The Little Nukes That Got Away

What Obama's new weapons treaty left out.

Wikimedia Commons
Wikimedia Commons

The Davy Crockett was one of the smallest nuclear weapons ever made by the United States. Built in the late 1950s, and designed for the battlefields of Europe to stop a possible Warsaw Pact invasion, the warhead looked like a watermelon, being only 30 inches long and weighing about 76 pounds. From a portable tripod launcher, it could be fired at the enemy as close as 1,000 feet or up to 13,000 feet away. It was a weapon for nuclear war at close range.

Today, the Davy Crockett system has long since been retired, and is now a neat museum piece. You can see a casing of the warhead at the National Museum of Nuclear Science and History in Albuquerque.

But the little nuclear watermelon is a reminder of the big work still to be done in arms control. The just-completed strategic weapons treaty that U.S. President Barack Obama will sign in Prague next week with Russian President Dmitry Medvedev does not cover smaller nuclear warheads in both arsenals that are a legacy of the Cold War — the so-called battlefield, or tactical weapons.

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.

Obama may dream of a world without nuclear arms, but it is with weapons  systems like these, which remain in place years after the Cold War, that his goals meet the unpleasant reality and the unfinished business of the past.

White House officials want everyone to rest assured: They’ll make an effort to deal with tactical nuclear weapons in the next treaty. In fact, they mistakenly thought, a year ago, that the new START agreement would be a snap and they’d be moving on to the bigger challenges by now. But a closer look suggests that tactical nukes are going to be very, very hard to negotiate. That’s why they are still around — it is a tough one.

For years, experts have been warning about the dangers of tactical nukes. They could be a temptation for a terrorist diversion, small enough to be driven away in a truck. While it would be difficult to actually explode one, there was serious concern at the end of the Cold War about the thousands of Soviet-era tactical nuclear weapons. The warheads were vulnerable as Moscow hastily hauled them back into Russia in old train cars which lacked sophisticated alarms or armored blankets to protect the warheads from bullets or shrapnel. Although the warheads were deactivated, the headaches were immense, including a shortage of secure storage space to hold them once they got back into Russia. Eventually, the United States carried out a secret operation in which one of the Soviet model cars was shipped to Sandia National Laboratory in New Mexico, which designed an upgrade.

Both Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and U.S. President George H. W. Bush realized the urgency in late 1991 and unilaterally withdrew many of these weapons in the final months before the Soviet collapse. But they never sealed these pullbacks in a mutual arms control treaty, and there is no verification to this day.

Fortunately, there are far fewer warheads on both sides today. And Russian storage facilities are probably more secure than in 1991. But those weapons that remain seem to stubbornly elude arms control.

Why? They are essentially political weapons for political ends. The argument for keeping U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in Europe is that they hold the alliance together — a joint manifestation of the U.S. commitment to protect its allies. And the dual-key approach to managing them has meant that the Europeans would have to be involved in actually using them in the event. But lately, fresh demands have been made in Europe to take another look at the need for these weapons and possibly remove them. In February, the foreign ministers of Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and Norway called on NATO to re-examine the need for them, and the issue is expected to be raised as the alliance writes a new “strategic concept” this year.

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.

Podvig’s plan would be a good first step. Without something like this, there may well be years of further impasse over weapons that lack a military purpose, deployed during a Cold War that ended two decades ago. So before anyone cracks open the champagne for Obama’s vision of a nuclear free world, don’t take your eye off the little guys.

David E. Hoffman covered foreign affairs, national politics, economics, and served as an editor at the Washington Post for 27 years.

He was a White House correspondent during the Reagan years and the presidency of George H. W. Bush, and covered the State Department when James A. Baker III was secretary. He was bureau chief in Jerusalem at the time of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, and served six years as Moscow bureau chief, covering the tumultuous Yeltsin era. On returning to Washington in 2001, he became foreign editor and then, in 2005, assistant managing editor for foreign news. Twitter: @thedeadhandbook