Japan lobbied for robust nuclear umbrella before power shift

by Masakatsu Ota

Before the shift in political power in Japan in September, the Japanese government aggressively lobbied a U.S. congressional nuclear taskforce to maintain the credibility of the U.S. ''nuclear umbrella'' as a deterrence against possible attacks from China, North Korea and other nations, according to sources familiar with the matter Monday.

The lobbying by the only country to have suffered atomic bombings for robust nuclear deterrence capabilities came just before U.S. President Barack Obama pledged that his country would pursue the ''peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.''

Meeting with members of the Congressional Commission on the Strategic Posture of the United States, Japanese senior diplomats expressed their deep concerns about the future capability of the U.S. nuclear umbrella, which has been expected to deter military attacks against Japan even after the end of the Cold War, the sources said.

The diplomats also told the commission, created by legislation Congress passed under the administration of President George W. Bush, that a capability to penetrate underground targets with low-yield nuclear devices would strengthen the credibility of an extended nuclear deterrence protecting Japan, they said.

The U.S. military currently has only one type of high-yield nuclear earth-penetrator, the B61-11, which has about 20 times the explosive power of the Hiroshima type atom-bomb. It would potentially be so destructive and devastating to innocent civilians that most U.S. military analysts and officials consider the B61-11 too powerful to use in battlegrounds.

In the first half of the 2000s, the Bush administration tried to develop a new type of lower-yield nuclear earth penetrator, called the Robust Nuclear Earth Penetrator or RNEP, but in vain due to opposition from even a Republican-dominated Congress. Congressional members were worried that such a weapon would send the wrong signal to a world facing new types of nuclear threat, worldwide nuclear proliferation and possible nuclear transfer to terrorists.

The Japanese diplomats also told the commission, chaired by former U.S. Defense Secretary William Perry, that if the U.S. government ever considers retiring the nuclear-tipped Tomahawk Land Attack Missile or TLAM-N, Japan would like to be consulted ahead of any decision, the sources said.

The diplomats suggested they believe the TLAM-N, a submarine-launched delivery system, is an important element to maintain the credibility of the U.S. nuclear umbrella against China and North Korea, they said.

The Japanese lobbying activities were conducted at least twice from autumn last year to February this year, according to the sources both in the United States and Japan.

The commission's final report published in May said, ''In Asia, extended deterrence relies heavily on the deployment of nuclear cruise missiles on some Los Angeles class attack submarines -- the Tomahawk Land Attack Missile/Nuclear (TLAM/N). This capability will be retired in 2013 unless steps are taken to maintain it.''

The report continues, ''In our work as a Commission it has become clear to us that some U.S. allies in Asia would be very concerned by TLAM/N retirement.''

The vice chairman of the commission, former Defense Secretary James Schlesinger, admitted that ''some U.S. allies in Asia'' meant Japan during an interview with Kyodo News in July.

''(We are) hopeful we will maintain the nuclear Tomahawk because it is a more relevant condition (in Asia) than Europe...The Chinese have begun moderate but still significant nuclear build-up over the course of the last half-decade or so. So Japan is, would be, understandably more concerned about the possibility of a nuclear threat now than during the Cold War,'' he said.

Currently, the Obama administration is in the final process of formulating the ''Nuclear Posture Review,'' a new nuclear strategic guideline that will stipulate basic nuclear defense, disarmament and non-proliferation policies in the next five to 10 years.

One of the focuses on the NPR is whether TLAM-N will be maintained or retired in 2013 and U.S. allies in Asia like Japan have been paying special attention to it. The NPR will be finalized and sent to the Congress early next year.

Schlesinger showed support for retaining TLAM-N for Japan in the foreseeable future, saying that ''removing part of the maritime capability relating to the defense of Japan, a maritime nation, would be a matter that we would be attentive to.''

One of the key architects of the NPR is a former staff member of the commission, Bradley Roberts, current Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense in charge of nuclear policy.

So it is assumed by specialists and diplomats in the United States and Japan that the final report of the commission would have some influence on the upcoming outcome of the NPR.

The commission's recommendation in the final report says, ''The United States should also retain capabilities for the delivery of non-strategic nuclear weapons and proceed in close consultation with allies in Europe and Asia in doing so.'' TLAM-N is one of a few delivery systems for ''non-strategic nuclear weapons.''

But some U.S. nuclear experts criticized this recommendation and the position of the Japanese government.

''It is very surprising that officials within the Japanese government have lobbied the United States to retain the nuclear Tomahawk,'' said Jeffrey Lewis, a nuclear expert known for his widely-read website blog ArmsControlWonk.com.

According to Lewis, TLAM-N ''can drift off course and fly into the terrain that is supposed to guide it.'' The targeting system of TLAM-N, which is not equipped with GPS due to concerns about jamming and spoofing, is unstable and unpredictable compared to other conventional mid-range missiles.

That means if a TLAM-N targeting North Korea is launched from the Pacific Ocean, it might accidentally crash in Japan or South Korea, Lewis pointed out.

In fact, during Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2003, more modernized conventional Tomahawk missiles went astray and hit Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Iran, according to Lewis. Because of this technical problem, the U.S. Navy has insisted on the retirement of TLAM-N. Lewis will publish in-depth technical analyses on his website, possibly as early as Monday.

Hans Kristensen, another nuclear expert in Washington, also criticized the Japanese stance of seeking to hold on to the Cold War-type weapon system.

''They are just sort of grabbing a lot of phrases from (Cold War) debates'' and using them even though they do not know what they mean, Kristensen, director of the Nuclear Information Project at the Federation of American Scientists, said of the lobbying by Japanese diplomats.

He said the Japanese diplomats submitted a three-page paper to the commission in order to explain their position on a future U.S. nuclear posture.

Kristensen characterized this paper as a ''wish list'' for the following U.S. nuclear capabilities in the Pacific -- ''credible'' (reliable forces including modernized warheads), ''flexible'' (capacity to hold a variety of targets at risk), ''responsive'' (quick response to contingencies), ''discriminate'' (inclusion of low-yield options for minimum collateral damage,) ''stealthy'' (deployment of submarines equipped with nuclear arms), and ''visible'' (deployment of B-2 and B-52 bombers to Guam).

He revealed these details in the Japanese magazine ''Sekai'' this month.

(Distributed by Kyodo News on Nov. 23, 2009)