Micah Zenko

Big Problem, Small Package

New START is a good step forward for limiting strategic nuclear weapons, but the proliferation and deployment of tactical nukes is a serious, and unaddressed, problem.


As the New START treaty limped through the tortuous Senate ratification process, its Republican opponents threw a unique roadblock in its path: They complained that the treaty failed to reduce the number of "tactical" nuclear weapons — low-yield warheads intended for short range applications or even battlefield use — maintained by the United States and Russia. Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) purportedly in an effort to remedy this problem, proposed an amendment that would have added a mention of tactical nukes in the treaty’s preamble.

Risch’s amendment was little more than a political ploy — its only practical effect would have been to kill New START by sending it back to another round of negotiations with the Russians — which treaty supporters soundly defeated. However, Risch inadvertently touched on a critical issue: Tactical nukes do represent a significant national security concern, and negotiators should press for a limit on the number of warheads in the next round of U.S.-Russian negotiations.

Russia’s alleged deployment of tactical nuclear weapons to the borders of NATO set off alarm bells as recently as this spring. And for all of President Dmitry Medvedev’s rhetoric about security cooperation at last month’s NATO summit, Russia’s vast tactical nuclear arsenal remains cloaked in secrecy. This isn’t simply an arcane issue that concerns only arms-control wonks: Moscow sees these weapons as a counterbalance to NATO’s conventional superiority in Europe.

Tactical nuclear weapons have not been included in a U.S.-Russia nuclear treaty since the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty (INF). As such, it has been difficult to know just how many of these weapons exist and where they are.

Although exact numbers are murky, the disparity between the U.S. and Russian arsenals is arresting. The United States reportedly has 400 operationally deployed tactical nuclear weapons and an equal number in inactive reserve. Russia’s tactical nuclear arsenal, on the other hand, is estimated at a whopping 2,000 operationally deployed weapons, with another 3,400 in inactive reserve. They are maintained either in operationally deployed status at nuclear-certified military bases, or in inactive reserve status at permanent storage sites.

The U.S. tactical nuke arsenal in Europe represents little more than a political symbol of America’s commitment to its NATO allies. As one Pentagon official told me: "There are no war plans in NATO for using them." According to an October 2009 NATO backgrounder, the requirements for making the aircraft intended to deliver U.S. tactical nuclear weapons ready for their missions "are now being measured in months." It is no wonder that several European states, such as Germany, Belgium, and Norway, see NATO’s non strategic arsenal as so extraneous that they support its removal, assuming that Russia agrees to commensurate cuts in its arsenal.

The U.S. tactical nuclear commitment to NATO has already decreased markedly since the end of the Cold War, with the number of U.S. tactical nukes falling from 4,000 in 1990 to some 200 today.  These remaining weapons are supplemented by the United States’ significant strategic nuclear arsenal, as well as approximately 300 French and 225 British nuclear weapons.

Moscow, in contrast, sees its tactical nuclear weapons as a strategic necessity. This view is articulated in its military doctrine to deter nuclear attacks or conventional attacks that threaten the "very existence" of Russia. Last year, a senior Russian Navy official declared that "tactical nuclear weapons [on submarines] will play a key role in the future," adding that "their range and precision are gradually increasing."

Although the use of tactical nukes remains unlikely, their presence in Europe is dangerous. The tactical nuclear weapons maintained by the United States, and especially by Russia, represent a heightened risk of theft or diversion. In 2008, a U.S. Air Force report — challenged by some Pentagon officials — warned that most NATO nuclear sites "require significant additional resources to meet [Department of Defense] security requirements." In January, activists breached the perimeter of a Belgian air base, where perhaps 10 to 20 tactical nuclear weapons are stored, and walked around for over an hour without being questioned.

Although less is known about it, Russia’s tactical arsenal is assuredly less secure. The United States has provided over $12 billion for security upgrades to Russia’s permanent nuclear storage sites — but these resources have only gone to the facilities that house its inactive reserves, not the bases that maintain Russia’s operationally deployed tactical arsenal of some 2,000 warheads. Consequently, those weapons most equipped for use are least secure.

Limiting tactical nuclear weapons represents the final frontier of arms control. The first step must be to assuage Russian concerns about NATO’s conventional superiority. To do so, Washington and its allies must agree with Moscow on an updated Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty, which placed verifiable limits on NATO and Warsaw Pact offensive conventional weapons. An updated CFE Treaty would mitigate NATO’s conventional predominance by further reducing offensive weapons, such as tanks, artillery, and attack helicopters, through an inspection regime that allays Russia’s European security concerns.

Washington and Moscow must then turn to the hard work of forging a bilateral agreement that establishes a verifiable regime combining cuts to each countries’ tactical nuclear weapon arsenal and confidence-building measures between the parties. Specifically, a treaty must include three components.

First, each country should reveal its tactical nuclear weapons inventory, location, and operational status, publicly or through a private data-exchange mechanism. Cryptographic technologies exist that permit Washington and Moscow to securely exchange detailed stockpile data between each other while denying access to countries not party to the treaty.

Second, both sides would need to establish methods to verify implementation of the treaty. Verifying limits on Russia’s operational tactical nuclear arsenal would be challenging because of the inherent secrecy of the Ministry of Defense and armed services. However, U.S. officials closely involved in the negotiation and verification of previous nuclear-weapons treaties with Russia think that there are sufficient verification procedures — including radiation detection, remote measurement, and tamper-indicating tags — to ensure Russian compliance with treaty provisions.

Finally, Washington and Moscow must clearly differentiate between tactical nuclear weapons that are can be used in the near-term and those in storage. The two sides should draw up a list of bases housing only "operationally deployed" weapons, and another list for permanent storage. The United States and Russia each have a clear understanding of the differences between these sites. Ultimately, to make tactical nuclear weapons limitations permanent, both sides could verifiably dismantle non operational warheads at disassembly facilities.

The omission of these provisions from New START is, contrary to its critics’ assertions, no reason to reject it. Rather, Senate approval of New START has proven the United States’ commitment necessary to begin negotiations on this controversial — but vitally important — arms-control issue.

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