In my last post, I wrote about how the United States could deal with the threat of conventional Russian cruise missiles arising from the failure of the INF treaty. However, If the treaty fails, there is a strong possibility that Russia could rearm it’s intermediate forces with nuclear warheads. Given Russian doctrine and the nuclear armed enemies it faces, this scenario is especially likely.
Such weapons would create a nuclear escalation dynamic where Russian weapons could strike targets in Europe, and leave NATO with only strategic nuclear weapons and slower reacting planes to respond.(think escalate to deescalate.) In this case, a deploying nuclear capable short range missiles to Europe is an option worth considering to create a sense of parity with the Russians.
Nuclearizing the ATACMS
The United States would still not need to violate the INF treaty if the Russians go nuclear. The MGM-140 ATACMS could be easily fitted with a nuclear warhead. In fact, there was originally a planned nuclear version of the MGM-140 which was cancelled after the Cold War ended and there is no evidence that it could not be equipped with such a warhead.
Finding warheads for the missile would be simple. There is a stockpile of hundreds of retired or non deployed W-80 warheads stored near Kirtland AFB. The W84 used on the GLCM is also still available. The W-80s and are extremely light and compact. Designed for use on nuclear cruise missiles the warhead weighs only 290 lb (131 kg), signifantly lighter and smaller than the current 230kg (500 lb)warhead fitted to the missile.
There was also version of the ATACMS fitted with a Mark 4 reentry vehicle loaded with conventional explosives. The same reentry vehicle is currently used for the W-76 nuclear bomb. Weighing just over 360 pounds (162 kg), the warhead would also be lighter than the current conventional versions, enabling it to be fitted to the missile.
The advantages of such a weapon are clear. The MLRS systems could be housed in NATO bases in Eastern Europe and dispersed in the event of a crisis. They are both highly survivable and mobile. Each launcher is also capable of firing up to two missiles in quick succession.
Unlike cruise missiles which are limited in speed and can take hours to reach their targets, the ATACMs missiles take a fraction of the time, allowing them to react quickly to threats. The range of the ATACMS is sufficient to hold vital targets at risk and would certainly increase because of the weight reduction that would come with nuclearization.
A hardened Mobile Launcher for the missile is already in service in the form of the M270 MLRS. The launcher can carry two missiles and is built on a Bradley IVF Chassis. With such a heavy duty chassis it should be no problem to add additional hardening for nuclear use if necessary.
A nuclearized MGM-140 would also be a fairly cheap missile to build and field. All of the components have already been in use for decades. The missiles, launcher, and warheads already exist. The only investment needed would be the cost of integrating the components.
Nuclearizing the ATACMS in the event of INF failure would have a lot of political benefits. Foremost, the U.S would not need to violate the INF to field the nuclear variant of the missile. NATO could still retain the moral high ground.
The missile could also be used as part of a second dual track strategy, like the one implemented to achieve the INF in the first place. The plan would combine a arms build up with diplomatic overtures. While such a policy would be initially destabilizing, it has been successful before and could be severely disruptive to Russia’s escalate to deescalate strategy.
Russia may think twice about employing nuclear escalation if it knows could be hit with a counterforce strike before it’s missiles reach their targets.
While mounting a nuclear warhead onto a interceptor evading missile like the ATACMS may not be the most calming prospect, it is an option. It could be done quickly, without the need for a lengthy acquisition process or designing a new nuclear warhead. It would disrupt Russian strategy, Reassure allies, and pressure Russia to abandon development of intermediate weapons.