Following New START: The Necessity of Tactical Nuclear Arms Control

By Stephen Herzog | 2011-04-01 13:00:00

On February 5 in Munich, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov exchanged instruments of ratification for the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START). With the treaty’s entry into force, each country will have seven years to reduce its deployed strategic nuclear forces to 1,550 warheads and 700 delivery vehicles. The US and Russia can also maintain 100 additional reserve delivery vehicles apiece in storage facilities. And pursuant to New START’s verification protocol, stockpile inspections may begin as early as April 6—sixty days after the accord’s entry into force.

Beyond its critical effect on reducing the size of nuclear arsenals, New START is a long overdue confidence-building measure. First, the treaty provides some level of reassurance—no matter how small—that the former Cold War superpowers are paying heed to the disarmament commitment in Article VI of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). And second, New START will help to improve relations between Russia, the US, and NATO. Such efforts are sorely needed, as disputes over NATO expansion, the conflict in Georgia, and energy issues have caused ties to sink to one of their lowest points in the post-Cold War era.

But while New START is a good first step toward improving relations and reinvigorating the global arms control and non-proliferation agenda, the continued deployment of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) by the US and Russia threatens progress toward both goals. The US maintains approximately 500 TNWs, around 150-200 of which are deployed on six bases in five European countries: Belgium, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, and Turkey.1 For its part, Russia possesses around 2,000 operational tactical nuclear warheads and may hold several thousand more in reserve.2

The White House plans to abide by the requirements of the US New START ratification resolution “by seeking to initiate negotiations with Russia on tactical nukes within one year of[the treaty’s] entry into force.” Sentiments from the Kremlin on the matter have been mixed.

Battlefield nuclear weapons have been excluded from arms control efforts for far too long. These weapons perpetuate an outdated cycle of Cold War mistrust, hinder global cooperation, and impede conventional and strategic arms control efforts. But to extinguish the dangers posed by these weapons, an agreement on US and Russian TNWs must seek verifiable dismantlement and address the concerns of all actors involved.

No Military Utility

Outside of their damaging implications for US-Russian and NATO-Russian relations, perhaps the most obvious reason for eliminating TNWs lies in their lack of military utility. During the Cold War, the US and the Soviet Union deployed these weapons for use as force multipliers on the battlefield in conventional conflicts. But the Cold War ended two decades ago.

Today, the thought of a ground war between the Atlantic Alliance and Russia is unfathomable to all but the most cynical defence policy analysts. Russia has around 1 million troops on active duty, while NATO maintains over 2 million troops on the ground in Europe. There is also a high level of economic interdependence because Moscow sends over 90 percent of its energy exports to Europe. And so long as strategic nuclear arsenals exist, any military conflict risks escalation to the unthinkable. Given the grave economic, political, and human consequences that would result from a conflict, the independent deterrent capability of TNWs appears to be negligible.

Even if a conflict broke out, the use of non-strategic nuclear weapons risks unimaginable environmental devastation, civilian casualties, and friendly fire incidents. “Fat Man”—the bomb dropped on Nagasaki—had an estimated explosive yield of 23 kilotons and spread its destruction over 111 square kilometers. By comparison, some of today’s “low-yield” US and Russian TNWs have payloads exceeding 100 kilotons. Any nuclear detonation on the battlefield would also release high levels of infrared, ultraviolet, and visible light rays that could expose soldiers on all sides to radiation poisoning and traumatic optical injuries.

Setback to NATO Cohesion

For the US, NATO cohesion has been at the heart of its retention of TNWs, particularly those deployed in Europe. However, while these weapons may have once contributed to this mission, their deployment now presents a clear threat to transatlantic solidarity. In the past year, the governments of Belgium, Germany, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Norway have called for the removal of US B61 tactical nuclear gravity bombs from Europe. The penetration of facilities containing US TNWs at Kleine Brogel Air Base in Belgium by the activist group Vredesactie (Peace Action) has also given rise to enhanced concerns about nuclear terrorism and the security of these weapons.

Proponents of continued US battlefield nuclear weapon deployments argue that objections to TNWs lie almost exclusively in Western Europe. Thus, the advocates chastise the possibility of withdrawal as US abandonment of its Central and Eastern European (CEE) allies. But Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski has joined with his non-NATO counterpart from Sweden, Carl Bildt, to press for tactical arms control. Reports also indicate that several other states that have traditionally supported these deployments would be willing to part ways with US TNWs.3

The alliance has taken steps that should pave the way for the withdrawal of US TNWs from Europe. In July of last year, NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen indicated that the organization’s military command had developed new conventional contingency plans to protect CEE members against aggression.4 The announcement of these plans has predictably sparked criticism from Moscow, but it should provide concrete reassurances that the alliance is committed to defending CEE in the absence of TNW deployments.

Some analysts worry, however, that the end of US bombs in Europe will limit the influence of non-nuclear states in NATO nuclear planning. After all, US nuclear sharing agreements with TNW host states have long served as justification for strong European participation in NATO’s Nuclear Planning Group (NPG).

Still, even states that don’t host TNWs have a seat at the table during NPG meetings. As long as nuclear weapons exist, there’s simply no reason why the presence of US TNWs in Europe should be a prerequisite for non-nuclear states to participate in NPG exercises.

An arms control agreement requiring withdrawal of US TNWs from Europe would improve relations with Russia and eliminate a pronounced source of tension within the alliance. Further, it would also enable NATO to silence its critics from the New Agenda Coalition and the Nonaligned Movement who contend that nuclear sharing violates Articles I and II of the NPT.

Coupling Conventional and Nuclear Arms Control

The New START ratification resolution approved by the US Senate calls for talks that “address the disparity between the non-strategic (tactical) nuclear stockpiles of the Russian Federation and the United States.” And NATO’s new Strategic Concept declares that future arms control efforts must “take into account the disparity with the greater Russian stockpiles of short-range nuclear weapons.”

But such thinking is shortsighted with respect to Moscow’s motivations. The presence of US TNWs in Europe does not serve as the primary impetus for Russia’s maintenance of a large stockpile of battlefield nuclear weapons. NATO relied on TNWs in Europe during the Cold War to offset the USSR’s overwhelming conventional force superiority. Today, Russia finds itself in a similar situation, as Moscow faces a two-to-one troop disadvantage in Europe and a much larger one vis--vis the alliance’s aggregate force levels. Although this type of strategic assessment should have little place in the post-Cold War world, it indicates that Medvedev and Putin are unlikely to trade away their sharp advantage in TNWs without parallel conventional arms control efforts.

One way to address these concerns would be to revisit negotiations on the Conventional Armed Forces in Europe (CFE) Treaty. Before Russia suspended its CFE participation in 2007, the Kremlin had been pushing NATO states to ratify an adapted version of the accord that limited national force levels and included the Baltic states—non-parties to the treaty. The latter point is particularly important, as some Russian leaders fear that NATO might use Estonian, Latvian, or Lithuanian territory as a staging ground in a hypothetical conflict scenario. Even though the alliance promised in 1997 to avoid the “permanent stationing of substantial combat forces” on the territory of new member states, developments like enhanced contingency planning for CFE have certainly not helped to attenuate these worries.

In addition to easing the process of tactical nuclear arms control, national limits on weapon systems such as tanks, artillery, and combat aircraft would increase stability in Europe. Absent TNWs, achieving conventional parity and transparency between Russia and NATO would be a significant confidence-building measure. Conventional arms control would also allow states to draw down their forces during tough economic times when high defence spending could be much better used elsewhere.

Inspections, Data Exchanges, and Dismantlement

To reliably build confidence and eliminate the dangers posed by US and Russian TNWs, a treaty addressing these weapons must be verifiable. To that end, the US New START ratification resolution calls for a verifiable accord.

The Presidential Nuclear Initiatives (PNIs) of 1991-92, the only significant effort to date dealing with TNWs, lacked verification measures and a legally binding text. It is true that these unilateral pledges by George H.W. Bush, Mikhail Gorbachev, and Boris Yeltsin resulted in the elimination of thousands of nuclear landmines, artillery shells, and other systems. But without inspections and data exchanges, implementation of the PNIs frequently triggered US-Russian rows.

Data exchanges and inspections were an integral part of meaningful and effective nuclear arms control agreements like START I and the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty. A verifiable tactical nuclear arms control treaty would build confidence and could generate further conventional and strategic arms control, as well as greater cooperation on other issues. And as reductions take place, it would help to ensure that the US and Russia take seriously concerns about nuclear terrorism and the security of their weapon systems. Arms controllers could draw upon elements of the New START and CFE verification regimes in order to create transparent TNW reductions.

Clearly defining terms will be another critical element in negotiations. Post-Cold War increases in warhead yields and shifts in nuclear strategy have often eroded distinctions between strategic and non-strategic weapons. For example, in 2003, Russian General Yuri Baluyevsky said that US TNWs in Europe “are for Russia acquiring a strategic nature since theoretically they could be used on our command centres and strategic nuclear centres.”

To sidestep confusion and potential discord, all nuclear weapon systems with shorter ranges that could be used in conventional engagements must be included in a treaty addressing TNWs. The only weapons that should be excluded are those covered by New START: warheads that can be put on heavy bombers, and intercontinental or submarine-launched ballistic missiles.

Finally, the end goal of tactical nuclear arms control should be the actual reduction, dismantlement, and elimination of these systems. In the past, US and Russian negotiators have tended to develop treaties that only limit the number of operationally deployed nuclear weapons. But merely placing the US B61 gravity bombs in Europe into storage facilities will not alleviate Russian concerns about NATO’s intentions. Similarly, the simple removal of limited-life components from Moscow’s SS-N-19 anti-ship missiles will not inspire much confidence from the US and its alliance partners. Only verifiable dismantlement promises to significantly build confidence and permanently eliminate the dangers of TNWs.

Toward Tactical Nuclear Arms Control

Even as the arms control community and the world at large celebrates the entry into force of New START, we must realize that there is much more work to be done. New START is a very modest effort, although it does show signs of promise for further movement toward a world free of nuclear weapons. But the continued deployment of thousands of US and Russian TNWs continues to complicate East-West relations and threatens to destabilize both European and global security.

A treaty focusing on these weapons is likely to reduce nuclear arms and defuse international tensions only if it is verifiable, seeks permanent TNW dismantlement, and addresses the security concerns of all actors involved. Even if such an agreement cannot be reached in a few years, incremental steps should be made in the interim to stimulate progress toward this goal. For instance, the US should withdraw its remaining bombs from Europe, and Russia should remove its battlefield nuclear weapons from proximity to NATO’s borders.

The arms control momentum generated by the negotiation and entry into force of New START must not be squandered. There has never been a better time for the US and Russia to come together to eliminate non-strategic nuclear weapons.

After all, the West and Russia must work together on the international stage to prevent the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction, mitigate and reverse global climate change, and fight transnational crime and terrorism. Real and sustained cooperation simply cannot occur so long as NATO and Russia continue to point nuclear weapons at each other.

It’s time to move forward in history by beginning to rid the world of Cold War anachronisms and obstacles to peace like tactical nuclear weapons.

Stephen Herzog is a visiting research associate with the Strategic Security Program at the Washington, DC-based Federation of American Scientists. The views expressed here are his own.


1 Robert S. Norris and Hans M. Kristensen, “US Tactical Nuclear Weapons in Europe, 2011,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Vol. 67, No. 1 (January 2011): pp. 64-73.

2 Ibid., “Russian Nuclear Forces, 2010,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, 66(1) (January 2010): pp. 76, 78-80.

3 See, e.g., Lukasz Kulesa, “Polish and Central European Priorities on NATO’s Future Nuclear Policy,” Arms Control Association, British American Security Information Council, and Institute for Peace Research and Security Policy at the University of Hamburg, Nuclear Policy Paper, No. 2, November 2010,

4NATO and Russia: Trust but make military plans,” The Economist, July 29, 2010, LexisNexis.

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