Taiwan fails to ease the U.S. and regional states. And while principles of defense, self-defense, and post-emptive strike are declared, other countries have little assurance that these principles will be adhered in the future.

U.S. Navy Photo
U.S. Navy Photo

The ambiguity in the PRC’s strategy, in conjunction with an alarming, sustained military buildup at a time when China’s mainland has never been safer from invasion, may be construed as a more or less direct contradiction of reassurances that China does not pose a security threat. Neither the U.S. nor the Chinese military strategy explicitly discusses force posture, but the fact that the U.S. is transparent with products such as the U.S. Navy’s 30-Year Shipbuilding Plan to Congress, a document that describes long-term future fleet composition, while China has no overt guidance for their desired size for their rapidly-growing military does give cause for concern by the U.S. and the rest of the world.

The strategies executed together produce the conditions for an Asia-Pacific Cold War in the future security environment as described by a report by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace: “Deepening regional bipolarization and militarization, driven by a worsening U.S. – China strategic and economic rivalry in Asia.”2 Arms races, military crises, and increasing tension regarding Taiwan reunification could result in a period of constant tension while the U.S. and regional allies balance the increase of Chinese capabilities to preserve an absolute advantage that, they hope, deters conflict. China’s lack of articulation regarding the intended future size of their military and the failure to provide reassurance for exclusively peaceful means to handle their concerns with Taiwan, Japan, and with other claimants in the South China Sea do not reassure the U.S. and other countries, and the likely result will be continued arms build-up and increasing tensions.

The deliberate use of lethal force by China in pursuit of territorial claims, whether for a coercive reunification of Taiwan or establishment of solid control over the nine-dash line, will result in dramatic changes around the world. A loss of confidence in Asia will cause multiple, independent actors to react in unforeseen ways which may have a dramatic effect on Asian commerce. Moreover, the CPC may not understand the potential resolve of the U.S. and other democracies to resist lethal aggression and what actions they may take against China and what consequences, economic and otherwise, they are willing to impose. While growth and stability of the entire world would be profoundly affected, China, with its high growth dependence on foreign trade and commerce, could face the most serious consequences. The results within China would ironically jeopardize the social and political order the CPC may have used to justify aggression in the first place.

ASEAN Member States, Public Domain.
ASEAN Member States, Public Domain.

To best serve the security interests of China and maximize economic potential while minimizing threat of war, there are measures the CPC might pursue to assure the rest of the world while remaining in power. As stated by James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon, China can better reassure the U.S. and regional countries by leveling military budget growth at approximately half of the U.S. level and scaling back missile deployments and other military capacities directed at Taiwan, commit to exclusively peaceful means towards Taiwan, and join in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Code of Conduct with a commitment not to use or threaten force to resolve territorial disputes.3 As a revisionist power, assurance is incumbent on the Chinese, and only positive measures such as these will provide the necessary assurance to regional and global powers that China’s intent is peaceful and will minimize the risk of miscalculation and the associated social, economic, and military consequences.

Jack McKechnie is a Commander in the U.S. Navy currently assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations. He was a former U.S. Seventh Fleet operational planner, Japan country officer, and assistant director for theater security cooperation from Oct 2011 to July 2014 and a Federal Executive Fellow with Johns Hopkins University APL from Aug 2014 to July 2015. The views expressed in this article are his own.

[1] Dale Copeland. Economic Interdependence and War (Princeton University Press, 2015), 41.

[2] Michael Swaine et al. Conflict and Cooperation in the Asia-Pacific Region: A Strategic Net Assessment (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington D.C., 2015) 167.

[3] James Steinberg and Michael O’Hanlon. Strategic Reassurance and Resolve: U.S. – China Relations in the Twenty-First Century (Princeton University Press, 2014), 209-210.

CIMSEC content is and always will be free; consider a voluntary monthly donation to offset our operational costs. As always, it is your support and patronage that have allowed us to build this community – and we are incredibly grateful.

The Importance of Space in Maritime Security

Honorable Mention – CIMSEC High School Essay Contest

As long as man has walked the Earth and gazed into the stars, he’s asked “what’s out there what’s waiting for me?” Today, our country asks that very same question, although not for what we can find, but how we can use Space and its resources to advance our scientific and military might into, and hopefully beyond the 21st century.

GPS_Satellite_NASA_art-iifWith the dawn of rockets and the nuclear confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union during the height of the Cold War, Space would soon become a vital asset for the interests of both countries and other major players for the years to come (particularly China). With the sudden rise of China, and the reemergence of the Russia as a major military power, it is absolutely vital that the United States once again pursue Space for economic, political, and commercial purposes, as well as for strategic military purposes which will benefit not only the military, but the United States as a whole; and how our Navy can play a big role in helping us make this happen.

As of the time of this writing, the United States and other Western European Countries are currently embroiled in a geopolitical dispute with Russia over Ukraine and the rights of its territory such as Crimea and Eastern Ukraine. As a result of this, the United States and the European Union declared economic sanctions on Russia which are meant to cripple the Russian economy and force Russia out over its interference in Ukraine. In response to this, the Kremlin has threatened to stop shuttling Astronauts to and from the International Space Station, and cut off supplies to the ISS.  In 2007, the Chinese military carried out its first antisatellite missile test when it launched a ground based missile 500 miles to destroy an aging satellite of theirs.

Both of these events are very disturbing as they easily threaten the United States and its space capability to carry out intelligence gathering and reconnaissance missions in Space using the latest technology and satellites. If these satellites, whether civilian or military, ever happen to be threatened in a time of war, the results could be catastrophic. The Navy should invest in further developing laser weapons like the LaWS that are capable of punching holes through thick steel plates on ships as well as a countermeasure against any ballistic missile that may threaten our satellite capability in Space or onboard the ISS. Laser weapons are surprisingly very cheap and affordable. According to Rear Admiral Matthew Klunder in an interview for defense-aerospace.com, “with affordability a serious concern for our defense budgets, this will more effectively manage resources to ensure our sailors and marines are never in a fair fight.” The article goes on to claim that firing this type of weapon can cost less than $1 dollar per shot; a great bargain in a time that our military is starting to see a drawdown in military spending. Christopher Harrier, an analyst at the Institute for the Study of War was quoted as saying that: “The existing naval weapons systems, small-caliber cannons, large-caliber naval guns, and missiles, are at or near the limits of their potential capability. Guns and missiles just aren’t going to get much more accurate or lethal while lasers have significant potential for increases in range, accuracy, lethality, reliability, and cost-effectiveness.”

It is clear that if the Navy wants to confront new 21st Century threats, it must research and develop new combat systems, whether it is by land, sea, air, or space.  The Russians and the Chinese are also looking into developing similar weapons systems, while also trying to implement a missile defense system capable of intercepting and eliminating enemy targets. With a resurgent Russia and emerging China, this has become a must for defense of our allies and overseas military installations all around the world. It has been stated that an enemy country wouldn’t necessarily have to launch a direct nuclear strike if it wanted to destroy the United States. Countries like China and Russia could simply detonate a nuclear weapon in the upper atmosphere right over the Midwestern United States and knock out most, if not all, of the electrical power grids in the continental United States through an Electromagnetic Pulse Effect. An EMP would be devastating to the United States as it would cripple our infrastructure, down all of our technology, leave the US Government and military crippled and slow to react, and cause the global economy to collapse. It would be a scene right out of a post-apocalyptic film like The Postman or The Book of Eli. Not to mention the millions of casualties and deaths that would occur due to starvation or anarchy. It would truly be a shame and a complete lack of competence if our Government doesn’t have a contingency plan already in place for an event like this.

In order for this plan on space based missile defense to work however, it must learn from the mistakes made in the 1980’s when Ronald Reagan famously proposed in 1983 his SDI (Strategic Defense Initiative) or the “Star Wars Program”. As many people know, SDI was announced in 1983 by Ronald Reagan as a means of countering the Soviet threat with space based weaponry capable of shooting down any Soviet missile before it entered American airspace. Unfortunately, due to the slow technological development at the time of space based missile defense systems, as well as other factors including the Dissolution of the USSR, inefficiency, and overall lack of continued public support, SDI did not succeed in meeting its goals.

In comparison to the 1980’s-early 90’s, America does have the infrastructure in 2015 to support a new SDI type program. For starters, in 1983 something called: “private space companies” did not exist. With companies such as SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Orbital Sciences, and Blue Origin starting to appear and establish themselves as legitimate companies in the aerospace sector, there’s no reason why they couldn’t be expected to help the American military develop a space based missile defense system. Similar to how other Aerospace contractors such as Boeing and Lockheed Martin have helped the Air Force in its development of their new aircraft and weapons systems, a joint government/private program with the DoD and Navy providing the funding, and the private companies will handle the testing and development could be developed. That way there won’t be as large of an outcry by the public as there was with SDI in the 1980’s and the politicians/military leaders don’t have to worry so much about any failures and the potential political backlash with the program, as it will fall on the shoulders of the private contractors. Plus, this program will be more affordable now than it ever was in the 1980s.

SpaceX is currently developing the Falcon-9 space rocket with the intention of making it reusable and cheaper to launch into orbit. According to NASA, the average typical launch cost for the Space Shuttle Program was $450 million dollars. With the SpaceX designed Falcon-9 rocket, that cost is now about 50-56 million USD, an absolute bargain when compared to how much NASA’s launches cost. The biggest obstacle to this plan would not necessarily be the technical or financial challenges involved, but compliance with international law such as the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. Article IV of the 1967 Space Treaty states: “States Parties to the Treaty undertake not to place in orbit around the earth any objects carrying nuclear weapons or any other kinds of weapons of mass destruction, install such weapons on celestial bodies, or station such weapons in outer space in any other manner.

The moon and other celestial bodies shall be used by all States Parties to the Treaty exclusively for peaceful purposes. The establishment of military bases, installations and fortifications, the testing of any type of weapons and the conduct of military maneuvers on celestial bodies shall be forbidden. The use of military personnel for scientific research or for any other peaceful purposes shall not be prohibited. The use of any equipment or facility necessary for peaceful exploration of the moon and other celestial bodies shall also not be prohibited. “

The key words in this text being: “Nuclear or any kinds of weapons of mass destruction.” WMD’s are most often defined as being either: Biological, Chemical, Radiological, or Nuclear.  Since lasers do not fall into either of these specifically defined categories (as lasers are electromagnetic), this would not violate international law regarding space and weapons of mass destruction. And their primary purpose would be defensive in nature. The Navy could easily place these interceptors on ships or in bases around the world in order to be alerted by any of these threats, as well as satellites which can track and locate enemy ships and submarines before they attack.

It is obvious that space will play a critical role in the development of naval affairs and maritime security through the use of satellites and space based defense which will be used to further America’s Naval supremacy in both the Sea and Space throughout the rest of the 21st century and beyond. As we can see, the Navy will not just be limited to the sea but will have an increasingly expanded role as technology and space travel progresses.







About the Author 

Nolan McEleney was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1996 and is a diehard fan of the Jacksonville Jaguars. His family moved to CT in 2005, before finally settling in MD in 2008. Nolan is currently a cadet officer in the Civil Air Patrol for the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Composite Squadron where he is currently assigned as a flight commander. Nolan currently attends The Avalon School in Gaithersburg where he is the Washington house captain. In extracurriculars, he is heavily involved with the Civil Air Patrol. Nolan is also a part of his squadrons cyberpatriot team which deals with cybersecurity and other threats as part of a nationwide competition. He has also taken online courses with the Cisco Networking Academy and Hillsdale College. 

 In the future, Nolan would like to work with NASA, a private space company, or any science and tech company. Whether it be in a technical or non-technical role, he feel like a lot of these companies such as SpaceX are on the cusp of history with proposed missions to the Moon, Mars, and beyond. He would also like to be a part of and contribute to that in any way he can. Nolan currently intends on going to the University of Washington and participating in ROTC so that he can become an officer.