Proliferation Press

A webpage devoted to tracking and analyzing current events related to the proliferation of WMD/CBRN.

START’s Tactical Short-Coming: New START’s Silence on Tactical Nuclear Weapons

Posted by K.E. White on April 5, 2010

David E. Hoffman highlights one short-coming of the new START treaty:  its silence on tactical nuclear weapons.

Hoffman’s Foreign Policy article quickly reviews the history of tactical nuclear weapons (surprise:  nuclear watermelons were around in the 1950s).  He then outlines the scale of this nuclear omission, before highlighting a way forward on this troublesome nuclear front.

But just how important are tactical nukes to Obama’s new START treaty?

First it might be useful to look at the history of U.S.-Russian arms control agreements.  If Obama’s ‘New START’ treaty navigates the Senate, it would resurrect a moribund treaty system.  Whatever its shortcomings, simply putting arms control back on the map represents a huge—and as of yet unrealized—accomplishment.

Second, as Hoffman concedes, no treaty has dealt with these pesky weapons.  So Obama’s—and apparently Russia’s—desire to tackle this topic constitutes a grounds for nuclear optimism.

And when it comes to the international significance of ‘New START’, tactical weapons aren’t the name of the game.  Iran and North Korea represent the gravest threats to the established nuclear order.  There the worry is not over tactical nukes, but conventional nuclear weapons.  Reaffirming a commitment to cut nuclear weapons provides Russia and America a trust-building exercise, and helps America’s ability to build international support around a new wave of sanctions against Iran.  Obama’s START shortcoming won’t derail his nuclear security summit this month, nor allow Iran to turn the NPT conference into a battle between nuclear haves and have-nots.

From Hoffman’s article:

The United States is believed to have about 200 tactical nukes in Europe, all of them B61 free-fall gravity bombs to be used with U.S. and allied tactical aircraft, out of 500 total tactical nukes in the active U.S. arsenal. The Russians are estimated to have about 2,000 tactical nuclear weapons, several hundred in the European part of the country and the remainder in central storage sites.

These smaller warheads have never been covered by a specific treaty, nor are they subject to the kind of verification that is used to prevent cheating in the agreements covering the long-range or strategic weapons, including the nuclear-tipped intercontinental ballistic missiles. What’s more, they are relics of a bygone era, with no military usefulness. There is no longer a Warsaw Pact or a Soviet Union threatening a massive invasion across the Fulda Gap that would have to be stopped with a last-ditch decision to fire off the battlefield nukes.

The United States and others have been reluctant to unilaterally withdraw the weapons, which are believed to be based in Belgium, the Netherlands, Germany, Italy, and Turkey. Before any arms-control negotiation could get underway, NATO would have to come up with a common position. And others have pointed out that the concept of extended deterrence — the U.S. nuclear umbrella — can be achieved with longer-range weapons and does not rely on the tactical nukes.

An even bigger question mark is whether Russia would be willing to reduce its pile of small nuclear weapons. Probably not any time soon. The expansion of NATO to its borders has left Russia wary, while its conventional or non-nuclear military forces are weaker than in the past. And Russian leaders are alarmed at the long-range precision-guided conventional weapons under development by the United States. Russia has demanded that the United States pull back all the tactical weapons in Europe to its national territory — as Russia has already done — before considering any negotiations.

Pavel Podvig, a physicist and research associate at Stanford University’s Center for International Security and Cooperation, points out that the new Russian military doctrine doesn’t include any specific mission for tactical nuclear weapons. “Of course, nobody in Russia is ready to get rid of them just yet, but it does indicate that the Russians realize that the utility of these weapons is highly questionable, even if they aren’t ready to publicly admit it,” he wrote recently. Podvig made a practical suggestion for moving in phases: Both the United States and Russia would first move all tactical nukes to a central storage facility deep within their national territory, then later deal with verification, transparency, and ultimately elimination.

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