Tactical Nuclear Weapons: The Next Step in Nuclear Arms Control?
by Oliver Meier
Tactical nuclear weapons (TNW) have often been cited as the obvious next step in nuclear arms control. However, this argument has not been followed by political action yet. TNW arms reductions are still a unilateral affair. The disarmament initiatives of Presidents Bush and Gorbachev/ Yeltsin have not been codified yet, even though both sides have stated the intention to include TNW in nuclear disarmament regimes.
This paper has three goals: I first want to briefly list the reasons why a treaty on TNW is long overdue, secondly give an explanation why such a treaty does not yet exist and finally develop a proposal how such a treaty could be negotiated. I argue that TNW arms is difficult because these weapons are closely linked to different areas of security policy. Therefore, reductions in TNW are hard to achieve in isolated negotiations. Rather, negotiations on TNW should be part of a broader, comprehensive arms reduction treaty.
1. Why should TNW become part of the nuclear arms control process?
A bi- or multilateral treaty on TNW is both necessary and feasible. Such a treaty could eliminate or at least diminish several dangers. There still exists the danger of a TNW arms race and TNW are the category of nuclear weapons most likely to be stolen or launched by accident. A formal agreement to reduce the number of TNW has become possible because both the US and Russia have recognized the need to control this category of weapons and TNW have lost their primary function, i.e. warfighting.
First, starting immediate negotiations on a treaty on TNW is necessary because such a step would make a new nuclear arms race impossible. TNW are the only category of nuclear weapons still uncontrolled by arms control treaties. After the conclusion of the INF- and START-treaties only short-range nuclear forces remain unchecked. If the nuclear weapons states chose to increase their nuclear weapon capabilities, they could do this only in the tactical field.
Recent developments in both the US and Russia have shown that such a new qualitative or quantitative nuclear arms race is a real danger. The US recently introduced a new type of nuclear weapon into its arsenal, the first new deployment since the end of the Cold War. The B61-11 is a modification of an existing TNW, but it possesses unique capabilities. With its earth-penetration, bunker-busting abilities the B61-11 is tailored to the new international environment as it is seen in the US-defense establishment. Furthermore, the B61-11 will be deployed on a strategic delivery vehicle, the B-2-bomber, and therefore can be delivered world-wide.
Russia is not only modernizing its tactical nuclear arsenal, it is also threatening to drastically increase the number of TNW. These threats have to be taken seriously, because they are part of larger trend to re-emphasize the role of nuclear weapons. With the general deterioration of its economy and armed forces, nuclear weapons are seen by some in Russia as an "equalizer" for the superiority of the West. NATO expansion threatens to amplify these tendencies.
Secondly, negotiating reductions in TNW is necessary because these weapons pose a real threat to international security. TNW are most likely to be stolen or launched by accident. This is especially true for the thousands of Russian TNW. Even though the withdrawal of these weapons to Russian territory has been successfully completed, safe storage remains a problem.
If there nuclear use were to occur, TNW are the type of weapons most likely to be employed in battle. Low-yield nuclear weapons are named as a deterrent for weapons of mass destruction (WMD). Military and civilian command authorities in the West and in Russia still contemplate the use of nuclear weapons in a wide range of counterproliferation scenarios. If such use were to occur, either preemptively or in retaliation for WMD use by other states, TNW are most likely going to be the weapons of choice.
Thirdly, a treaty covering TNW is feasible because both the US and Russia have recognized that the number of these weapons has to be limited. This, after all, was the overriding motivation for the unilateral initiatives of 1991/92. Presidents Clinton and Yeltsin have repeated their intention to establish upper limits for TNW during their bilateral summit in Helsinki in March 1997, when they paved the way for an inclusion of TNW in the bilateral arms control process.
In the US, domestic pressure to move in such a direction is rising. The majority of the arms control community is strongly in favor of including TNW in nuclear arms control. The most recent study of the National Academy of Sciences is just one example for this. The study recommends that "the United States, in full cooperation with its NATO allies, should give serious consideration to seeking an agreement with Russia and other affected states that would prohibit the forward deployment of nuclear weapons in Central Europe. Foreclosing such deployments in a binding, reciprocal, and verifiable manner would be a clear signal that both Russia and NATO were committed to denuclearization of their relationship." Russia has basically recognized the need to eliminate TNW from Europe as well when it lobbied for the establishment of a Nuclear Weapon Free Zone in Central and Eastern Europe.
Could such negotiations become multilateral, involving the other three declared nuclear weapon states? Such a step is possible because the UK and France have all but eliminated their TNW capabilities. France possesses "only" 60-80 air-based TNW, the UK will entirely eliminate these weapons by April 1998.
Finally, a treaty limiting TNW has become feasible because these weapons have lost their core function. Both the US and Russian TNW were designed for a large scale conventional conflict in Central Europe - a scenario that clearly does not exist anymore.
2. What are the obstacles on the way to a treaty on TNW?
Why has a treaty on TNW not yet been negotiated if there are such good reasons why it is both necessary and feasible? There are a number reasons such as difficulties of verification, bureaucratic resistance etc. that generally make arms reduction difficult which certainly also apply to TNW. There is however another factor, that specifically complicates conclusion of such a treaty: TNW - like few other weapon systems - are linked to many different issue areas of security policies. This fact in itself makes TNW reductions or elimination so difficult. While for example, strategic nuclear deterrence in a sense was decoupled from the "ordinary" world of security policies, TNW are closely linked to other topics like conventional security and intra-alliance burden and risk sharing. Any radical and lasting change in TNW postures would therefore necessitate changes in other fields of security policy.
In NATO, for example, the existence of TNW is the basis for nuclear sharing arrangements. Nuclear sharing is one of the basic political compromises underlying NATO policies. To withdraw TNW would therefore necessitate renegotiation of the nuclear bargain between the US and its European allies. This is made clear by NATO itself:
"The security of all Allies is indivisible: an attack on one is an attack on all. Alliance solidarity and strategic unity are accordingly crucial prerequisites for collective security. The achievement of the Alliance's objectives depends critically on the equitable sharing of roles, risks and responsibilities, as well as the benefits, of common defence. The presence of North American conventional and US nuclear forces in Europe remains vital to the security of Europe, which is inseparably linked to that of North America."
New definitions of "burden sharing" and "risk sharing" would have to be found within the Alliance. Discussion about the possibility of nuclear weapons deployment on the territory of new NATO member states has shown how deeply entrenched nuclear defense is in NATO-thinking.
In this context, it is also important to realize that withdrawing TNW from Europe would necessitate a restructuring of large parts of the defense bureaucracy in NATO countries and NATO itself. While it is true that all weapons reductions lead to bureaucratic restructuring (and therefore usually trigger bureaucratic resistance), this resistance is probably much stronger in the case of TNW. After all, elimination of TNW in Europe would make the whole nuclear bureaucracy within NATO superfluous.
Withdrawing the remaining US nuclear weapons from European soil and eliminating the "prestrategic" functions of British and French nuclear weapons in a sense would also require a redefinition of deterrence. TNW are still "last resort" in case of an attack with WMD.
"Prevention of proliferation remains our primary aim, but we noted that NBC proliferation poses a direct military risk to the Alliance and must be taken into account to maintain NATO's ability to safeguard the security of its member states. Alliance military preparedness to deal with this risk is an important aspect of NATO's adaptation to the new security environment. (...) An appropriate mix of conventional response capabilities and passive and active defences, coupled with effective intelligence and surveillance means, would complement Alliance nuclear forces and would reinforce the Alliance's overall deterrence posture against threats posed by proliferation."
Eliminating the possibility of nuclear response would therefore make a dialogue on "existential", "minimum" or maybe even "conventional" deterrence necessary. As a result, political answers to proliferation threats would have to become more important.
Limiting TNW or maybe even eliminating these weapons in Russia is so difficult, because these weapons are linked to Russia's conventional security. TNW are seen as "equalizers" for conventional superiority of NATO. E.g. Russia still plans to use nuclear weapons first in the case of danger of the escalation of a regional armed conflict into a larger war to carry out a disarming strike against military objects. "The aim of the Russian Federation's policy in the sphere of nuclear weapons is to avert the threat of nuclear war by deterring aggression against the Russian Federation and its allies." This links any discussions about TNW reductions to negotiations about an adjusted treaty on Conventional Forces in Europe. Only if Russia will get the impression that its conventional security is not threatened by an enlarged NATO, would it be willing to accept limitations on its tactical nuclear arsenal.
Talks about TNW reductions are further complicated by the fact that nuclear weapons in Russia are increasingly linked to its status as a global power. In a time of political and economic collapse, the military increasingly is seen as a symbol international importance. Since the Red Army itself is in a very difficult situation, nuclear weapons particularly are being used as status symbols. Even though nuclear weapons do have symbolic functions in all nuclear weapon states, this function may be more important in Russia at the moment.
Finally, just like in NATO, Russian TNW are more and more closely linked to threats resulting from proliferation of WMD. For example, recent statements by Russian officials indicate that security along the Southern border of the Russian Federation is supposed to be guaranteed also with the help of nuclear weapons.
3. A possible approach to reduce TNW in Europe
What then needs to be done? If it true, that it is hard to agree on deep cuts in TNW because such reductions would have severe consequences in many different areas of security policy, the obvious solution would be to devise an approach that is a comprehensive as possible. This way, many of the consequences resulting from TNW reductions could be taken care of in the context of such talks. Comprehensive nuclear Arms Reduction Talks (CART) should link strategic to tactical disarmament issues, while at the same time opening up a dialogue on nuclear doctrines to enable a new consensus on the role of nuclear weapons.
Such an approach is different than current one of separately negotiating different nuclear disarmament issues. While separate, focused negotiations have the advantage of possibly achieving faster progress than more comprehensive talks, their results are often also much harder to implement. The difficulties of getting START II ratified because related issues have not been dealt with in these negotiations can serve as a warning example here. Similarly, the unilateral disarmament initiatives of 1991/92 have not been fully implemented yet because of technical problems and domestic opposition.
Comprehensive Nuclear Arms Reduction Talks on the other hand have the advantage that they can anticipating difficulties with implementation and ratification. In that sense, the fact that START III is a kind of basket, where all the unresolved issues have been put in, may actually be an advantage because it opens up the possibility of linkages between the different security issues. The newly founded NATO-Russia Permanent Joint Council would be ideally suited for such talks since it has a broad mandate and four out of the five declared nuclear weapon states are participating in the 16+1-process.
by Georg Schöfbänker
Since the end of the Cold War, huge arsenals of tactical nuclear weapons (TNWs) have been withdrawn unilaterally from Europe or have been taken out of active military service. Russia withdrew its tactical nuclear arsenal from the former Warsaw Pact Member States and from all former Soviet Republics outside the Russian Federation (RF). This information seems to be widely shared and known in the arms-control community. It is known in the open literature that the RF still has a huge arsenal of TNWs stored in military depositories under the custody of the Russian Department of Defense (DoD), or in the stage of dismantlement down to the primary elements of the so called pits in one of the nuclear weapons production facilities operated by the Russian Ministry of Energy (Minatom).
The unilateral disarmament and dismantlement initiatives about TNWs during the Gorbatchev, Bush and Yelzin administrations have erased from public awareness the relevance of TNWs. To put it frankly: The only two nuclear weapons ever used in a war (against Japan) had a yield in the range of 15 and 20 kTs of conventional explosives. This yield equals today's TNWs. The destructive power of these weapons is widely known and has been investigated for decades.
The problem of Russian TNWs assumes dramatic dimensions when one seriously starts to analyze the loose nukes-debate. Stolen or diverted tactical warheads - not secured by electronic permissive action links (PALs) - could be in the hand of terrorists or rogue states. Both, Western experts and their Russian colleagues, are for a few years extremely concerned about such a scenario. Even Hollywood cannot stand aside and devoted a recent production, the movie Peacemaker to this case. The more, a discrimination between facts and fiction seems necessary.
From Opacity to Transparency?
Whereas in the field of strategic nuclear weapons, since the beginning of the START negotiations, more or less exact figures are available, all estimates for TNWs are extraordinarily vague. Such prominent sources as the SIPRI Yearbook 1997 or IISSs The Military Balance 1996/97 even go as far as not to mention the Russian TNWs. A publication from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC stated in 1995: "Estimates of the total number of warheads on tactical nuclear weapons in Russia range from 6.000 to 13.000. Proportion deployed vs. proportion held in storage or dismantlement facilities not known." Neither in Arms Control Today nor in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists has there been an article in recent years dealing with the Russian TNWs. The Bulletins Nuclear Notebook, compiled by NRDC, counted in Sep/Oct 1996 about 3.200 active TNWs (Navy, Air Force and Army) and in May/June 1997 it states: "Because the size of operational nonstrategic forces is limited to the number of delivery systems, the actual number of fielded warheads is probably about 4.500. The status of an additional 10.000 warheads in unclear. Most are probably awaiting dismantlement but some could be retained as part of the Russian hedge". Pugwash sources counted in October 1996 some 3.900 Russian TNWs. NRDCs homepage currently counts 3.300 TNWs.
French Sources are counting TNWs in the range of 18.000 to 20.000. "In a report published in May 1997 the French Ministry of Defense is concerned at the number of Russian tactical nuclear missiles -- between 18,000 and 20,000 -- and doubts Russia knows their exact number or is destroying those it should, according to an official French report." Official NATO sources, e.g. the Nuclear Planning Group, on her 12th June 1997 meeting, are also not very helpful in identifying Russian TNWs:
"Russia still retains a large number of tactical nuclear weapons of all types. We renew our call upon Russia to bring to completion the reductions in its tactical nuclear weapons announced in 1991 and 1992, and to further review its tactical nuclear weapons stockpile with a view towards making additional significant reductions."
The US News and World Report reported in June 1997 on the basis of research from Nikolai Sokov, former Russian START delegation member and currently fellow at the Monterey Institute of International Studies in California: "For now, only about 3,000 of Russia's tactical nuclear weapons remain deployed with operational units, while some 10,000 have been consolidated in secure storage areas."
TNW-counting in the Russian Federation still seems to have some characteristics of what was formerly called Kremlin astrology. Members of the scientific community are quoting each others numbers. More or less reliable sources are exchanged. There is absolutely no public information on tactical nuclear weapons from the Russian official sources. "All information available is unofficial, provided by nongovernmental organizations: treaties and official exchange of information covered only delivery systems."
What has been achieved in strategic arms control, a reliable source based upon the official information exchange between the US and Russia, should be of interest in the field of TNWs as well. It could prohibit further rumors about Russian loose-nukes and open negotiations on reducing TNWs, as it has been announced at the Helsinki summit statement by the presidents Clinton and Yeltsin:
"The Presidents also agreed that in the context of START III negotiations their experts will explore, as separate issues, possible measures relating to nuclear long-range sea-launched cruise missiles and tactical nuclear systems, to include appropriate confidence-building and transparency measures."
The loose-nukes Syndrome
What is good for Hollywood and the media is bad for serious science. Clearly contradictory reports about the state of 'loose' Russian nuclear weapons and fissile materials have been published. The well received MIT-Study from Allison, Coté, Falkenrath and Miller 1996 was entitled: Avoiding Nuclear Anarchy. Containing the Threat of Loose Russian Nuclear Weapons and Fissile Material." Their central message is:
"As the result of the dramatic events since the fall of the Berlin Wall, has the likelihood that a nuclear weapon will explode on US territory gone up, or gone down? Our answer is unambiguous: it has gone up. Even as the probability of large-scale nuclear war between the United States and Russia has decreased dramatically, the probability that a nuclear weapon will detonate in Russia, or Europe, or the Middle East, or even the United States has increased." The authors apparently blame the Russian nuclear legacy and leakage for this increased likelihood.
Another US estimate concludes in June 1997 exactly the opposite:
"'Loose Nukes' - a Myth That Distorts US Policy. Since the Soviet collapse, the United States' public has been bombarded with the loose nukes myth. The myth is that Russian nuclear weapons and materials are leaking to terrorists or rogue states, such as Libya, Iran, Iraq, or North Korea. Despite warnings from the Clinton administration, Sens. Sam Nunn (D) of Georgia and Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, the Russian government, editorial pages, the Central Intelligence Agency, and a March 1996 General Accounting Office publication report that the "loose nukes" myth is not credible for several reasons:
The Lebed-ADM-case in September 1997 again raised the question of the fate of Russian TNWs. Lebed had stated that perhaps 100 atomic demolition munitions (ADMs) might be unaccounted for.
This short analysis intended to demonstrate how complicated it is to estimate the Russian TNW-arsenal. The most reliable independent academic and expert sources are counting the number of deployed and active TNWs in the range of 3.000 to 4.500. The Lebed-ADM-case certainly revealed that ADMs are existing in the Russian arsenal, because official Russian sources were instantly denying that one single ADM was missing. The existence of ADMs in the Russian arsenal was assumed, as early as 1989. Then, the Nuclear Weapons Databook, Vol. 4, stated: "There have been reports that the Soviet army possesses land mines, or atomic demolition ammunition (ADMs). These would presumably be used by special forces (Spetsnaz) or KGB detachments behind enemy lines." As long as the independent arms control circles dont pay more attention to the Russian TNWs, if only with the simple goal of counting and identifying type, location, yield, mission, security systems, delivery system, the two typical myths will perhaps proliferate faster than any warhead, relevant fissile material or relevant threat to rogue states: that There are absolutely no warheads or nuclear material missing (official Russian version), and that These problems apply solely to the Russian nuclear legacy(semi-official'US-version). The truth cannot be identified, neither by quoting each other's sources, nor by proliferating these types of convenient myths. Accurate research is needed.
by Igor Sutyagin
The mere fact that the Russian Federation is not very much interested in de-alerting of strategic nuclear forces must be the starting point for any discussion of de-alerting measures. This has nothing common with xenophobia or Russia's lack of interest in further nuclear disarmament. The main reason for such an attitude towards an idea currently popular in the West is the obvious absence of concerns about American or any other nuclear postures on the Russian side.
Indeed, with the end of the Cold War it becomes absolutely clear for Russian politicians that the West - even in the sharpest possible scenario - is really not going to sacrifice its well-being and launch a preventive intercontinental strategic nuclear exchange with the Russian Federation. Needless to say Russia does not have plans to carry out such a suicide move either. It could sound like propaganda but the Soviet Union never planned to begin a nuclear war - without being forced to do it. And the only thing which would have forced the USSR to launch its strategic forces was a US nuclear strike.
Due to the "mirror effect" the Communist leaders believed the American Imperialists must hate the historical enemy - the victorious Soviet Communist system - as unconditionally as they did. The advantage on the Communist side was the fact that according to the Leninist theory the Communist system was to win (in historical perspective) and hence did not have to speed up the process. At the same time, the losing Capitalists would have to recognize at some moment the absence of choice to survive as a social system - and undertake the last desperate action, a world-scale nuclear war.
Don't smile at this point, dear reader - this is not a wild fantasy. One should not forget about the KGB's infamous "RYaN" operation ordered by Vladimir Kryuchkov (then-chief of the KGB First Directorate - "Foreign Intelligence") in 1982 to collect clear signs of imminent US preventive strategic nuclear strike against the Soviet Union ("RYaN" stands in Russian for "Nuclear Missile Strike") to provide for timely strategic warning to the Soviet leadership. There were no doubts in the Kremlin at that time that the decision to start a global nuclear war against the Soviet Union had already been made by US leaders and that the precise timing remained the only detail to be determined.
It is instructive that the "RYaN" operation had not been officially cancelled until the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the eventual destruction of the KGB - when there was no one left to to cancel it. And even Mikhail Gorbachev - Gorby, "the best German" - did not move a finger during all of his term to stop the nightmarish (while stupid, as one can see today) activity.
In this sense, independent Russia has gained a lot as the result of the dissolution of the Soviet Union: it could drop the painful suspicions about the Western intentions inherited by the late Soviet-time leaders to some extent from the period of the Cold War peak. The time for the "RYaN" operation-like fears has gone - to our great satisfaction - and the Russian political leaders in general have not much concern left for US missiles - de-alerted or not.
This is not the same with Western politicians: it seems sometimes that, not having to survive dramatic changes of self-identification, they along with their countries turned out to be unprepared to live without fears and enemies. When it became clear that the threat of a Soviet nuclear strike was not justifiable anymore, other reasons - possible internal instability in Russia this time - were used to continue to focus on Russian strategic nuclear forces.
Definitely the author does not call to stay calm about the real threat of internal instability in a country full of nuclear weapons. Meanwhile one should not underestimate too much the Russian leaders' - with all their shortcomings - and security analysts' ability to recognize trends and make prognoses. As early as in 1989, the KGB research service predicted dramatic increase of separatist moods in the Soviet republics and suggested the withdrawal of all the most exposed Soviet nuclear weapons - the tactical ones - to the reliable and stable Slav regions. The plan was almost immediately put into life and the withdrawal began in the early 1990s.
The Soviet military-political leadership even ordered in an unprecedental move the disarmament of a regiment of strategic bombers after all nuclear-armed cruise missiles for the Mozdok-based Tu-95MS-6s were withdrawn from the Northern Caucuses to a storage site in a more stable region deep in Russian territory. According to some analyses of Gorbachev's statement, the willingness of the Soviet Union to withdraw her tactical nuclear weapons from combat units to centralized storage sites and to eliminate the essential part of its TacNuc arsenal was to a big extent dictated by the necessity to deal with the separatist threat.
Better or worse, the move was successful enough: two years later the Soviet nuclear weapons turned out to be stationed only in republics ruled by responsible politicians. And this net result is not changed a lot by the fact that some of these politicians - namely the Ukrainian leaders - tried to trade off their responsible approach to the nuclear weapons for additional funds they badly needed to recover their republic's economies from the crisis. After all, the scandals which periodically damaged the Russian-Ukrainian relations in the nuclear field were resolved effectively within the framework of civilized political methods and to mutual satisfaction.
The current situation in Russia is basically the same as it was for the Soviet Union: the political leadership is inclined to responsibly resolve problems related to the Soviet Union's nuclear legacy on their own - when possible - and ask for Western assistance (which is mainly money) - when necessary. In general, the situation is under control today, and the Kremlin does not have urgent needs to further withdraw nuclear weapons from well-defended combat launch positions to the currently over-loaded centralized storage sites which would worsen the safety situation. If need appears, it will most probably be resolved by some sort of unilateral (i.e. independent of everything but Russia's own needs) move. Meanwhile the Russian leaders will definitely try to "catch" the US (and, probably, other nuclear powers') nuclear forces in a situation that allows them to draw some additional advantages from their own, in any case inevitable self-restrictions.
It seems to the author to be quite clear that Russia does not have today urgent needs in additional confidence-building or/and stability-enhancement measures - and due to this reason it is very much not interested in the de-alerting business. Hence almost all actions that could be undertaken by Russia in this field are mainly related to the necessity to prevent a complete stall of the nuclear disarmament process (after all, this is Russia's obligation under the Non-Proliferation Treaty) or of Russia's readiness to contribute to the resolution of concerns which still exist on the American (and, in general, the Western) side.
Therefore one can draw from the above analysis some basic conclusions on possible Russian attitudes to probable proposals on de-alerting of nuclear forces and other confidence-building measures. To be affordable for the Russian side, such proposals, first of all, have to be cheap enough to be put into life. Hence the idea of complete (or even very considerable) withdrawal of nuclear warheads from their strategic delivery vehicles, which means for the currently overloaded and underfunded centralized storages of the 12th Main Directorate a worsening of the safety situation, because, in current conditions, weapons on missiles are safer than in centralized storages, does not have a chance to be realized. Indeed, this step will be too costly for Russia in both direct and, possibly, indirect sense to be accepted as a "good-will step" while not meeting current Russian needs.
The second important point is that de-alerting proposals have to be well-balanced and reciprocal: the set of proposals that was listed by Sam Nunn and Bruce Blair in the "Washington Post" this June (Nunn, Sam, Blair, Bruce: From Nuclear Deterrence to Mutual Security. As Russia's Arsenal Crumbles, It's Time to Act /The Washington Post, June 23, 1997, pp. 21-22.) in the best case will be rejected as irrelevant. In the worst case, it could undermine Russian confidence in the responsibility of American attitudes and thus lead to quite the opposite result: additional misunderstandings and increased tensions instead of better mutual confidence and increased stability.